Why the EU can’t let a crisis go to waste

The shared values of the European Union will not only help it survive each new challenge, such as the current one in Italy, but reshape how it lives up to its promise of continentwide peace and prosperity.

A protester in London holds a European Union flag outside the Supreme Court on Dec. 5, the first day of the challenge against a court ruling that Theresa May's government in Britain requires parliamentary approval to start the process of leaving the European Union.

In March, the European Union plans to celebrate the 60th anniversary of its founding document, the Treaty of Rome. The event could not arrive at a better time.

As the EU struggles with multiple cracks and crises – which now include instability in Italy after a Dec. 4 vote revealed strong anti-EU feelings – the Union needs reminders of its original purpose. Despite all the woes, such as migration and slow growth, the EU remains a live laboratory in how diverse countries can act together on shared ideals. And it is still a model in how to manage globalization.

A majority of EU citizens regard globalization as an opportunity, not a danger, according to a recent Bertelsmann Foundation survey. In five of the Union’s six most populous countries, approval of the EU is on the rise. Many of the Continent’s young identify as European as much as a particular nationality. Even in Britain, which voted to exit the EU last June, a majority would now vote to remain.

Many other countries along Europe’s borders, such as Ukraine and Turkey, seek to join it. And in a counterpoint to Italy’s referendum, Austrian voters rejected an anti-EU candidate in a Dec. 4 election for the federal presidency. The pro-EU candidate won on a platform of pluralism and tolerance – values the EU rests on.

Italians may be fed up with the ruling elite in both the EU and Rome. But many rely on the EU as a safety value. Over the past eight years, more than 150,000 Italians – mostly young people – have used the Union’s internal openness to relocate to Britain. In Greece, people may protest the conditions set by the EU in rescuing an over-indebted Greek economy. But a majority prefer to stay in the eurozone.

“The supranational political system that is the European Union is unprecedented in human history,” says Pierre Moscovici, the EU commissioner for economic and financial affairs. “It is also young: it will turn 60 next year! It took the US more than two centuries to succeed in building a federal state, so I think we should not be surprised if European governance still has some issues to address at this age.”

One of Europe’s strongest legacies is the free exchange of ideas, grounded in notions of individual liberty and mutual respect. The forms of the Union may change – less political integration, for example, and a retreat on bureaucratic rules. Germany is taking more of a leading role. And the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency has served as a reminder of the need for European unity and strength.

Yet for every crisis, EU leaders have defied the doomsayers and found a way to prevent the Union from unraveling. Next March’s anniversary celebration should provide some perspective, especially if it is laced with gratitude for how far Europe has come since its mid-20th century darkness.

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