‘Happy’ Birthday

25th March 2017

The European project was begun in earnest 60 years ago today. But the festivities today will be rather muted. As we march through London today, I hope it will be seen as a pro-EU demonstration but cannot ignore its antipathy to out governments apparent negotiating strategy. Let’s suffice today with a brain dump of the EU’s past, present and precarious future.

*

It is not frivolous to mention the Second World War. Just 21 years after the war to end all wars, Europe was at war once again. In total, 50-85 million people were killed (of which 11 million in the Holocaust). World power shifted from Europe to the USSR and the USA. To tame Germany, their coal and steel industries were taken out of German control. In 1951, France, Italy and the Benelux countries (along with Germany) signed the Treaty of Paris creating a common coal and steel community to control the production of weopons and war machines. The precursors to the European Parliament and Commission were born here. The Treaties of Rome (signed 60 years ago today) expanded this community to a broader economic union, the ECC. 

It’s not the happiest backdrop to a union but as peace was cemented, prosperity followed, allowing the EU to stand amongst superpowers as an equal. Trade negotiations are carried out collectively, with the weight of 7% of the world’s population and a fifth of its GDP.

With the fall of the iron curtain, the EU expanded eastwards, bringing security and growth to countries formerly under Soviet rule. It moved south and west to include former dictatorships. It has been a champion of democracy and the rule of law.

But at sixty years old, the EU is showing it age. It failed to forge a convincing response to the Syrian civil war and slow to react to the refugee influx. When it did, both the means and the ends were hard to justify. The financial crisis was met with counterproductive austerity while any response would have been hampered by the incompletely implemented single currency. A lost decade of growth can largely be blamed for today’s euroskepticism. Greek debt is still being ignored.

The sanctions against Russia after their invasion of Crimea, are becoming another divisive issue. Fueled by a debunked, personal conspiracy theory, Poland threatened revolt after Tusk’s reappointment. A long-dlayed trade deal with Canada was almost undone by Wallonia’s opposition. The stasis is particularly alarming looking ahead at the threats the EU faces in the coming years, of which Brexit is potentially least troubling.

Putin grows ever more bold in undermining western influence. He seeks to destabilise the Balkans once more and expand Russia’s sphere of influence in to the vacuum Europe and the US have left in the Middle East.Turkey is growing ever more authoritarian as Erdogan attempts to amass greater executive power. Hungary and Poland are increasingly troublesome. Greek debt and Italian banks are primed to set off a new financial crisis. Terrorism remains a threat and as summer approaches, more migrants will return to makeshift rafts to cross the Mediterranean. 

And these are only the dangers that can befall Europe with or without the EU. There remains the existential danger of upcoming elections and ongoing coalition building. To make a sucess of the Euro, greater monetary and fiscal integration will be needed. But this is political suicide in many countries. The EU will need to quickly learn a new level of flexibility.

But as we begin 2017, there are positive signs. Growth is picking up and there are signs of an overdue recovery. Cyprus has a chance for reunification (though a very fragile one) and the loss of UK from the union does seem to be spurring new routes for the EU to take. Mexico, Japan and the South American trade group Mercosur have all renewed a push for trade agreements with the EU. 

The next couple of years may prove to be Europe’s toughest yet. The union we leave may well be very different from the one we knew in 2016. In any case, it seems certain that Brexiting Britain won’t define the EU’s future. The debate is moving on to the next crises already. The UK won’t have the benefit of moving on from Europe for a long time yet.

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