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Gütersloh, 02/01/2007

1957 to 2007: The 50th anniversary of the Treaties of Rome -- The idea of Europe

An article by Josef Janning, executive director at the Bertelsmann Stiftung, as published in the 6/2006 issue of Deutschland magazine

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March 25, 2007, is the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaties of Rome, the documents often considered the “birth certificate” of the European Union. The original community of 6 nations has now grown to include 27 members and has become a successful model for regional collaboration and economic development.

What foresight! From the perspective of today’s globalized world -- with its diverse, highly interdependent economies and cultures -- Europe can look back over a half century to the 1950s and the founding of its common market. The signing of the Treaties of Rome in March 1957 now seems visionary. For Europeans, however, such memories are also marked by a feeling of business as usual, something that political scientist and European specialist Werner Weidenfeld has called a “socio-psychological mishap”: the fact that Europe’s past successes are now spent and unable to generate feelings of admiration.   

Today, the bold idea of integration is confronting the banal realties of everyday life. Naturally it is too much to ask of politicians, journalists and ordinary citizens that they keep the idea of a unified Europe in mind when discussing the 3rd sub-section of a directive on service provision or the 45th revision of sugar-market regulations. It’s not easy to see the forest when the view is blocked by trees. Yet the current situation also offers a key opportunity, namely the opportunity to rediscover Europe, the Europe beyond the laurel-crowned lyricism, the swelling choirs and the odes to joy.   

What would life be like had this unified Europe never happened, had its founding treaties never been signed? There would be no euro, and no one would have had to take the trouble to get used to a new currency and different prices. Instead, we would all still have a drawer full of foreign coins and out-of-date bills from our vacations of the past 20 years. There would most likely be repeated currency crises, greater inflation and higher levels of public debt. If the European Union (EU) did not exist we would not have a single European market; we would be happy instead that a few customs checks had recently been abolished and would have accustomed ourselves to living with a host of impediments to trade that every manufacturer and service provider would be complaining about. In short, each national economy would be living according to the rule: Export as much as you can while importing only what you need. Many products would be much more expensive, thanks to higher costs and trade barriers, something we would largely not notice given fluctuations in the numerous exchange rates. People would also not be able to move about as much. Governments would determine the number of migrant or guest workers allowed across the border, and university degrees granted by one country would rarely be recognized by another. Spain’s “floridaization,” moreover, would be an unknown phenomenon, since British, German and Danish pensioners would not be entitled to live in the south; neither would they be able to take their pensions with them.    

If the Treaties of Rome had never been signed, the EU would never have developed into an international trading power. Each European nation would be obliged to negotiate for itself globally, and Europe’s few major players would be made to feel how relatively small they have indeed become. Given that, they might perhaps look down upon their neighbors, since without a unified Europe Italy’s northern region would probably never have prospered as it has, Ireland and Spain would never have experienced their ongoing upswings and Finland would never have turned the corner economically. Without the single market, Europe would never have benefited from its own growth potential. Perhaps, too, Southern Europe’s democratic structures would have proven instable, had the then new democracies of Greece, Portugal and Spain not been able to integrate and hold tight to a system of shared interests, joint policies and universal rights.    

Without Europe there would be no reason to complain about the plethora of European regulations; at the same time, however, there would be no across-the-board legal standards protecting manufacturers, investors, traders and travelers. There would also be no common language for addressing the conflicts and crises Europe faces – the discord we are currently experiencing in Iraq would be the norm. There would be no interlinked security mechanisms; instead we would have more soldiers and borders, and fewer tools for combating international crime.  

If Europe as we know it did not exist, the trust would also not exist that arises from cooperation, joint decision-making and shared institutions. Without Europe there would of course be good or even strong relations between neighboring nations, yet anyone imagining that leading policymakers from Germany and France would convene every six weeks for a working group session without a framework of EU-based interests would be sadly mistaken. Without a unified Europe, no issue would pass by majority decision and many issues would not even receive general consideration. Without Europe, the Berlin Wall might have fallen, but even that is open to doubt. Certainly the continent’s younger democracies would not be where they are today; perhaps there would have been relapses or “special paths.” For Poland, Hungary and other Eastern European nations, the criteria for accession to the EU, along with its standards and assistance, were like dual handrails on a steep slope. The process of German unification would also undoubtedly have taken place differently, since without Europe, others’ distrust of Germany would have had free rein. Without a unified Europe, Germany – given its history, size, location, and economic power – would have had a much more difficult go of it. Its relative predominance would have proven a burden for Germans, who would have faced resistance from others and would have suffered economically as a result of such perceptions.

