Saturday, 25th March dawned on Rome as a day of celebrations. The anniversary provided a background to a collective reflection upon the past, as well as pride for European achievements. Politicians and institutions joined in the festive mood of the over 5000 people who joined in on the two pro-EU rallies scheduled for the day in the Eternal City. But the event was also a framework to discuss what we need to do to make the EU better.
The Forum which took place before the March for Europe identified three primary areas to work on, and they are reflected in its name: Europe Fights Back: re-building vision, re-gaining trust, re-launching unity. This title encapsulated the programme for a new, better, and possibly federalist EU, presented by several important guest speakers from all over Europe. Re-building vision stands for looking back at the founding fathers of the European Union, and how these first sixty years compare to their initial project, as well as outlining the future for Europe in the world. Re-gaining trust represents the core issue of the EU never having been able to represent its citizens through a lack of accountability and democracy, and what we can do to change that. Finally, re-launching unity represents the struggle for the creation of a fully European identity, and how this can be implemented that without erasing national roots.
The idea of creating the United States of Europe is much older than the EU. It can be traced back to 1922, to Kalergi’s International Paneuropean Union, and later in 1941 to Spinelli, Rossi and Hirschmann, authors of the Ventotene Manifesto. Regardless of when we pinpoint the date of birth of the idea of a Federal Europe, it is undoubted that the European Union was born to be more than merely an economic union. It was meant to be a common Europe, in all aspects, as a true federation of States. This idea, though, is a commodity, not a necessity: we lived for centuries with no supranational European entity, and we could probably keep doing so. But at what price? The European Union as it currently stands guarantees us peace, freedom of movement, and certain fundamental rights and freedoms. And the founding fathers of the European Union would certainly love to know that this has been achieved.
But at the same time, as Guy
Verhofstadt pointed out during the Forum, they would have been appalled at the current form the EU takes: a complete failure to form a proper government, a failure of the European Commission to grow, and a failure to be a federation for the people and of the people. This was not what the founding fathers had in mind, and even though their ideas are now quite obsolete in some ideological aspects, they are still valid.
If we look at the state of the Union in her sixtieth birthday, ideals need to leave space to the unfortunate reality that the EU is currently a fundamentally economic union. Without the political element, it’s hard to even create concert on that, and member States often obstruct the process.
An interesting observation was made by Elmar Brok, MEP and President of UEF, in regards to the vision for the EU in a globalised world. He affirmed that it is only through the EU, not single Member States, that trade challenges can be overcome and global commercial demands met. This could – and should – be read as an invitation to adopt the Euro in all Member States and implement closer economic policies. However, this is far from being only a theoretical proposal. Reading between the lines, it is reasonable to assume that Elmar Brok is suggesting to push forward further trade deals with the other international players on the chessboard. In a post-CETA world, and after the failed attempt to finalise the TTIP, the rumours of renewed trade deals with Japan and Australia might suddenly become far more concrete if Mr Brok’s vision is shared by the rest of the European Parliament. Negotiations might even speed up, entering their first stage concurrently as the Brexit negotiations are ongoing. This would clearly prove to be an enormous advantage in negotiations with David Davis and Boris Johnson, as the opening of new prospective markets would be more than enough to fill the hole left by the UK’s market.
Guests of the Forum stressed the need to leave the economic aspects of the Union aside when building a concrete relationship with citizens. Right now, Europe does not sell, and it struggles to explain to citizens how it is relevant in their lives. Instead, it has worked to produce reports about the rise and fall of interest, on debt and public spending, and on the performance of the Euro against other currencies. In the words of Kalypso Nicolaïdis, Director for the Centre of International Studies at Oxford University, this has had the unfortunate result of ‘making the European Union sound extremely boring’, and that is its ultimate weakness.
Inspired by Brexit, and the overwhelming need felt by British citizens to ‘take back control’ of their own country, Professor Nicolaïdis has theorised the need to ensure that the EU does not annul the craving for autonomy and ‘taking control’ of individual countries. However, instead of making Member States retreat in their egoistical national priorities, the EU should develop ways of empowering citizens so that they can take back that control through the EU. In essence, the tension between the strive for unity and the desire for independence must lean more towards the latter before it can successfully shift towards the former.
