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Mainstream, VOL LV No 15 New Delhi April 1, 2017

European Union at 60: Integration and its Aftermath

Sunday 2 April 2017


by Purusottam Bhattacharya

On March 25, 2017, 27 leaders of the European Union (EU) gathered at the Italian capital, Rome, to celebrate 60 years of the European project which was literally born from the ashes of the Second World War. It was on March 25, 1957 that the leaders of France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg signed the historic Treaty of Rome which gave birth to the then European Economic Community (EEC) that began its journey on January 1, 1958. Since then Western Europe and subsequently an integrated European Union has been generally viewed as a model for experiment in regional integration around the world. After all, it was here that the first serious attempt to lay to rest the bitter legacies of one of the most virulent forms of modern-day nationalism was made through a reconciliation between France and Germany whose bitter rivalry had brought much suffering and bloodshed to the continent during the 20th century and even earlier.

However, since nation-states are generally unwilling to surrender control over areas connected directly with political sovereignty, the method favoured by the functionalists, that is, development of piecemeal non-political coope-rative organisations in economic, technical, scientific, social and cultural sectors was sought to be applied by the founding fathers of the European integration movement. It was also aimed at providing a new voice to the smaller and defeated nations of Europe in the post-Second World War era dominated by the two superpowers—the United States of America and the Soviet Union.

The first move towards a united Europe was the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1952 though the most potent manifestation of the same to date was, as already mentioned, the European Economic Community (EEC)—renamed European Union (EU) in November 1993. Starting its operations in January 1958, the organisation provided the framework for Europe’s experiment in inte-gration during the past six decades. The exercise initially started as a stand-off between the federalists who expressed their unambi-guous preference for a federal Europe where the member-states would eventually be transformed into constituent units with Brussels as the centre and the champions of national sovereignty who favoured cooperation on an inter-govern-mental basis whereby the basic sovereignty of the participating states would be safeguarded.

This dichotomy has been reflected especially in the formulation of the common policies which are the fundamental pillars of the European Union. Though agreements could be reached, following elimination of tariff barriers, in less contentious areas such as Agriculture, Trade, Energy, Fisheries, Transport, Regional Develop-ment, Environment etc., it proved to be more problematic in a potent area like economic and monetary union (EMU). It took the Union 30 years to finally come to an agreement on EMU which culminated in the introduction of the common European currency—the Euro—in 1999.

The Union has evolved through a succession of milestone agreements in the 1980s, 1990s and in the first decade of the 21st century. After the disappointing experience of the 1970s the decade of the 1980s produced the Single European Act (SEA) in July 1987 which resulted in improved institutional and procedural measures as well as better performance in existing areas within the framework of the Treaty of Rome which had founded the Union. Notably the SEA created the barrier-free Single Market which ensured the free movement of goods, services, capital and people—the four principal pillars of EU integ-ration. The SEA paved the way for the more ambitious venture agreed later as the Treaty of Maastricht in December 1991. Billed as the most important milestone since the Treaty of Rome, the Maastricht Treaty created two more pillars—apart from the supra-national Community pillar which had already taken shape, that aimed to carry European integration into the 21st century—Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) in the shape of a common European currency and a central Bank by 1999 and a Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) pillar which sought to ensure better co-ordination of the policies of the member-states in these two areas. The Community, which had started a process of co-ordinating their foreign policies through the rubric of the European Political Cooperation (EPC) in the 1970s, decided at Maastricht to give it a more concrete shape by the creation of a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP)— though at the inter-governmental level due to national sensitivities about sovereignty. The process of integration continued further through three more landmark treaties—the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997, the Treaty of Nice in 2001 and finally the Treaty of Lisbon which came into force in 2009. These treaties, especially the Treaty of Lisbon, not only expanded further the ambit of integration in the EU but also consolidated what had been achieved over the past half-a-century.

The movement for European Unity is six decades old now. The face of Europe has changed beyond recognition during this period. The Europe of today, notwithstanding the prevailing difficulties in which it finds itself, is a political and economic powerhouse enjoying a decisive say in the management of international affairs. The EU, the principal vehicle of the integration, is also a much transformed entity. Not only has its membership increased from the original six to the present twentyeight (the British decision to leave the Union will reduce the number to 27), the number is poised to go up in the near future as some of the former Yugoslav states like Serbia are keen to join; the EU’s areas of activity have also expanded considerably. The Union’s own common currency—the Euro—is the second most important currency in the world. However, the Union hit a rough patch when the world economic depression, which set in in 2008, sent an already depressed EU economy into a tailspin. As a result some of the weaker members of the Eurozone (member-states which had accepted the Euro as their currency) such as Greece, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Italy were plunged into a sovereign debt crisis that required substantial financial bailout packages, parti-cularly for Greece as also for Spain, Ireland and Portugal. Of late Europe has become a victim of international terrorism which launched attacks on Spain in 2004, Britain in 2005 and in March 2017, France in 2015 and 2016 and Belgium in 2016. Apart from these major attacks which claimed a substantial number of victims there have been sporadic attacks on the continent throughout the past decade-and-a-half.

