Europe looks beyond March summit to forge vision

Donald Tusk in Malta on 2 February 2016. [Council]

The 60th anniversary of the Rome Treaty next month is unlikely to be celebrated with a landmark roadmap for future EU integration, as diverging views continue to undermine efforts to forge a common vision.

For European insiders, it was a telling moment. The heated discussion between the former president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, and Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, on the main stage of the World Economic Forum in January, was a powerful reminder of just how divided Europe is about its future.

Rutte, the leader of one of the founding member countries of the EU, proclaimed that the ‘ever closer union’ principle behind the EU’s integration process was now “buried and gone”. Meanwhile, a combative Schulz tried to keep the European flame alive.

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Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and former European Parliament President Martin Schulz clashed over the strategy to relaunch the Union, illustrating the deep division at Europe’s helm in front of the global audience of the World Economic Forum.

The dispute in Davos illustrated the diverging views on the future of the European project, admitted a senior EU official in the corridors of the forum.

Small countries like Malta, Belgium, Luxembourg and southern EU member states, including Italy, Portugal and Spain, are the main backers of the integration process. On the opposite side, Poland, Hungary and others want to reopen EU treaties to repatriate powers to national governments. Britain, meanwhile, is on its way out.

In between, the Netherlands and a growing group of countries are championing a “pragmatic approach”, putting aside “romantic ideas” about Europe.

For some, the lack of consensus on what the EU should do in the future has reached worrying levels.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned EU leaders about growing disunity in his State of the Union address last September. “Never before have I seen so much fragmentation, and so little commonality in our Union,” he said.

Britain’s departure from the EU and the transatlantic instability brought by Donald Trump’s election in the US, were expected to forge a renewed spirit of commonality.

The Bratisalva summit, the first gathering of EU leaders in the aftermath of Brexit, was the first attempt. It may not have forged a powerful response, but leaders celebrated it for launching a process that was meant to culminate in Rome this March.

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Rome text ‘cannot be a Christmas tree’

The March summit in the Italian capital will mark the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which founded the European project. By then, member states were expected to have outlined their vision for the future of Europe.

But as disunity remains, any hope of making significant progress is vanishing.

During a meeting held on 30 January with national governments’ envoys to discuss how to mark the milestone, EU capitals remained stuck on disagreements over the process.

While some would only want to issue a declaration in Rome, other governments would like to include a roadmap to deepen the integration process.

Meanwhile, other national representatives argued that the principles and values that underpin the EU should be emphasised.

“We have to agree on what we want to include because the Rome declaration cannot be a Christmas tree,” said one official from an eastern member country.

But besides the process, the lack of a true European vision was apparent, another EU official pointed out.

In light of those disagreements, European Council President Donald Tusk sent a warning letter to the member states on 31 January, ahead of a European summit in Valletta today (3 February).

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Valletta summit

EU heads of state and governments are expected to discuss the future of Europe this afternoon. EU sources highlighted the importance of this discussion in guiding the ongoing work for the Rome declaration.

“The most important signal that should come out of Rome is that of the readiness of the 27 to be united,” Tusk told leaders.

The former Polish prime minister also called for a renewed “declaration of faith” in the “deeper purpose of integration”.

But the continuation of the integration process does not appear to be a strategic priority amid the global challenges Europe currently faces – whether on Russia, China, terrorism, or Trump.

Support for populists and Eurosceptic parties is picking up steam ahead of crucial elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany, throwing EU integration plans to the sidelines.

“This is not the moment for great forward-looking proposals,” a German diplomat said.

Berlin would accept postponing discussions about ‘ever closer union’, or even the refugee quotas so vigorously opposed by eastern member states for the sake of unity, he explained.

“The most important thing right now is to hold everybody together,” the diplomat added.

EU puts ‘ever closer union’ on hold

As the EU prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary, the “ever closer union” principle that underpinned the European project is being put on hold as the bloc struggles to survive its annus horribilis.

Commission White Paper

As unpleasant as it may be, this analysis now seems widely shared, even by the most pro-European among top EU officials.

People familiar with Jean-Claude Juncker’s thinking said the White Paper the Commission will publish in mid-March as a contribution to the Rome summit is unlikely to outline an ambitious, clear-cut vision for the future.

Instead, it will merely outline different scenarios for the future of Europe. The intention is to avoid polarising national governments that are reluctant to deepen cooperation in fields such as security, migration or the economic and monetary union.

But some leaders warned against sacrificing the European dream on the altar of unity.

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“We can be united on the lowest common denominator where unity is pointless. I do value unity a lot, but I would not put unity in front of my principles,” Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat told EURACTIV.

“We could be united in reversing what Europe has been about over the last decades. That would be a united Europe, but it is not the kind of Europe that we would want,” he added.

Tusk urged leaders to take “assertive and spectacular steps that would change the collective emotions and revive the aspiration to raise European integration to the next level”.

But considering the prevailing political mood, the Rome summit is unlikely to be a liturgical moment, with leaders merely expected to renew their “faith” in the European project, as already promised in Bratislava.

In turn, Rome could mark the beginning of a new soul-searching process that could drag on at least until the end of September, when the German elections are over.

“I believe the next 12 months are decisive if we want to reunite our Union,” Juncker told the Parliament’s plenary session last September. Despite Tusk’s calls to stand united and proud, Europe continues to wallow in an existential crisis that appears here to stay.

  • 3 February: EU summit in La Valletta (Malta)


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