The Treaties of Rome sixty years on: Moving Forward with Europe!

Sixty years after the signing of the Treaties of Rome, Europe finds itself at a crossroads. Right-wing nationalist member states, foreign policy crises and a surge in left- and right-wing populist movements are endangering liberal democracy. Understanding what this wake-up call means for a liberal Europe and what consequences arise from this was the subject of discussion at an international conference titled “Moving Forward with Europe!” that was held by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin on 20 March 2017.

Across Europe and the US, a deep-rooted, anti-liberal revolt is taking place. And yet, the latest elections in the Netherlands and Austria as well as the latest polls on the French presidential elections show that this anti-liberal and populist movement may well have already reached its pinnacle. The EU’s approval ratings are once again on the rise and a new grassroots movement in favour of a democratic Europe is spreading, observed Ralf Fücks, President of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, at the outset of the conference.

And yet, it is still too early to give the all-clear. Europe needs more politicians fronting this incipient turnaround with a positive reform agenda – not just for European but also national policy. “Confidence, not fear" is the right slogan in dealing with nationalists and authoritarian forces. This also entails actively confronting Europe’s current challenges, honestly admitting to failures, and offering practicable solutions that restore Europeans’ trust in the institutions of the EU.  

Europe sixty years on – a record that necessitates action

In the past sixty years, much appears to have built up and worked against a united European society: divided EU member states on refugee policy, the debt crisis which has sparked social and political divide within Europe between debtor states and creditor states, high youth unemployment and a widespread pessimism about the future that cuts across every social stratum. Added to this, through newly-elected US President Donald Trump’s current foreign policy and the developments in Turkey, and also in Russia, which is positioning itself at the heart of the anti-liberal International, Europe finds itself forced to defend the principles of the European peace and security order. Lucile Schmid, co-president of the Green European Foundation, also sees “Europe’s lacking visibility” as one of the most pressing challenges facing the European institutions. A modern European narrative that caters to the diversity of European cultures is amiss, she said.

European integration – pro and contra

In light of these pending challenges and seemingly enduring stagnation within the liberal democracy, is the era of European integration drawing to a close after sixty years? This was a fundamental question posed by the two keynote speakers, Andrew Moravcsik, Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University (USA) and Jan Zielonka, Professor of European Politics at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University.

Moravcsik claimed that, despite the crises, the EU is far stronger and more stable than its reputation suggests. Sixty years after the signing of the Treaties of Rome, “the EU [is] still the most ambitious and successful example of voluntary cooperation among nations in history”. The most important areas of cooperation – e.g. safeguarding free trade and investments, the protection of the single markets through regulations, the freedom of movement and the coordination of border protection as well as common security measures – are not affected by the crises currently facing the EU, he stated.

In spite of geopolitical weakening, rising political radicalism, and a heightening migration and euro crisis, the unique civic involvement of Europeans on which they can look back at sixty years of the European Union should not be forgotten. They are the mark of progressive European integration. It is above all, the “European, federal idealists” who – although most of them believe in the European idea – are among the EU’s loudest critics. It is up to the liberal democracy to counter the demands of these “perfectionists” in democracy, effectiveness and morality with a realpolitik alternative. According to Moravcsik, this is especially evident in fiscal policy. Pressing ahead with fiscal union over years is one of the causes preventing solidarity between European states and their growing closer together, he added.

Whilst sharing this viewpoint, Zielonka commented that it was not just the austerity policy, which has widened social injustice between and within the European communities, that has played into the hands of anti-liberal forces. “Soft populism” pursued by European conservative parties, along with hegemonic tendencies within the EU, which bother Eastern and South European member states in particular, also play a part. The European project has not kept its promises, Zielonka added. The original idea of a unified Europe with member states on an equal footing has failed in today’s Europe. Sixty years on, the economically strong states, above all Germany, are now endeavouring to determine Europe’s fate and focusing on punishment rather than incentives in doing so, he stated. Whether Europe has brought us closer together or rather driven us apart is a justified question.

It is not Europe’s positive historical legacy that Zielonka calls into question. It is the “liberal propaganda” of its success that he criticizes: that opportunistic propaganda that turns a blind eye to the political reality and triggers the risk that Europeans may turn their backs on liberal democracy.

Video recordings of the conference "Moving Forward with Europe! The liberal democracy crisis and the future of the EU" on 20 March 2017 - Welcome address and introduction, Keynote 1, Keynote 2

Is the liberal pro-European movement an active minority?

