Europe and Russia

Looking After the European Union

April 17, 2017  • José M. de Areilza

On October 13 1955, the Action Committee for the United States of Europe began its work in Paris, under the direction of Jean Monnet. The initiative was the former cognac vendor’s response to the failure of the European Defense Community (one more of the many Monnet Plans), vetoed by the French National Assembly in August 1954. The tiny committee had the intrepid aim of creating a political environment wherein all six members countries of the European Coal and Steel Community might work jointly to form the European Atomic Energy Community and the Single Market. In his Foch Avenue apartment that was strewn with papers, Monnet drafted these proposals and subsequent improvements. His capacity to attract the most brilliant minds to the project, those capable of aligning interests between the States, was then legendary on both sides of the Atlantic.

The drivers behind the Treaty of Rome were conscious of the fact that France would be resistant to any re-industrialization of Germany that went beyond carbon and steel. The Soviets repeatedly made clear their firm opposition to European unity. The British were against the launch of the new Communities. The government in London rejected the supra-national ideal, which could move the Continent towards an unprecedented and irreversible process of integration. An old friend of Jean Monnet and Secretary of State under President Eisenhower, John Foster Dulles, openly supported the motion to expand the Community project and extolled the president to take up the issue with the British leaders Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan, so that Britain might abandon its boycott.

The utopia envisioned by Monnet’s generation, from which there is so much to learn, has been more fully realized than Monnet ever could have hoped. The Communities rescued the nation states from their impending obsolescence, with the caveat that they left their nationalist ideologies behind them. Today just as then, these nationalist urges are the EUs most dangerous enemy, bolstered by recent populist movements. They are the same agitators that foster fear and mistrust before the numerous uncertainties created by a new and ongoing industrial revolution, found in the form of digital disruption, a phenomenon that will leave no area of society untouched.

Yet the European Union of the present, paralyzed by different fears, has not yet found the springs of renewal from which to reinvent itself. We must start by protecting the unity we’ve already achieved, because we are not yet free from the grasps of our divided past. Following the end of the Cold War, we assumed the inevitability of coming prosperity, that each year would better than the last. Now, things in Europe are not well, and could go decidedly wrong . Since Charles de Gaulle’s veto of British entry, European unity has not faced such an outright rejection as the British exit, which has occurred 60 years later. Neither has it ever lost the support and sympathy of an American president.

The effects of both the economic and refugee crises, the rise of populism, the threat of terrorism, and the devastating news of Brexit all form a part of what is to be the most challenging chapter in the history of the European Union. Even so, since 2010, there has been true leadership to redesign the common currency. We can count on a clear vision to complete the economic governance of the Eurozone, and no part of the Five Presidents Report can be dismissed as merely a rhetorical exercise.

Our Union must continue to prove itself by serving its member states, and provide them a true sense of prosperity and stability. With the winds of protectionism blowing in from the White House and Trump’s continued faltering placing the future of American diplomacy in question, Europe will have to play a greater role on the world stage­ – to promote free trade and multilateralism, to protect human rights, to fight climate change, and to fulfill its responsibilities in terms of security and defense.

But so much power has been transferred to the European level that it’s necessary to examine the two sources of legitimacy found in any political system. In one sense, legitimacy must be derived from the political process itself, which would lead us to put in place a democratic European government. In another sense, legitimacy also comes from the concept of a shared identity: we can’t hide behind technocratic language the richness of common European values inherited from our long history and from the lessons learned.

At the same time, the European market we celebrate today represents the careful balance of integration, that takes into account national identities and does not perceive national democracy as an obstacle to overcome, but instead as a necessary condition to its legitimacy. Hence, the preamble of the Rome Treaty proposes “an even closer union among the peoples of Europe” and thus simultaneously emphasizes both the unlimited duration of the project and the diversity of its constituents. The European Union of today is both a legal federation and a political confederation, a successful third way found between a what-would-be insufficient international organization and a similarly counterproductive, imaginary federal state.

Experience shows that the idea of a Europe a various speeds, a proposal again in vogue, allows the Union to take new steps with increased flexibility. Conversely, the proposal is also used at times in an attempt to dismantle what we’ve built together. Joseph Weiler, a leading thinker on integration, has advised that we only conserve our society´s achievements if we accept that we can’t decide not to be Europeans, which is to say, that we should accept the Union as our part of our common fate and existential identity.  While we reform Europe for the future, and assume the mantle of continuing this project together, this Europe of reconciliation that levels barriers and opens borders has turned 60 years old without growing older. More than two and a half centuries ago, Montesquieu, in his “Thoughts,” suggested a way to include Europe in our affections and loyalties: “If I knew something useful to me and harmful to my family, I should put it out of my mind. If I knew something useful to my family and not to my country, I should try to forget it. If I knew something useful to my country and harmful to Europe, or useful to Europe and harmful to the human race, I should consider it a crime.”

José M. de Areilza is Jean Monnet Chair at ESADE and Secretary General of ASPEN INSTITUTE ESPAÑA.