Another big challenge that Europe faces today is the migrant crisis. Europe has been an attractive destination for migrants for centuries and it has absorbed them with varying degrees of success though the continent never faced any catastrophic crisis as a result of the earlier migrations. However, the recent waves of despe-rate migrants from Africa, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq have been of a nature the like of which has not been witnessed since the end of the Second World War. Millions of migrants have descended on Europe in search of a better future as they flee civil war, failed economies and persecution of all kinds. At present the EU is desperately struggling to find a common response as the crisis has divided the Union like never before.

While the Union was trying to put its house in order, British voters voted in favour of a British exit from the European Union (Brexit) in an in-or-out referendum on June 23, 2016 by a narrow margin. This is the first time an existing member has decided to exit the EU. Consequently the Union was thrown into another turmoil it could very well have done without. Brexit is going to be a long-drawn process taking almost another two-and-a-half years. This will only compound the anxieties and uncertainties the Union has been suffering from. Repeated terrorist attacks and the problem of rehabili-tating and assimilating the millions of migrants who have been given asylum in various EU member-states, particularly Germany, are issues that will continue to bedevil the EU for the foreseeable future.

As the EU leaders gather at Rome to mark the anniversary of 60 years of the organisation, the need for unity has been given the utmost emphasis. In the Rome Declaration, issued after the summit meeting of 27 leaders of the Union (Britain was absent as it is about to give notice of its imminent departure), the achievements of the Union like peace and prosperity over the past 60 years were highlighted and a pledge was taken to stand united noting the fact that in a turbulent world individual EU states did not have the clout to influence world events; only a united Union can do so. The Declaration also noted that the Union is facing unprecedented challenges—both global and domestic—such as regional conflicts, terrorism, migratory pressures, protectionism and social and economic inequa-lities. The Declaration promised that in ten years the Union wanted to build an organi-sation that ensured peace and security, its competitiveness, prosperity, sustainability and social responsibility with will and capacity to play a key role in the world and shape globali-sation. Keeping these objectives in mind the leaders adopted the Rome Agenda which include a safe and secure Europe, a prosperous and sustainable Europe, a social Europe and a stronger Europe on the global scene.

These are laudable objectives no doubt. However, the pitfalls that lie ahead are also formidable. First and foremost the Union is about to lose the United Kingdom (though it found no reflection in the Declaration) which was throughout a troublesome partner and yet is the second largest economy in Europe and one of the two, along with France, the most powerful defence and security provider on the continent. The cost of Brexit has also been estimated to be around 60 billion Euros. Secondly, there is the fear of a contagion effect of Brexit with elections scheduled in France, Germany and Italy where populist, Right-wing, anti-EU parties are predicted to win major popular support (this however did not happen in the Netherlands elections on March 15 where the populist, anti-Muslim and anti-EU parties failed in their bid to win power). Thirdly, the Eurozone and the migrant crises remain largely unresolved. Fourthly, the threat of terrorism continues unabated with the London attack of March 2017, a stark reminder that Europe remains extremely vulnerable to such attacks.

So what is the way out? In the weeks and months ahead all sorts of innovative ideas will be tried out. Experts are also divided in their prescriptions in this regard. One way to re-invogorate the project would be to have a multi-speed Europe with Schengen (a group of member-states participating in a borderless EU), Euro (enforced by a select group of member- states) and the inner core of the single market. The remaining member-states can participate in the project according to their own ability and pace. It has also been suggested that some powers of the EU can be returned to the member-states as resentment has gathered momentum over the years of over centralisation of powers in Brussels and lack of accountability of EU institutions (the so-called ‘Democratic Deficit’). The Eurozone needs to be fixed and there are many suggestions as to how this could be achieved (too numerous to be discussed here). The outcome of the French and German elections slated for May and September 2017 will be crucial. One thing is clear: for the EU to survive status quo is no longer an option. It must reform or perish.

However, in conclusion it would be premature to say that European integration is facing its ultimate denouement as it grapples with the fourfold crises mentioned above—the sovereign debt crisis, the migrant crisis, terrorism and Brexit. In the past it has demonstrated its ability to accommodate the divergent interests of its member-states which increased in number from the original six to 28. The Union is sufficiently resilient which has again been highlighted in the Rome Declaration. The successes of European regionalism are well established and are still sought to be emulated in other parts of the world. Whether the EU will survive in its present form is another question. Nevertheless, the path it has charted over the past seven decades, especially in overcoming centuries of bloody conflicts that tore the continent apart, is well-recognised and will continue to inspire endeavours for human unity around the world.


1. Desmond Dinan, Ever Closer Union: An Introduction European Integration, 2010.

2. Ali M. El-Agraa, European Union: Economics and Policies.

3. Alan W. Cafruny, Europe at Bay.

4. Neil Nugent, The Government and Politics of the European Community.

5. www.europa.eu (EU web site which has all the information and analysis on European Integration including latest developments).

6. Purusottam Bhattacharya, Britain in the European Community: Implications for Domestic Politics and Foreign Relations.

Dr Purusottam Bhattacharya is a retired Professor of International Relations and erstwhile Director, School of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

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