Europeans have much to be proud of on the 50th anniversary of the Rome Treaty. The political and economic integration of Europe is one of the most significant developments of our time. It constitutes nothing less than a geopolitical revolution that transformed intractable rivals into a community in which war has become unthinkable.
But even as Europeans enjoy a justifiable sense of accomplishment, they must also confront the sobering reality that the European project may be on the cusp of faltering. A re–nationalization of political life is taking place across the EU.
A few short years ago, member states were abuzz with debate about a forthcoming constitution, the rosy prospects for deepening and widening, the success of the euro, and the EU’s rising profile in global affairs. Not so today; the bouyant optimism has given way to a sour pessimism—indeed, even a sense of resentment about the EU’s encroachments on the prerogatives of the national state.
The failure of the constitution was as much a symptom as a cause of this dramatic swing in attitudes. It is been accompanied by a host of other worrying developments: mounting economic protectionism, growing discomfort with Muslim immigration, rising anxiety over the threats posed to the comforts of the welfare state by global competition and aging populations, and diminishing enthusiasm for enlargement.
To be sure, this is hardly the first time that the project of European integration has suffered setbacks. As in the past, the current loss of momentum may represent only a temporary pause, soon to give way to a Europe that is once again moving toward “ever closer union.”
But today’s pause may well be different than those that came before. Not only has enthusiasm for integration been replaced by growing nationalism, but it is not at all apparent who will lead the EU out of its doldrums. Divided electorates have produced weak governments across all the EU’s major states. And the new generation of leaders coming into office is not animated by the same yearning for union that was instinctual for the generation with first–hand memories of World War II and the rebuilding of Europe.
Accordingly, it is at least conceivable that the EU has reached its highwater mark and that the union, simply put, will not become ever closer. This outcome would hardly be disastrous. Even though it would certainly disappoint the diehard federalists, the project of integration has already brought peace and prosperity to Europe. That is quite an accomplishment.
It is nonetheless cause for considerable concern if the European project will go no deeper. What makes this prospect so worrisome is that the EU is not past the point of no return. The union is not yet at a point of maturation that ensures its own permanence.
Forming a union is always a difficult and fragile enterprise. The states that tether themselves together to fashion a new polity are consistently reluctant to do so. And for good reason–they are required to give up their most prized possession: their sovereignty. It therefore takes decades for unions to attain a permanent durability and to acquire a taken–for–granted quality.
Consider the United States. Its first attempt at union failed miserably; the Articles of Confederation proved too weak to enable a central government to assert its authority over the separate states. A decade later, a second attempt succeeded, and the United States began life as a federation in 1789.
The ensuing decades were good ones for the new republic. The union enjoyed growing prosperity, expanded westward, and gradually pushed Europe’s great powers from its neighborhood, instead asserting its own geopolitical dominance. Nonetheless, the union broke apart in civil war some seventy years after federation. Although the North defeated the South’s attempted secession, the wounds were slow to heal. It was not until the twentieth century—well over a century after federation—that America attained a unitary identity and federal character of the sort it enjoys today.
This historical digression is not meant to suggest that the EU is headed for dissolution and war. Far from it. It is certainly a safe bet that geopolitical rivalry among EU member states is gone for good.
Nonetheless, satisfaction about Europe’s last fifty years does not justify complacency about it next fifty. The EU has indeed accomplished a great deal in five decades, but its integrity and durability cannot be taken for granted, especially in light of the challenges that lie ahead. At some point soon, European integration may become irreversible. But after only 50 years, the EU is not there yet. Europe can surely afford the pause it is now taking. But it cannot afford a more lasting loss of momentum. For a union still young and fragile, a permanent pause could well mean the EU’s unraveling.
The EU’s leaders, both in Brussels and in national capitols, need to breathe new life into the European project. They have plenty of pressing justifications for returning to a European agenda and asking their citizens to follow suit. There is no shortage of tasks that can be filled only if the EU acts as a collective whole—protecting the environment and averting global warming, forging a rational energy policy, combating terrorism, ensuring economic competitiveness, and projecting European power to help promote global stability.
For the sake of Europe, the 50th anniversary of the Rome Treaty should be as much about looking ahead as looking back.