The European Union at Sixty

Written by Federico Romero on . Posted in Current opinions, Opinions

On the Treaty of Rome 60th anniversary, the best advertisement for the EU would be to compare its lifetime with the previous sixty years in European history. There is no match between the prosperity, safety and freedom under the EC\EU and the murderous upheavals and misery Europeans suffered in the first half of the 20th century.

Federico Romero

Historian Federico Romero

Yet, this self-evident truth has little traction today. Discounting the wars in the former Yugoslavia and Eastern Ukraine as peripheral aberrations, many Europeans presume that the continent’s tragedies belong to a distant, unrepeatable past. More importantly, many citizens simply ignore this kind of metric. We all live in the present and have anxieties and concerns focused on our future. The past operates as a variable set of historical and mythological memories. When we use them, we selectively combine them to address our circumstances and to make sense of current predicaments. Rather than compare the record of nationalism and authoritarianism with the achievements of European cooperation, increasing quotas of voters concentrate on the latter’s responsibility for present-day insecurities and vulnerabilities.

They identify with narratives that contrast distant elites, privileged by the dynamics of market globalization, with bottom-up claims for closer democratic control – at the national or local level – upon economic conditions, social strains, cultural dissonances. Many seem prepared to ditch the liberal universe of rights and institutional safeguards; to embrace nativist, exclusionary notions of society; and to desire a polity anchored to unrestrained majority rule against scapegoat groups variously identified by race, religion, status.

Thus, the paradoxical challenge of this anniversary is to re-engage in a vital cultural and political contest against the authoritarian nationalism that post-war Europe appeared to have conquered, and that the Treaty of Rome philosophy, in particular, dislodged 60 years ago. It is a salutary reminder that progress is never linear, much less granted once and for all. It is also a call to reconsider not only what the EC\EU did right, but what it failed to do, and the ways in which it nurtured – inadvertently, myopically, smugly – the frustrated discontent that now threatens it. This reassessment could embrace many fields, but I will focus on two.

The first one concerns socio-economic security. The original EEC was geared to temper the opening of national economies with safeguards, expanding welfare-state protections, and a battery of national tools to cushion the dislocated groups. It operated as a prod towards internationalization, but also as a shield against its disruptions, so as to stabilize an inclusive consensus to national democratic regimes. This crucial dimension was gradually lost. As we moved towards a neo-liberal understanding of economy and society – most obviously with the Single Market and the Euro – the EU increasingly became the enforcer of globalizing trends towards unrestrained competition rather than the filter that helped gradual adaptation. The imperative of competitiveness pushed some sectors of society to adapt upward, but many others simply saw their chances diminish and insecurity grow. Ultimately, this precipitated the unresolved tension between national democratic allegiances and the legitimacy of EU rules and policies. Unless a higher latitude of policy options is restored to the democratic arena, with effective programmes to alleviate societal anxiety, that tension might grow unmanageable.

The second one concerns the international context of European integration. At the outset, it was a divided but stable one. NATO guaranteed deterrence, and therefore a fair chance for peace in Western Europe. Western dominance of international trade, finance and technology was such that Europeans considered it a given. When the Soviet system collapsed, the entire continent appeared open to a smooth expansion of the EU experiment. So much so that we imagined the EU itself as a new model of rule-based international relations capable of transcending power politics. However, globalization soon brought home a rather different perspective. Western pre-eminence is retreating rather than expanding. Emerging actors bring not only commercial challenges, but different views of multilateral order. Some of them embrace new versions of great power politics. Unprepared, if not constitutionally alien, to these new dynamics, the EU kept operating under assumptions that were losing relevance, thus magnifying uncertainty and public disaffection. Here too, survival rests on a thorough rethinking.

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