Celebrating Europe

The EU at 50: Complex, Uprecedented - and Real

News | Johannes Pollak | March 2007

On March 25, 1957, the Treaty of Rome was signed, bringing to life unprecedented cooperation between former enemies (Photo: European Union)

The 25th of March, 1957, was a rainy day in Rome, where the leaers of the six founding members of the European Economic Community – France, Italy, Germany, the Benelux countries – met in order to begin a new chapter of close co-operation on the continent.

Notwithstanding the bad weather, the monumental palaces on both sides of the Capitol were decorated with 27 priceless medieval tapestries guiding the heads of state to the Hall of the Horatii and Curiatii in the Palazzo dei Conservatori.

And a truly solemn moment it was: Countries that were at each others throats for most of their history were now willing to pool sovereignty to prevent war and create prosperity. An institutional arrangement was set up that clearly went beyond a mere international organisation comprising a kind of European executive, the European Commission, responsible for initiating new laws and watching over their implementation; a Common Assembly, later to become the directly elected European Parliament; a Council of Ministers representing the interests of the participating states; and a European Court of Justice embodying the belief that conflicts should be solved by appeals to the law and not to the sword. It was unprecedented. And complicated. And its future far from secure.

But while the number of countries joining the European integration project has risen over five decades from six to twenty-seven, and the name has been changed to the European Union, these institutions are basically still with us.

After fifty years of integration can we call their working a success?

After the end of World War II Europe was in miserable condition: Food and fuel shortages, economic crises, a deep mistrust and longing for revenge, prejudices and bitterness all determined the agenda. Ideas to heal the wounds of the continent had been aired for more than 500 years already. So Winston Churchill was building on quite a tradition, when he delivered his famous speech a decade earlier in Zurich, in September 1946: The solution for the ills of Europe, he said, was to build "a kind of United States of Europe," based on co-operation between France and Germany.

The idea had been met with a great deal of scepticism at first. The Nuremberg Trials (1945-49) were revealing the monstrous crimes of the Nazi regime. In addition, only a few people were ready to accept a separation of Western Europe from an Eastern part under the influence of the Soviets. Anti-Soviet feelings were on the rise, and U.S. President Harry S. Truman painted a dark picture of a deep divide between "two alternative ways of life," one characterised by freedom and liberalism, the other by suppression and despotism.

However, it was the rise of the Cold War itself, and the pressure of the US who needed a reliable ally, that helped lead to the establishment first of the Committee of European Economic Cooperation (CEEC 1948) and second to the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC 1951).

While the first resembled a classical international organisation, the second, the European Coal and Steel Community, was something, a supra-national organisation, characterised by the pooling of sovereignty, a budget independent of member states contributions and the authority to pass laws. Coal and steel were selected because they were the sinews of the armament industry; depriving Germany and France of control of these resources would render them incapable of building up a new war machine.

Only six countries were willing to enter this arrangement, the same countries who later would sign the Treaty of Rome in 1957. The CEEC is still in existence today (now called the OECD) but had nothing to do with the later developments of European integration.

It was the success of the ECSC that led the member states to the idea of expanding the policy areas covered by the close cooperation. Thus, the EEC (and the European Atomic Energy Community) was founded and a breathtaking development set in. And although the first ideas of going beyond economic integration failed in 1954, with the rejection of the European Defence Community and the European Political Community, the building of the common market was well under way.

It was due to the convictions of the founding fathers, Jean Monnet, Alcide de Gasperi, Robert Schuman, Altiero Spinelli and others that Europe (or at least the member states) experienced a dramatic increase of prosperity.

The single market was more or less finalised in 1992, and the fall of the Iron Curtain demanded a reform of the 12 members system. The Maastricht Treaty that year transformed the European Community (composed of the ECSC, the EEC and EURATOM) into the European Union, the name itself being a sign of the willingness to move into classical fields of statehood like security, defence and foreign policy.

Today, after several treaty reforms, a Europe of 27 members is again discussing a Constitutional Treaty – a plan which would have sounded outrageous or even ludicrous 50 years ago.

The history of this integration process shows that crises are an integral part of Europe’s integration. And this is small wonder, since we are witnessing the gradual withering away of the nation state itself, which is a tough adversary. Giving up prerogatives is a difficult enterprise for national executives. And much remains to be done to secure that this process leads to a democratic European republic, a balanced economy and truly political and social union. It is the task of all of us to contribute to this project by critically discussing the advantages and disadvantages of the European Union.

But there can be no doubt that Europe is worth it: The preservation of peace amongst her members, the constantly rising living standards and the individual freedoms writ large are proof enough. Thus, 25 March 2007 might be an opportunity to pause for a moment, raise the glass and drink a toast to Europe, complex, unprecedented – and real.

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