Without a unified Europe, we would lack many of the things that bring us prosperity, ensure our security and, in general, shape our everyday lives. If Europe didn’t exist, it would have to be invented immediately. But would that indeed happen? Given circumstances today, could such a momentous event actually take place, at a time when the public has grown disenchanted with politics, key actors have become short of breath and national identities and symbols are enjoying a revival? Perhaps not, since a sense of challenge no longer exists. Probably, though, it would, since without Europe we would be all the more aware of how incapable our small nation-states are when it comes to solving problems. Today’s reinvention would thus probably take on a form of integration similar to what we already know, one designed to make up for the loss of European influence in the world that globalization has wrought.

The treaties signed in March 1957 had as their objective the creation of a common market. The results of this undertaking could not be foreseen, given the dynamism of the many phases that ensued as this market was established: as import duties and quotas were abolished, external tariffs standardized, a European legal code governing competition and antitrust measures developed, and a single market created with all of its follow-on issues. The spill-over effects commonly referred to among European specialists are evident here: The dismantling of customs regulations led to a rapid increase in intra-community trade, which in turn caused other non-tariff restrictions to dampen growth. Abolishing these restrictions meant that the goods themselves could freely cross national borders, but the people transporting them could not. This problem was solved with the advent of the Schengen Agreement, a development that subsequently required increased collaboration in the area of internal security in order to combat crossborder crime. Such chain reactions can be documented by the dozen, all of them arising from a single cause: the founding of the European Economic Community (EEC) through the signing of the Treaties of Rome.

For decades, the attractiveness of this model in both economic and political terms has been reflected in the expansion of European integration. Neither the EEC nor the European Community (EC) nor the European Union has pursued an active policy of expansion as much as they have simply given in to the desire of outsiders to join, first to a number of EFTA members, then to the democracies in Southern Europe, then to other EFTA members and, finally, to nations in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The questions of reform and the EU’s ongoing political order, the key issues facing European policymakers today, have resulted directly from the common market’s ongoing development and the accession of new members. The current crisis, sparked by the rejection of the EU draft constitution in two national referendums, has the feel of an illness that only strikes those who are doing well. It is the result of the European Union’s resounding success and its attractiveness to non-members, developments that have made Europe strong and its nations self-confident. Without this success there would have been no need to draft a European constitution; the lack of a constitution, however, now jeopardizes any future success.   

Europe’s policymakers must now do what they have always had to do since the Treaties of Rome were first negotiated: find another path or strategy to help the “European integration project” survive a crisis. Both Europe’s citizens and its policymakers are having a difficult time dealing with the EU’s size, the diverse interests of its members and the awkwardness of its procedures. It has not been possible to strike a new balance between large and small, rich and poor. From the start, European integration has also been a social project, an attempt to find an equilibrium between industrial growth and free trade on the one hand, and income security and viable development opportunities for rural populations on the other. For 50 years, the more affluent regions have supported those regions with fewer resources and, above all, helped build infrastructure in rural areas. In the EU of 27 members, this alliance must also be renegotiated in light of current social needs.

The European Union can be counted as one of the world’s global political players. At the same time, however, Europe is vulnerable: its lifelines run far beyond its borders and its neighboring regions are in a state of unrest. The arc of challenges is considerable, ranging from the influx of migrants from Northern Africa to the south, to the Middle East conflict, to the situation in Iraq and Iran, to tensions in the Caucasus and Central Asia, to Moscow and the Soviet Union’s nuclear legacy in the submarine graveyard located in Murmansk to the northeast. Europe is increasingly becoming a direct neighbor to such conflicts; increasingly, too, other states and regions are approaching it with a list of requests and demands.  

Europeans will now have to prove their cohesiveness in a number of policy areas: ensuring their own security and defending their interests in the world at large, shaping the globalized world’s numerous interdependencies and maintaining a balance with the other major players in international politics. To achieve this, Europe must embrace a new idea of itself, an idea no less ambitious than the one that first inspired the founding of the common market.  


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