On March 25, the 27 heads of state or government and the heads of European Union institutions met in Rome to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaties of Rome.
Most significantly, the Treaties of Rome laid the ground for the establishment of the Single Market, within which European people, services, goods and capital have been free to move for six decades.
The celebrations, which started in the same venue as the 1957 signing (Sala degli Orazi e Curiazi in the Piazza del Campidoglio) also included a lunch hosted by Italian President Sergio Mattarella in the Palazzo del Quirinale; and an audience with Pope Francis in Vatican the day before.
The leaders adopted the Rome Declaration, where they expressed their pride in the EU’s achievements of the last 60 years, reaffirmed their commitment to the European project and reflected on a number of challenges of today’s Europe. In particular, they pledged to work for a safe and secure Europe, a prosperous and sustainable Europe, a social Europe, and a stronger Europe on the global scene.
The document is certainly not highly ambitious and reflects what the 27 member states can all agree on today. And yet, Poland and Greece threatened not to sign it, reminding everybody of the internal divisions that keep tormenting the Union.
In the end, the appearances have been kept up, and the weekend was characterized by smiles and good will.
On the whole, three points of the Declaration deserve to be underlined. First, there is a remarkable emphasis on the ‘unity’ of the European bloc, which is seen as "both a necessity and our free choice".
The word ‘unity’ is indeed ubiquitous throughout the document. If this is something that the 27 genuinely believe in or it is a typical EU practice to intensely highlight what it lacks the most, it is up to speculation. Nonetheless, the document contains an allusion (the global irrelevance of each of the 27 states) to another 60-year-old European adage.
Like former Belgian Prime Minister Paul Henri Spaak said in the 1950s, “Europe consists only of small countries – some of which know it and some of which don’t yet".
Second, there is an explicit reference to the principle of subsidiarity, according to which, action should be taken at the EU level only when Europe’s desired goals cannot be adequately achieved by initiatives taken at the national or local level. This is clearly more than an homage to the current times, when national sensitivities and interests have risen with vigor in EU politics.
Third, and perhaps most significantly, the document indicates that the EU might/will move ahead “at different paces and intensity where necessary, while moving in the same direction".
This suggests that the idea of a multi-speed Europe in areas such as the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), immigration and defense is a concrete possibility for the years to come – despite the reservations of the Visegrad group (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) and of Poland in particular. As Luxembourg's prime minister, Xavier Bettel, summarized it, a two-speed Europe is to be preferred to “a cul-de-sac or to no speed at all".
Five scenarios for the EU in the next decade
So where is the EU going? The Rome Declaration does not go further than these rather vague indications to a multi-tier Europe. A more comprehensive answer to this question is to be found in the White Paper on the future of Europe that the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, presented on March 1.
Five scenarios for the EU in the next decade are discussed, one of which is carrying on. The EU continues its slow but steady process of integration and/or cooperation in all areas. Small but constant little steps. It is a sort of muddling through which has been a trademark of EU policy making in the last decades.
Nothing but the Single Market: Here, the EU would go back to its origins, disregarding cooperation in foreign affairs, immigration and development. The euro might be dismantled at a certain point. The Single Market will remain the main “raison d’être" of the EU27.
Those who want more do more: This is the EU with multiple speeds, which was mentioned in the Rome Declaration, where a group of countries integrate more deeply in certain areas (defense, taxation, justice, social policies).
Doing less more efficiently: Here, the Union becomes even more united in certain fields (innovation, trade, security, the management of borders and migration), while returning other policies where integration has met more difficulties (regional development, public health, parts of employment and social policy) back to the national level.
Doing much more together: This pre-announces an almost federal Europe, where member states decide to share and also delegate to Brussels-based institutions more power, resources and authority across all areas.
This last scenario is the least realistic for the time being, given the increasingly strong national and nationalist opposition to a more integrated Europe in probably a majority of states.
I would say that the two most likely scenarios are numbers 1 and 3. As said, Scenario 1 is the classical muddling through in European clothes. After all, the EU has survived the most acute moments of the economic and budgetary post-2008 crisis in an incremental way and today the prospects of the economic recovery are relatively solid (with the notable exception of Southern Europe).
The doubts here revolve around whether the EU can sustain another big crisis if the construction continues with limited measures. The challenges are certainly not difficult to find: migration, turmoil in Eastern Europe or in the neighborhood, another financial/economic storm, a serious crisis of and within the Schengen frontier-free system, the electoral victory of a strong anti-EU party, etc.
Scenario 3 grants the EU more flexibility and more tailored responses to member states’ aspirations as well as to potential crises. Yet, the political obstacles are not irrelevant. After all, the enhanced cooperation, already foreseen by the EU treaties, has been used with extreme parsimony.
In general, a number of countries, guided by Poland, consider this option as potentially damaging the European project, creating a first-class and a second-class Europe. But the fear that a multi-tier Europe might lead to the undoing of the EU is more widespread.
An EU-collapse can be identified as the sixth scenario that EU leaders themselves no longer dismiss. Although still unlikely, and although not necessarily implying that Europe would go back to 27 separate nation-states with very limited interaction and cooperation among themselves, this option is no longer unthinkable, as it was 15 years ago.
In this context, on March 29, the British government finally notified the European Council of their intention to leave the EU. The negotiations between the United Kingdom and the EU on the terms of the former’s exit will very likely be the main political task for both actors in the next five years. They will shape the economic and geopolitical landscape of the European continent in the next decades.
The challenges for the EU look quite daunting. The 27 states have different economic and security links/interests with the U.K. These interests also cut across national lines, and differ depending on the sector and the size of the business.
EU institutions will also play an important role in the negotiation process. The U.K. might exploit the internal divisions and appetites of the 27 states (plus EU institutions) to weaken the EU’s bargaining position.
So far, the EU has showed a remarkably unified front vis-à-vis the British diplomatic moves. EU unity towards Brexit has been more than a catchphrase since the U.K. referendum in June 2016. It remains to be seen if this intra-EU27 harmony will continue once the U.K.-EU negotiations really start and concrete issues appear on the table.
* Opinions expressed in this piece are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Anadolu Agency's editorial policy.