In the mid-1950s, the Netherlands, backed by Belgium and Germany, proposed the establishment of a common market. Initially, France was hesitant to join because of its protectionist policy, but it stuck to the European unity project that revolved around a Franco-German partnership. Eventually, France accepted the German-backed proposal provided that French interests were met.
France wanted an atomic energy community, common agricultural policy, attachment of colonial territories on favourable conditions, and equality of women in wages in the whole community. Without such conditions, it was feared that French industry would see a competitive decline in some sectors. Italians, who had the weakest economy among the six member states, called for the establishment of the European Investment Bank, Social Fund and free movement of labor.
On 25 March 1957, six countries including France, Italy, West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg signed the Treaty of Rome in one of the southern halls of the Capitoline Museum. The treaty was the base on which the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community were established. It came into force in January 1958 declaring the construction of the most successful European merger entity that saved the continent from the scourge of war and destruction.
On Saturday 25 March 2017, 27 countries excluding Britain, which decided in a referendum to leave the union, met in the same hall to mark the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. The leaders signed a joint communiqué (Rome Declaration) asserting “unity and solidarity” on issues of security, development, economic growth and social and international policy.
I think the Rome summit was an attempt to restore the past in order to give fresh impetus to the European project, which is now on the verge of collapse. Talks at the Rome summit brought about an agreement on “act[ing] together, at different paces and intensity … while moving in the same direction … in line with the [European] Treaties”. So, the Franco-German backed idea of a “multi-speed Europe” was rephrased to become a “different paces Europe”.
After the summit, the Slovakian Prime Minister, Robert Fico, said that we have to be watchful and all EU member states have to work together as we cannot imagine a mechanism in which some countries go faster than the principles of European Union. President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, further said: “[we] lived behind the Iron Curtain for more than half of [our] life, where it was forbidden to even dream … Yes, back then, that really was a two-speed Europe”.
In the past 60 years, the EU has certainly made great achievements at the economic and security levels, but less at the political level. Currently, however, the EU faces numerous challenges forefronted by the implications of Brexit on the union, emergence of far-right extremist populist groups calling for exit from the union and the issue of immigration.
Indeed, immigration has become a source of alarm for all the large European countries, especially the migration from Eastern Europe, which was one of the main reasons for Brexit. Likewise, combat against terrorism is a major security challenge to the EU. The coming days are crucial for the European project, as they determine whether the EU stands steadfast in the face of challenges or faces disintegration and collapse.
This article was first published in Saudi Gazette.
Dr. Ibrahim Al-Othaimin is a Middle East affairs specialist and security analyst based in Riyadh. He can be contacted at Ibrahim.email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Alothaimin.