European Union (EU) leaders gathered in Rome on Saturday, March 25, 2017, exactly sixty years after the singing of the Treaty of Rome which eventually led to the founding of the EU. They met at the same place where its key players met in 1957 to sign the Treaty. But one EU leader was missing, the British Prime Minister Theresa May. She was not even invited to join in the party to celebrate the event as she was preparing to write to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, formally announcing the decision of the UK to leave the Union. Any of the EU leaders barely mentioned the UK at the gathering. But Paolo Gentiloni, the Italian Prime Minister, described Britain's decision to leave the EU as "closed nationalism'' that belongs in the past. He even expressed his discomfort with the motives behind the referendum result.
The British Prime Minister, in fact, wrote a letter on last Wednesday (March 29, 2017) to the EU President Donald Tusk invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty effectively ending the UK's membership of the Union. The letter was delivered to him on the same afternoon in Brussels.
The leaders of 27 member-countries that will now constitute the new EU after the departure of the UK, met in the room of the Horatii and the Curiatii of the Capitol in the Piazza del Campidoglio where the EU was founded sixty years ago. The hall is adorned with huge frescoes which tell the mythical history of Rome and two statues, one by Bernini, the other by Algardi of popes Urban VIII and Innocent X who stare down from both sides of the hall. There are plenty of reasons to celebrate, most important of all, the ability of the Treaty of Rome to ensure the longest period of peace in Europe since 1600. The Treaty established a common market where people, goods, services and capital can move freely thus creating conditions for a prosperous and stable Europe.
The leaders proclaimed "Europe is our common destiny'' (echoing the same sentiment ten years before, on the 50th anniversary) and signed a "Rome declaration'' on the anniversary day declaring their commitment to integrate Europe and emphasising the aspiration of a "unique union with common institutions and strong values, a community of peace, freedom and democracy, human rights and the rule of law'' even as a series of crises has badly weakened it. Behind the façade of pomp and ceremony there was no hiding of the fact that there is a prospect of the failure of the project, even a collapse. They will need more than the declaration of their common intent if they want to ensure a meaningful future for the embattled union.
The EU is in deep trouble not because Britain is leaving but anti-EU sentiment is widespread across Europe. British voters took a long and hard look at the costs of the EU project and its direction and made a decision it was no longer for them. Britain's exit from the EU encouraged anti-EU and anti-Euro politicians to renew their bid to go for capturing power in other EU countries. Marine Le Pen, the far-right anti-EU presidential candidate in France, told a political rally in Lille on last Sunday (the day following the Rome declaration, March 26, 2017): "The European Union will disappear". She further said "The European Union will die because people do not want it any more''. She just echoes the sentiment of her likes in other EU countries. There has been an upsurge in anti-EU populist parties in Europe and they are gaining rapid momentum. The lingering economic crisis across Europe is helping these populist leaders to garner increased support from voters by advocating very simple and easy to understand solutions to a very complex set of economic problems which are not only faced by the EU countries but also other advanced industrial economies around the world.
There are a range of other challenges that the EU faces. Another Greek bailout crisis looms as the country is veering towards another default. Italy, Spain, Portugal, and even France may face more difficult economic times ahead. Public debt across the Union remains very large. In many EU countries, such as Spain and Portugal, entire generations of youth have been left behind without any work experience. The Euro, the most ambitious project of the EU has produced a divide between 'have' and 'have-not' member-countries within the Eurozone. The fundamental assumption of the economic convergence underlying the euro was deeply flawed. Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz wrote quite extensively on this issue. Many have-not member-countries are now voicing their concerns about excessive rigidity in enforcing the euro's rules which, from their perspective, unfairly benefit a country like Germany while countries like Greece, in particular, have been put at a serious disadvantage. If the rules are loosened that will carry serious risks. Even after a decade and a half, the architecture of Euro still looks like a work in progress and there is little agreement how to finish the job. Now if another financial crisis were to hit which is increasingly becoming a possibility, the euro will likely collapse. Even if it survives another serious economic crisis, an unfinished job on euro will make the currency unsustainable in the long run.
Some of EU's core values are being very seriously challenged by the leaders in countries like Hungary and Poland indicating an "electoral insurrection" in progress in many other EU countries. The far-right populist parties are organising themselves across the EU and uniting in their efforts to dismantle the EU. These groups have 40 members from nine countries in the European Parliament. Their popular support is on the rise as exemplified in the recent Dutch general election. While the anti-EU, anti-Muslim leader Geert Wilders lost the election, yet his party increased its popular vote by 3 percentage points and increased its parliamentary seats by 5 to 20. The EU's advocacy of human rights now sounds completely hollow as increasingly tougher policies to limit the entry of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa are being introduced. This refugee influx is the creation of some of their member-countries and their close ally, the USA ,in the first place. They practically destroyed Iraq, Syria and Libya and those are the countries from where most of these refugees are coming. This anti-refugee policy measures also symbolise a political victory of the far-right populist parties. In a practical sense, there is no policy differences between pro-EU and anti-EU populist far-right political parties on this issue. EU's democratic credential has also been seriously dented when it imposed punishing austerity measures on Greece against the will of the people as expressed through the ballot. The EU is claimed to be an open society, but is slowly but surely closing its mind amid a whole range of real and perceived fears - in particular, the fear of "others''.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union led the drive to enlarge the EU by adding new members but that enlarged EU is poorer and less united. Many see the EU as a hindrance to their national identity - even their economic opportunities. There is now not only economic divide between the South and the North but also between the East and the West in the EU. These are not simple problems, these problems have structural roots. EU leaders celebrating the 60th anniversary are acutely aware of these issues. The core issue now is: it must reinvent itself if it has to face the challenges and the failure to do so may cause its collapse. In a press interview in January this year the German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said that it was no longer unthinkable for the EU to break apart.
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