Zielonka’s hypothesis appeals to the fundamental values of the European project and calls for solutions as to how to defend them against internal and external anti-democratic challenges.

Ulrich K. Preuß, Professor Emeritus of Public Law, Politics and Theories of the State at the Hertie School of Governance, referred to a current study indicating that 68 percent of the Europeans surveyed feel that the speed of innovation and change due to globalization is one of the causes of the growing uncertainty. The plea for a regulatory policy linked to this is something that such policy cannot live up to with the available funds, however, at least not along the lines and to the extent demanded by anti-liberal forces, he argued: the growing demands of Industry 4.0 placed on the world of labour cannot be met by closing borders or a “closed society”, added Preuß. The driving force behind the “feeling in society” that politics no longer works is fear. For this reason, it is vital that liberal democracy goes on the offensive to make clear that withdrawing to national affairs and escaping into autocratic systems cannot resolve these problems.

Member of the German Bundestag, Annalena Baerbock, Alliance 90/The Greens, would like to see a more differentiated assessment of the right-wing populist threat. As a whole, the liberal, pro-European forces still constitute the majority. She argued that the launching pad for the current crises has also always been a leadership crisis in the respective member states, such as the United Kingdom, and that the solution lay in a functional arrangement of the various democratic levels in Europe – from local affairs to a pan-European policy which assumes responsibility and tackles the challenges of our time with determination.

Barbara Nowacka, a politician, feminist and co-chair of the Polish left-wing liberal party Twój Ruch, wants to see the EU provide a vision, a different proposal on the design of Europe that can be shared and backed by its population. Anti-democratic and right-wing populist forces have come up with an alternative vision of Europe, she added. Even if this is not in line with liberal democracy, it appears that around 20 percent of Europeans view it as a better alternative to stagnation und reform backlog. Yet, globalization does not only have negative effects, as far-reaching networking also opens the door to a new type of solidarity among liberal-minded Europeans. This must be used to unite all enlightened EU citizens in the fight against anti-European forces.

The best example is the #PulseOfEurope initiative, a pro-European movement that takes to the streets every Sunday in nine EU states in favour of a democratic and cosmopolitan Europe. Alexander Freiherr Knigge, a lawyer and co-initiator, underscored, on behalf of the initiative, what power emanates from a cross-party “European feeling” and how democratic forces can be mobilized as a result that are decisive for the process of reforming the EU.

Video recordings of the conference "Moving Forward with Europe! The liberal democracy crisis and the future of the EU" on 20 March 2017 - Panel 1: How should Europe defend its values?

No step back and two steps forwards

All participants were unanimous in one point on this day: it is absolutely essential for the architecture and policies of the European Union to be revisited. Internal and external security, climate protection and energy, the modernization of Europe’s transport systems, sustainable growth and a common migration and refugee policy could be the basis for a new European agenda. But which is the right path to take? Is one of the five scenarios for the future of the European Union recently put forward for discussion by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker the right path for the EU to adapt to the needs of its citizens?

Shada Islam, Director of Policy at Friends of Europe, believes one of the main tasks for the future of the EU is to uphold minority rights. They are a key component for the integration of the European project. Especially people coming from a different region of the world as she does, in her case from a border region between India and Pakistan, have a deep appreciation of what the EU had achieved in this area, she commented.

Ska Keller, President of the Greens/European Alliance for Freedom in the European Parliament, in turn warned about a “multi-speed Europe”. Before discussing the instruments of European reform, clarity must be provided as to where Europe is actually heading. If Europe wants to remain legitimate and capable of acting, nobody must be left behind in this process, she argued.

In order to boost the European idea long-term in terms of a liberal democracy, we must not lose sight of educating the population to become European citizens, warned Ondřej Liška, Czech Republic Country Director and member of the Ashoka CEE Team in Vienna, and former Czech Minister of Education and Youth. Because only by doing so can the European project carry into the future, he stated.

The consensus at the end of the conference was unanimous: Moving Forward with Europe! Europe is a liberal democracy success story and must sustain. Europe can make good on its promises. This is evident from over 60 years of peace and freedom in Europe. Not treating these achievements as a matter of course but fighting and standing up for them is now the order of the day.

Video recordings of the conference "Moving Forward with Europe! The liberal democracy crisis and the future of the EU" on 20 March 2017 - Panel 2: How can Europe become a successful model again?