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Michael Jansen: Moving forward
March 31, 2017
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When six European leaders signed the treaties of Rome on March 25th, 1957, they never envisaged they would found a union that would embrace 28 members, the world’s largest single market, and freedom of movement for 500 million citizens within this grouping. The European Union is the world’s premier trading bloc and the most generous donor of humanitarian aid.

The sixtieth anniversary of the treaty was celebrated last Saturday in Rome by 27 heads of state and government. Britain, always a reluctant partner, did not send its prime minister who this week triggered the process of her country’s exit (Brexit) from the European Union (EU), the first to apply to leave the “club.”

While Britain’s defection cast a shadow over the celebrations, disagreements over the union’s future caused ructions between members who seek to move forward as a single entity and those who favour a “multi-speed” Europe, with countries integrating at their own pace. The new Rome declaration the 27 signed says member states “will act together, at different paces and intensity...while moving in the same direction.” 

European Council President Donald Tusk was forthright in his opposition to this approach, stating, “Europe as a political entity will either be united, or will not be at all. Only a united Europe can be a sovereign Europe in relation to the rest of the world.”

He insisted that all members must respect the core values of the bloc: “human rights and civil liberties, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, checks and balances [in their political systems], and the rule of law.” He had in mind his own country Poland and Hungary which have violated human rights, restricted the media, and interfered with the judiciary.

Ahead of the Rome summit the European Commission circulated a White Paper on the Future of Europe with the aim of encouraging politicians and citizens to put forward their ideas on how to proceed. The Commission seeks input on five issues: developing the social dimension of Europe, deepening economic and monetary union, exploiting globalisation for the benefit of the Union, defence, and EU finances.

While pundits and political figures have commented a great deal on the occasion of this anniversary, giving the European project its due and criticising its failings, most citizens have a lot to celebrate. There has been no war in European Union territory since 1945. Freedom of movement has enabled citizens to find jobs where their skills are needed and to prosper in new settings. Young people have welcomed European identity and have become acquainted with their peers from other European countries. Seventeen years ago, I met a German medical student, who was fluent in French and English as well as German and spoke enthusiastically about this highly personal, social aspect of Europeanism.

On the practical level, European firms cooperate in manufacturing aircraft, vehicles, and other items; goods and produce circulate freely without tariffs. Southern Mediterranean-style cafes spring up on the streets of London and other cities in colder climes. Minds are opened by shared foods, drinks, television programmes, and the sound of languages other than those of speakers.

The European project has, of course, had its difficulties and suffered serious reverses. The main problem is that member states have failed to abide by bloc rules, particularly with regard to indebtedness. Consequently, vulnerable members — notably Greece and, to a lesser extent, Cyprus — have suffered financial and economic crises. In spite of huge injections of cash Greece’s debts are unsustainable while Cyprus is on its way out of its 2013 melt-down. Spain, Italy and Portugal have also experienced economic deterioration.

The bloated European Union bureaucracy is accused of being dictatorial and the European Parliament of being undemocratic. The dream of a federal Europe seems to be as distant as ever as self-proclaimed “experts” argue the European Union should have multi-speed integration and multi-layered regulations to suit diverse members. 

The EU faces existential challenges from within: an aging population, terrorism, the lack of cohesion due to enlargement, and the massive flow to southern members of refugees and economic migrants from this region and Africa. Right-wing parties are on the rise, particularly in the former Soviet states, fuelling anti-EU and anti-immigrant feelings.

However, there are also positive developments. The EU has backed off its ambition to become a single federal state, easing pressure on certain members. The euro, the currency of the 19 countries subscribing to the monetary union has stabilised. Turbulent Turkey — soon to become a dictatorship if President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has his way — can no longer press for membership in the club of democracies that had never had any intention of accepting Ankara’s application. No EU member seriously contemplated the admission of 80 million Turks. That farce is finally finished. 

Brexit is a blow —  but not a fatal blow — delivered by Britons who voted to leave. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker accused British politicians of scapegoating the EU when they failed to deliver the demands of their constituents while building a strong economy on foreign labour. Consequently, many ordinary Britons did not see the benefits of belonging to the EU. People who live in provincial cities and towns did not travel to the continent, did not consume French cheeses or German beers, and resented the influx of “Polish plumbers” and other migrants. Brexiteers who played on anti-foreign sentiments did not consider the situation of hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and women who as EU citizens live, work and retire in France, Italy, Greece and Cyprus.

Coinciding with the Rome gathering, tens of thousands of anti-Brexit demonstrators flooded into London’s iconic Trafalgar Square demanding a new vote on EU membership. Legislator David Lammy argued, “There are a lot of people against Brexit in this country, and people [who voted to leave] are changing their mind...We’re living in a dictatorship. In democracies people are always allowed to change their minds.” 

Deeply regretting Brexit, a young Briton who voted last June for his country to remain in the EU wrote in The Guardian, “People say you can love Europe without loving the EU. That’s the wrong end of the telescope for my generation. It was the camaraderie and fraternity the EU fostered that helped us discover and fall in love with Europe.  And that makes the divorce much more bitter.”
 
___________________________________________
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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