60 years ago this Saturday, the leaders of France, Belgium, Luxembourg, West Germany, the Netherlands and Italy gathered in the Palazzo dei Conservatori to sign the Treaty of Rome; it was the Treaty which created the European Economic Community (EEC), which itself paved the way for the European Union (EU). As they sat in this grandest of locations, surrounded by 16th century frescoes atop the Capitoline Hill, they had fittingly grand ambitions for a continent both physically and psychologically scarred by two bloody World Wars and centuries of violence.
Namely, peace and a lasting one at that.
The six founding members stated in the Treaty their resolve towards collectively preserving and strengthening “peace and liberty”. They were “determined”, they said, “to lay the foundations of an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe”. The Treaty of Rome aimed to do just this through laying concrete foundations for greater political and economic integration by establishing four Institutions: the European Commission; the Council of Ministers; the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice. Importantly, laying these foundations symbolically too, through embodying a post-war political shift towards openness in Europe.
The founding members’ clarion call was for the “peoples of Europe who share their ideal to join in their efforts”. Europe has answered resoundingly.
Today, the nascent EEC has progressed from a community of six nations into a Union which now encompasses over 500 million citizens. It has fostered a closeness on matters political and economic, espousing trade while facilitating peaceful co-operation over conflict. When it was announced that the EU would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, German MEP and then Chairperson of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs, Elmar Brok, called it history’s “most successful peace project”. I believe that is largely true. It is only right then, on the 60th Anniversary of the Treaty that laid the foundations for this exceptional period of peace that we pay tribute to it, despite the EU’s current imperfections and the multifaced challenges it faces.
But, at the same time, it is saddening that as we mark this anniversary, for the first time a country is asking to leave rather than join this “union among the peoples of Europe”, which the Treaty of Rome envisaged all those years ago.
In light of this, the leaders of the 27 Member States will adopt a ‘Rome Declaration’ on the direction of the EU post-Brexit, when they meet informally in the Eternal City on 25 March. This Declaration comes in the context of a White Paper presented by the European Commission which outlined five possible scenarios for the future of the EU. These scenarios effectively range from more to less integration, as well as a scenario which allows for the integration of Member States at different pace, commonly referred to as ‘multi-speed Europe’.
Unity is back on the EU agenda. Back in the face of existential crises which threaten to destabilise it.
Nativist and far-right populist movements, seemingly emboldened by both the Brexit vote and election of US President Donald Trump, are increasingly vocal in their aims to re-erect barriers to divide Europe. The very same barriers which the founding members resolved to “eliminate”. While, simultaneously an increasingly embattled centre searches for answers to deal with the same challenges that have propelled this populist wave; an ongoing migration and refugee crisis, high levels of youth unemployment and structural problems of the Euro.
The EU is not perfect nor a panacea for all ills. It has at times struggled to react coherently and compelling to these various challenges. It too has found it difficult to explain exactly what it does to its citizens. But, I think in the context of an increasingly unstable global order as well as perversely the UK’s vote to leave the EU, there is a growing realisation among the citizens of Europe that it is better to stand together in the face of these multifaceted challenges.
The latest Eurobarometer poll found support for leaving the EU in only four of the 28 Member States, one of which is leaving. Indeed, two out of three Irish people agree that Ireland would not be better off outside the EU. These survey findings back up EM Ireland’s Red C poll carried out in 2016, in the lead up to the UK’s referendum on EU membership, which found that 90 per cent of Irish people want Ireland to remain in the EU.
On 25 March, citizens will gather all over Europe to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. These celebrations will centre in Rome where from the Eternal City, believers in the European project will once again articulate a vision for the future of Europe. The March for Europe, a gathering together of the peoples of Europe on the streets of Rome, will “call for a stronger, more democratic and united Europe”.
This focus on the Future of Europe is just a starting point of what should be a wider discussion involving all citizens and sections of society, politicians, civil society, trade unions, business, cultural groups, and the media.
We in Ireland have a choice and an opportunity, just as in 1972, to see our future inside a reshaped EU and to be a full and active member. We must actively contribute to the form of a Union we want to be part of and use the strong voice that we have developed since our accession into the EU. EM Ireland is determined to play its part in this and we will continue to facilitate and promote this debate and engagement across all sectors of Irish society.
The underlying message of the ‘Rome Declaration’, made by the leaders of the EU27 Member States and EU Institutions, will be unity, just as it was when those visionary founding members sat atop Capitlone Hill and signed the Treaty of Rome all those years ago.
Their grand vision of 1957 has now become a reality but in the face of real challenges, we must use both this anniversary and Brexit, as an opportunity to safeguard, re-think and progress the vision in the 21st century.
60 years on from the signing of the Treaty of Rome, the idea of Europe is more important than ever.
Noelle O Connell
European Movement Ireland