The Treaty of Rome was born in a time of deep crisis. After failed attempts at a military union (EDC) and a political union (EPC), the Treaty made the economy the focal point of European unification.

Social policies were merely a band-aid to cover the scars caused by the markets. There was no talk of a social market economy before 2009. The Treaty still does not mention distributive justice; it is mentioned neither between the rich and poor within a society nor between Member States. Yet if the union, like any other political entity, is to remain stable, it must not let inequalities become too large.

For governments, the EEC Treaty was an enabling act for lawmaking. Parliamentary democracy was only to be found at the level of the Member States. It was not until the European parliamentary election in 1979 that the Parliament received broader legitimacy. And only by 2009 had it carved out the appropriate legislative rights. With one treaty reform after another, the Union has become the world’s first transnational democracy.

Brussels-blaming

This has certainly not done much to improve its acceptance among citizens. Many people believe that democracy is threatened to a larger extent by elected governments in Brussels than by a self-proclaimed group of a hundred supercilious bankers playing Monopoly in New York, London and Singapore. Many of those who believe they must defend their national democracies against “Brussels” cede their very democracies and even their voters’ choice to the algorithms of international, private big-data systems and to allied and enemy secret services. It is these attacks on democracy itself that the European democrats must defy.

European foreign policy did not appear in the Treaties of Rome. Western Europe drove in America’s slipstream during the Cold War. Over the past decade, the election of Donald Trump as US president is only the third milestone in a series of fundamental changes in the geopolitical environment in Europe. “Make America great again” is Trump’s version of Vladimir Putin’s ambitions for a Great Russia and Xi Jinping’s aspirations for China, building an “Asian-Pacific-Area that leads the world”. Each of them follows an authoritarian domestic impulse. Every “deal” between them will establish spheres of influence that will drive Europe apart unless it finally begins to act with its own interests in mind.

It is the heritage and mission of the unification of Europe to secure a place for peace and freedom, democracy, justice, security and secularism in the world and to keep those concepts fit for the future. It needs a cause that goes beyond economy and power. It should strive to be more than a big marketplace in which justice, nation and government vanish. Brexit will only become a crisis if the Union does not assume a clear position in the question of “in” vs “out” and if years of self-absorbed behavior take it further down in its citizens’ esteem.

No need for new treaties

Downgrading the European Union to a marketplace without common rules for social affairs, environmental and consumer protection, and other areas would render it more irrelevant, but not more attractive. Its citizens could not care less about new treaties, and with good reason; if the Member States apply and fulfill the existing Treaty, they will be able to revive anemic economic growth in the south, prevent tragedies involving refugees in the Mediterranean Sea, dry up tax havens, establish distributive justice throughout Europe, strengthen cooperation on internal and external security, and free the Union from national concerns and jealousies.

Is nationalism returning after 60 years? It was never gone. At the end of the day, the Union did not come from another planet. It was founded by nation states that made the Union into what it is and how it is today. None of the great protagonists of Europe’s unification worked towards removing national constitutions and the statehood of their countries. They were thinking nationally and that is why they kept pushing the unification of Europe forward.

At that time, however, the concept of “the national” represented courage for a new and pragmatic beginning, for reconciliation and inviolable cooperation between the peoples and states of Europe. The neo-national today stands for the cowardice against the toil of consideration and compromise and links itself with the anger and resentment against what has been created. In France, it threatens to reach its critical mass as National Socialism and to break the Union.

The goal was for Europe to be free from war. No one promised a Europe free from crises. Being built on the Treaty of Rome and expanding it step by step, European unification has proven to be astonishingly stable since 1957. It overcame crises of unification and “Euro-sclerosis”, it handled the political consequences of the peaceful revolutions in Eastern Europe, including the reunification of Germany, and it accommodated the EU’s enlargement from six to twenty-eight (minus one) states. It has shaped the political culture in Europe more profoundly than what is generally acknowledged, as is shown by the reactions to the current dangers in Poland, Hungary and Romania. And while the Cassandras in politics, science and culture conjure twilight and doom, we seek for the glimmer of hope in the shadows of great internal and external challenges.

Photo © Communautés européennes 1950-1959.