The EU at 50: Dancing in the Streets?

JURIST Guest Columnist Dr. Laurent Pech, Jean Monnet Lecturer in European Union Law at the National University of Ireland, Galway, says that despite the still-uncertain future of the European Constitution, the 50th anniversary of the treaty founding the European Union is an occasion to celebrate the most successful interstate venture in modern times...



On 25 March 1957, Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux states (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) agreed in Rome to create the European Economic Community, with the aim of preserving peace and enhance economic growth by means of a common market. Fifty years later, viewed in historical perspective, the success of this original venture can hardly be denied. In what is now called the European Union (EU), twenty-seven Member States are committed to deepen economic integration - thirteen countries actually share a common currency — and to define a common foreign and security policy as well as to develop the Union as an area of freedom, security and justice. Despite these tremendous developments and changes - or maybe for that very same reason - the current ambiance in Europe is rather gloomy. To use an analogy which is now gaining ground, the EU is said to be in something of a mid-life crisis.

Going from one crisis to another seems, however, to be a way of life for the EU. This may explain why a good dose of pessimism has always accompanied the slow - and at times, the invisible - progress of European integration. In 1982, the President of the European Parliament, Piet Dankert, observed that the "anniversary of the European Community does not seem to be an occasion for much celebration," adding that the "infant which held so much promise 25 years ago has changed into a feeble cardiac patient". However, less than ten years later, it was agreed to adopt a single currency and to dramatically expand Europe's areas of competence. In 2007, the "feeble cardiac patient" is still alive and kicking, notwithstanding the melodrama which followed the rejection of the EU Constitution in the Netherlands and in France.

What is really surprising about European integration is that it continues to work and deepen. The reason must certainly be that the Member States have always realised that the EC/EU represents the most effective institutionalised venue they can use to respond to the demands of their citizens.

Without a doubt, the EC's founding fathers were animated by a high sense of idealism and genuinely believed that advancing the cause of European integration would foster peace among old enemies and eventually lead to the establishment of a federal state. One may understand, however, that the EC Treaty came into existence thanks to a Faustian pact negotiated between France and Germany: Germany acquiesced to the idea of financing a Common Agricultural Policy (which still represents 35 per cent of the EU budget from close to 70 per cent in the 1970s) and finally obtained from France the right to participate as an equal partner in a pan-European organisation. Furthermore, the EC Treaty initially offered a rather modest set of provisions which were primarily aimed at setting up a common market between its signatories. It actually took more than thirty years - and the launch of the so-called 1992 campaign for an EC without internal borders - to complete the creation of a European market in which the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital is ensured.

That the membership of the EU has continued to expand ever since suggests that the EU continues to be seen as a club which guarantees peace and economic prosperity. Membership to the EU club, or the mere promise of joining the club in the future, have also proven to be spectacularly successful in consolidating democracy and the rule of law in previously authoritarian countries. Furthermore, in today's interdependent world, national governments are well aware that they must collectively confront the global economic and political challenges of our times. History has taught the most powerful European countries that unrepressed hubris ineluctably leads to tragedy.

A particularly remarkable aspect is that the spectacular "widening" of the EU's club has (thus far) not prevented further "deepening". Indeed, from a narrow focus on economic matters, the EU has grown beyond recognition. Among the objectives it now pursues, one may mention the promotion of a balanced and sustainable development of economic activities, a high level of employment and of social protection, a high level of protection of the environment, the implementation of a common foreign and security policy, the prevention of crime, etc. And to pursue these objectives effectively, the EU has gradually gained the power to legislate in the areas of trade, monetary policy, social policy, environment, consumer protection, transport, asylum and immigration, etc. The EU may also complement Member States' action in the areas of industry, culture, tourism, education, etc.

These developments did not come about without controversy. Many (wrongly) fear the emergence of a federal and undemocratic Leviathan. More recently, the continuous expansion of the EU, both in terms of geographical and regulatory expansion, seems to have produced a general backlash. Public opinion, in several Member States, has clearly turned against the EU. To put it succinctly, citizens of the "old Europe" have grown sceptical of its added-value and are frustrated at what they see to be an uncontrolled expansion of the club. The widespread disillusion is particularly worrying as it is taking root in a context where two major risks threatening the future of the EU future have yet to be effectively tackled: relative economic decline and institutional paralysis. The so-called Lisbon strategy is supposed to answer the first concern. The EU Constitution, signed in Rome in 2004, attempts to answer the second.

In 2000, in Lisbon, the European Council agreed to define long-term policies to create a highly competitive and knowledge-based society in Europe. The trouble is that the EU has not been given the power to legislate in the areas of employment, social protection and education but can merely complement national policies. But Europeans are unlikely to take note of this subtle distinction and will certainly come to blame the EU rather than the Member States for the currently disappointing outcomes of the Lisbon strategy.

As for the "constitutional" text, it is well known that it must be ratified by all the Member States. As of today, 18 Member States, representing more than 60 per cent of the EU population, have approved it and two have rejected it. To end the current impasse, several scenarios have been discussed. The most realistic solution may be to preserve the most innovative provisions of the 2004 text and drop the term "constitution" from the title of the new text to be ratified. My personal view is that regardless of the name and content of the future text, two new indispensable conditions should govern its ratification: rather than unanimity, a majority of two-thirds of the Member States should be considered sufficient and the text must clearly articulate what would happen to the Member State(s) which will be unable to ratify it. Failure to take into account these conditions is more than likely to lead to another ratification mess.

Overall, few would deny that the EC Treaty is nothing less than a success story. It represents the most successful interstate venture in modern times. Through economic means, it has obliged old and heterogeneous nation-states to learn how to peacefully coexist while pursuing common goals through ongoing compromises. To paraphrase Alexander Meiklejohn, the fiftieth anniversary of the EC Treaty may be nothing less than a good occasion for dancing in the streets.


Laurent Pech is Jean Monnet Lecturer in European Union Law at the National University of Ireland, Galway and the author of Taking the EU Seriously: Persistent but Misguided Constitutional Controversies (forthcoming, 2007)
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