European Union: 50 years of freedom

The European Union celebrated its 50th anniversary this weekend. As we look back on its unprecedented achievements, we must also look forward to new challenges. Europe has been a force for good throughout the past 50 years. This anniversary is the moment to update our common project, which, in the age of globalization, is more relevant than ever.

The case for Europe remains compelling. I could explain the rationale for common approaches on energy policy and climate protection. I could set out why we need the single market to match economic growth with social justice. Or I could defend the need to build a strong and efficient European Union, able to shape globalization according to European values and interests.

But on this occasion, I want above all to focus on the values that, more than anything else, define the European Union (EU) and its history: freedom and solidarity.

Throughout these 50 years, the EU has been an inspiration and a force for freedom and solidarity. Two defining moments in my life illustrate this.

The first was the Portuguese Revolution of 1974. I was just 18 years old and, like most young people in Portugal, I wanted to get rid of the dictatorship that denied my compatriots what other Western Europeans already enjoyed.

We could not read the books or write the articles we wanted. Political activity was controlled by the security forces. We lived in a backward and closed society. The revolution changed all that. And thanks to the solidarity of Western democracies, thanks to the perspective of becoming a member of the European family, freedom won the day – in my country, and at the same time in Spain and Greece, too.

The second experience was the change throughout Central and Eastern Europe in the 1980s and 1990s, building on the determination for freedom shown in Budapest, Hungary in 1956 and Prague in former Czechoslovakia in 1968, initiated in Poland and culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain in 1989. Here again, freedom was the goal, and Europe the inspiration. And here again, solidarity proved essential.

Through these experiences, I realized that Europe means freedom and solidarity. Not just for some, but for all Europeans. What started in the six founding member states in the 1950s has in the past 50 years spread to the north and the south, the west and the east of our continent.

I was proud to be the president of the European Commission (the EU's executive body) when we completed the great enlargement of 2004-07. It has shown once again that the prospect of European integration encourages and consolidates freedom through solidarity. Today, in this great and open Europe, citizens are free to believe and say what they think, to live and travel where they want.

One of the EU's great achievements is the emergence of a truly European spirit that lives side by side with national, regional, and local identities. European integration has not done away with this diversity; it has enhanced it. By building a common legal, political, and economic order around the cornerstone of the Treaties of Rome, we can live our differences as a source of mutual enrichment.

For centuries, European states made war against one another, but now we live in peace. Not in the peace of a precarious balance of powers and threats but at peace in freedom and solidarity.

This is an experiment unique in history and our generations have the privilege of living out the dreams of our forefathers. But we must not take this for granted; it has to be nurtured very carefully.

On Sunday, we met in Berlin to mark this anniversary. And we signed a declaration to commit ourselves to preserve and promote Europe as the best place in the world to live – an open society and an open economy with a common goal of economic and social cohesion. We want to achieve a Europe of results, with institutions that are democratic, efficient, and accountable, while promoting our values and accepting our responsibilities in the world. We will commit to put the EU where it belongs: at the service of its citizens.

José Manuel Barroso is president of the European Commission.

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