by Violetta Teetor
The sun beams down on Luxembourg Square where Members of the European Parliament, journalists, and visitors spill out of these halls of power to enjoy the simplicity of a warm day. This Monday follows a weekend of celebration in Rome commemorating the founding of the European Union and the signing of the Treaty of Rome sixty years ago. This same day also precedes the imminent triggering of Article 50 by the UK beginning their divorce process from the EU. Stuck in the middle of this love/hate environment, one wonders how sunny the future of this union of 28 countries will turn out to be. The Association of European Journalists in conjunction with the European Parliament Press service tried to find answers to complex questions in a seminar entitled Europe 60 years after the Rome Treaty: What does the future hold for the European Union?
In order to look forward, we have to look back, and it’s the view of Rebecca Haarms, MEP representing The Greens European Free Alliance, that besides the initial mandate of securing peace between neighbouring countries, a lot more has been achieved. Testament to this were the marches for a united Europe held in France and Rome. Singing from the same song sheet were the protests of the people of Minsk and Moscow expressing their distaste for corruption, hoping for more free and just societies. Haarms recognises the challenges of security, refugees, climate change and youth unemployment that lie ahead urging us to face the fact that no one country can face these on their own and that now, more than ever, we need unity and integration.
According to Jozef Weidenholzer, a Social Democrat from Austria and MEP, the EU is not over as success cannot be measured in a linear fashion. There have been many ‘setbacks, sidesteps and stalemates’ and while the single market has achieved gains, now is the time to focus on the citizens, on their satisfaction and on whether they are being fairly treated. Opportunities need to be created and digitalisation should be seen as an opportunity leading to a single digital market without roaming fees.
The EU has not always been a beacon of equality and the member states have come to the realisation that some are more equal than others. Liberalism and illiberalism exist within the framework and, while the EU strives to cover everyone under one umbrella, the West cannot try to educate its eastern neighbours. György Schöplin, Hungarian MEP for the European People’s Party, maintains that the narrative working for Western Europe does not work for Eastern Europe and the voices of the latter are weaker even though they share the same problems; those of xenophobia and populism. There will never be a conflict-free world but we need to find a compromise in which everybody gains.
Euro-skepticism has grown out of this very inequality and, while strides have been made to improve the lives of people, it has lost sight of the citizens it serves. To restore this, the European Citizens Initiative was launched in which one million EU citizens can make proposals for changes to EU policies through the European Commission. Sadly however, out of 58 proposals, not a single one has produced a change in legislation. Eduard Kukan, European People’s Party MEP, sees the need for closer communication with the person in the street and how positively influential the EU can be in their daily lives. He is optimistic about the future and proclaims the message of peace the founding fathers and mothers propagated which, he adds, is not easy or cheap. In spite of this, it has been maintained.
It was clear after World War II that ‘nationalism never brought any good’ to Europe nor beyond. Security, equal opportunity, economic growth, and the protection of minorities are goals which most of us would promulgate, including Sirpa Pietikäinen, MEP from Finland. It is a social pillar for human rights which makes Europe a haven for refugees from war torn countries.
A ‘more and better Europe’ is the proclamation from many of the speakers at this seminar, but it will take political will to come out of this ‘cronified tunnel’, the words of Juan Fernando López Aguilar (S&D Spain). EU bashing by the members themselves has to stop and the huge challenge ahead is the testing and the advocating of stated goals. It is simply too easy to point a finger when the troubles are often embedded in societies themselves. In the grand scheme of things, the EU is only a small part of the big world out there and sticking together is what will ultimately be our saving grace. The willingness and conviction to stand up for the principles and rules of the Treaty of Lisbon, the reform treaty of the European Union, is going to take energy, passion, and most of all, an optimistic outlook to reinvent itself.