The issue of regaining trust in European institutions (currently at an all time low of 36%) has also received other proposals that have garnered consensus at the Forum: increasing the amount taught about the EU in schools and improving the social media communication of said institutions are some examples. By talking about the EU more in schools, more young people would so have the possibility of getting to know what the organs of the European Union are and what their role is, making them more engaged in the actual supranational politics and facilitating understanding of the legal frameworks it operates in. Moreover, since most people feel a natural sense of belonging for the place they live in, increasing funds for Erasmus – and other similar projects such as Erasmus+, Comenius and other Lifelong Learning Programmes – would help build a stronger European spirit, fostering understanding of each other’s cultures and lessening the gap between the theory of freedom of movement and the actual amount of people making use of that right. By showing people what their rights are under EU law, we enable them to appreciate them and how they came to be.
The resounding success of the March for Europe needs to serve as a wake up call: we can save and improve the
Union, only if we are awake and we mobilize. As MEP Alain Lamassoure egregiously put it, the last 60 years of EU history have been nothing short of a miracle. France, Italy, West Germany, and the Benelux were able to put the atrocities of the 20th century behind them, to forget the thousands of years of animosity and war, all for the sake of peace and prosperity; this is an amazing feat. There are many aspects of the EU which we should be proud of, and which should rekindle a sense of common belonging amongst us.
Danuta Hübner, Chair of the AFCO Committee, believes that the enlargement policy of the EU was fundamental to ensure the whole continent could participate to these efforts to make love, not war. Equally, being able to stand up for European values and to never compromise on them during accession talks is another aspects which Monica Frassoni, co-Chair of the European Green Party, highlighted as a positive aspect of the current EU.
However, there also dysfunctional elements, which combined with the world recession and the unfavourable geopolitical environment, has led to a new rise of nationalism. The decision of England and Wales to vote Leave was the cold shower that has awoken the European people from their slumber. Pulse of Europe is now helping organise and encourage citizens all over Germany and Europe to hit the streets every week in support of the EU, interest in regards to EU politics has spiked, and the European identity has reared its head. The latter is particularly evident in the inspiring speech Alyn Smith delivered in front of those attending the Forum. The MEP, member of the Scottish National Party, was adamant that the ingredients for Brexit were present in every country. To stop a repeat performance, Brussels needs to start becoming more connected to the people, and stop being every State’s scapegoat for everything that goes wrong. And while it would be unprofessional to assume that he was speaking for the majority of the Scottish people, it is impossible to deny that he was at least speaking for himself. And for him, Europe is Scotland’s future, and Europe is Scotland’s home. Feeling Scottish does not erase or overwrite the feeling of being European. That is one of the most common misconceptions of people who oppose federalisation, and one we need to fight tooth and nail: the EU is not trying to render our individual countries’ historical differences null, and there is no need to pick between identities as they can live in perfect harmony side by side. Take Albert Solé, film director and Goya Prize winner, who was also present to talk about his European story: Catalan, and yet Spanish and a European federalist.
The rise of nationalism, and the outside pressures from the likes of Trump, Putin, and Erdogan, have also led to a positive change of attitude towards the EU by European citizens. If we look at the Hungarian referendum, the Austrian and Dutch elections, the Europeans are now starting to fight back. These are strong signs that also future elections, more pressingly the German and French ones, but also the Italian and Greek elections a bit further ahead, could find a winner in pro-EU candidates. And that – at this exact moment in time – is fundamental: the European Parliament elections in 2019 will make or break Europe, either paralysing every EU institution under a Eurosceptic majority or taking a strong step towards federalisation. Now is the time for all EU supporters and Federalists to rise up and mobilise, to react to egoistical nationalism, to disprove fake propaganda, to love the EU harder than ever even through its shortcomings. In two years, we’ll know whether we woke up on time or if we were too late.