A rollicking celebration to revel in the European Union’s 60th birthday this weekend in Rome would have rung off-key.
In two days, Britain is officially launching negotiations to leave the bloc. Populists are riding a wave of Euroskepticism almost everywhere, while even top leaders of the EU have wondered if the postwar project has a future.
But six decades after the EU's six founding members signed the Treaty of Rome, in a revolutionary project to integrate the core of Europe so deeply that war would become unthinkable, the EU is at a turning point – and not necessarily heading backward.
The Euroskeptic pressures facing the bloc have become so real that pro-Europe sentiment is starting to vie for its own space. The Rome Declaration that 27 leaders of the EU (British Prime Minister Theresa May was not in attendance) signed was itself a rather bland acknowledgement of the challenges the bloc must overcome. But it was accompanied by protests in defense of the project and rhetoric promising to take back the fight.
“We must look not so much for hope but turn concern into fuel to do more,” says EU parliamentarian Marietje Schaake, a progressive liberal from the D66 party in the Netherlands, speaking on the sidelines of the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum this weekend. “These are difficult times, no doubt about it, but there is a lot to cherish.”
“I see a turning point in which people are aware, with Brexit, with the Trump inauguration, that a protest vote is not without cost. It can lead to dramatic outcomes."
Revealing the stakes
The weekend’s anniversary of the March 25, 1957, signing saw anti-EU protesters on the streets in Rome. But counter-protests cropped up everywhere from Britain, among “Remainers” who are now pushing for a “soft” Brexit, to Warsaw, where organizers rallied people under the slogan “I love you, Europe.”
In Bruges, Belgium, outside the elite College of Europe, Vincent Delhomme is draped in an EU flag with a group of colleagues handing out brochures about how the EU functions.
He says he feels optimistic because the stakes have been revealed.
Amid “all of the challenges, people might feel angry about the way the EU works, more than a real disdain for it,” he says.
The pro-EU camp knows there's considerable work to be done.
The French town of Fessenheim sits on the Franco-German border in the Alsace region, which changed hands between the two nations throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. It is in many ways the raison d’être of the EU, and yet here, Marine Le Pen, the anti-EU presidential candidate of the National Front, is gathering force. At her rally this weekend ahead of France’s first round of elections in April, she declared that "the European Union will die.”
“We are concerned,” says Mayor Claude Brender. “There are many in the population against Europe…. And often the rejection is the internal fault of the country, yet Europe is always the one responsible for everything bad. It’s a real problem.”
Ten years ago, upon the 50th anniversary of the Rome treaty, the mood was totally different. The first signs of Euroskepticism were starting to show in 2005, after French and Dutch voters rejected the Treaty of Lisbon, which introduced broad reforms, in national referendums. But those were seen as setbacks, not the beginning of the end. The era of former President George W. Bush, deeply unpopular in Europe, was coming to an end, giving rise to the wildly popular Barack Obama. Perhaps most important, that anniversary predated the financial crisis.
Still, Franck Buchy, a political reporter for Aux Dernieres Nouvelles, the largest daily in Alsace, says he feels more confident today given recent challenges. Those, he says, have bound the heart of Europe more tightly. “One of the keys to getting out of the EU crisis is the Franco-German couple, and Brexit made it stronger,” he says.
The powers and limits of the EU
Germany and France have also both backed the idea of a “multispeed” Europe, laid out in this weekend’s Rome declaration in which the EU leaders promised to “act together, at different paces and intensity where necessary, while moving in the same direction.”
The concept is intended to overcome the paralysis generated by internal battles over issues like the refugee crisis, and thus renew citizen confidence that the EU can actually deliver.
Many see it as a corrective to the rapid expansion of the EU in 2004 that brought 10 new members mainly from the ex-Soviet sphere to the bloc, but created new imbalances and tensions. “The multispeed Europe idea should have been done earlier,” says Mr. Buchy. “The only way to keep the Europe ideal alive is a multispeed Europe with a hard core, and then the possibility of states to do what they need.”
It’s a contentious issue. The declaration was watered down after some balked at endorsing it too explicitly, including devoted Eurocrats who only want deeper integration, and the government in Poland that fears it would aggravate an east-west divide in the EU.
Meanwhile, at the Brussels Forum (aptly named “End of Complacency – Era of Action?”), the transatlantic elite spent three days debating solutions to current malaise. Various straw polls reflected near unanimous concern about current geopolitics; a majority of attendees said they expect the EU to look vastly different in coming decades.
Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliamentarian in charge of Brexit negotiations, says he sees this as a moment to make the EU work better. “What we have seen since Brexit is that people are saying, ‘oh, I'm also very critical toward the European Union, but I'm not so stupid …. to go out of the European Union,’” he told an audience.
And yet there seemed to be more a willingness not to just push "more Europe" but to recognize the failures of leadership. A more functional EU depends on national leadership: not using the EU as a scapegoat and giving it credit where it is due, on exceedingly difficult issues ranging from the future of jobs to changing communities. “In general," says Ms. Schaake, "people can handle more than we think, as long as you are honest.”
“This is not inevitably a moment of opportunity,” she adds, “not peace after war, where there is a massive relief. Improvements are not automatic. So we still have a lot to do to turn the challenges of the moment into an opportunity.”
'The EU is our future'
Richard Hart, a German, takes a break from his bike ride on a bridge spanning the Rhine, stopping exactly where Germany and France meet. He says it is inconceivable to him, especially in the Alsace region, that some want the EU to end. He sees hope in current trends, including Dutch elections, in which the anti-EU candidate Geert Wilders did far worse than expected this month.
“The EU is our future,” he says.
Mayor Brender, who deals with cross-border tension over his town’s nuclear plant that German activists want closed down, says he believes the pressures today will help elicit a clearer response to the moan of anti-European sentiment.
“Hopefully, with Brexit and such, this will clarify things,” he says. “We have no choice but that Europe wins.”