The EU’s Road to Rome

MADRID – At the end of this month, European Union leaders (except for British Prime Minister Theresa May) will gather in Italy to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. Anniversary celebrations are always a good excuse for self-congratulation, and the rhetoric filling the air in the run-up to the Rome summit suggests that this one will be no different. But EU leaders should also be using the anniversary as an opportunity to reflect deeply on the project they are celebrating.

The EU is at a crossroads. The United Kingdom has not even formally launched the withdrawal process, yet Brexit has already demolished one of the European project’s founding assumptions: that, however slowly, integration would always move forward. Now, rising nationalist populism is threatening to unravel six decades of progress.

A celebration of European unity may be the ideal moment to confront the difficult truth of disunity, and chart a way forward. But the honesty, self-awareness, and clear vision needed to use the Rome summit in this way does not come naturally to EU leaders, who excel far more at lofty rhetoric than pragmatic solutions.

To be sure, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has taken a stab at fostering such a solution. The Commission’s recent “White Paper on the Future of Europe” that sets out five possible paths forward for Europe, from narrowing the EU’s focus to the single market to deepening and broadening integration. It also includes the seemingly inescapable proposal of building a multi-speed Europe.

The paper lays out a ten-month timeline for debate and reflection, to culminate at December’s European Council meeting, where Europe’s leaders would decide which direction to take. The new approach would be rolled out ahead of the 2019 European elections. It all seems very tidy.

European member states have already begun engaging Juncker’s framework. At a meeting at Versailles, the EU’s four largest economies – Germany, France, Italy, and Spain – endorsed a multi-speed approach that would establish them as a unified core. The Visegrád Group (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) have pushed back against that idea, fearing that they would be left behind. The Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg) also have misgivings about such an arrangement, which would exclude them from some decision-making – and leave Germany as the core group’s only creditor country.

So the debate about Europe’s future is a vibrant one, just as Juncker had hoped. But it misses the point, simultaneously going too far and not far enough, for a simple reason: it is not based on frank and comprehensive self-examination. Rather than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, the EU needs to address why the ship is sinking.

But, beyond noting the gap between public expectations and the EU’s capacity (and authority) to act, the Commission’s white paper includes almost no introspection. Vital questions – about the Commission’s performance, the structure of the College of Commissioners, and, most important, the balance among the EU institutions – are papered over or ignored.

One absolutely fundamental question that the white paper fails to consider is how authority should be distributed within the EU. Here, the EU does not have five options, but two: transnational or intergovernmental. The approach it chooses will shape the Union’s structure and the scope of its activities.

The choice will require EU leaders first to assess, with honesty and even bravery, where the EU is right now. They must be willing to call a spade a spade – or, in this case, to call the EU an intergovernmental organization in transnational clothing. Only after they recognize that this is a dysfunctional structure – because it allows both the EU institutions and member states to skirt responsibility by constantly pointing fingers at one another – can they pursue the needed rebalancing.

True transnationalism offers a higher ceiling for cooperation, but it is also riskier. If Europe chooses this approach, it cannot rely on half-measures. It must take real steps to align authority and accountability at the EU level, empowering the European Parliament and delivering political legitimacy, as well as more responsibility, to the Commission. Virtually nobody is betting on this way forward.

As for the intergovernmental approach, it should be clear by now that this choice essentially means a German-led union, at least for the foreseeable future. That is not much different from the current situation, in which any important decision must have Germany’s blessing. And, in today’s increasingly contentious world, it might not be a bad way forward.

This is particularly true if – and it is an “if” – Angela Merkel manages to survive as German Chancellor past September. Merkel has, after all, managed to consolidate her own unique leadership style that, though recalcitrant at times, may work for a Europe under pressure from all sides. It is not what the EU’s founders envisioned, but it is workable, as long as Europeans acknowledge that this is the approach they are taking, and set the floor for cooperation reasonably high.

Whatever way Europe goes, the first step is to determine which route it will take. Simply put, Europe must decide whether to collaborate or cooperate. This is what should be on the table.
In March 1957, Konrad Adenauer called Rome the perfect backdrop for “laying the foundation for the common future of Europe.” In March 2017, it could reprise that role. The EU may not have many more opportunities to reflect on its present and clarify its future. It should not let this one slip away.