Europe’s bittersweet anniversary

Over the weekend, Europe’s leaders gathered to mark the “birthday of the European Union,” March 25, 1957, the day the Treaty of Rome was signed, the treaty that established the union’s predecessor, the European Economic Community.

Ten years ago, when we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary, it was a big deal. Today, though, the fête seemed less festive. Much of the news in the lead up to Saturday’s celebration focused on fault lines that have grown within the community as heads of the 27 member states (excluding Great Britain already on their way out) prepared to sign a declaration on the future of the EU.

The mood was palpably different than it was ten years ago, even if there are many things from our common European experience that give us strength.

Prime Minister Orbán, upon signing the declaration, emphasized that the European community, “has good reason to be proud” when looking back on the past 60 years, but, he added, “we have good reason to believe that we have formidable challenges to address” and that won’t happen if the member states do not put forth their own efforts but wait for a European solution instead. “If we want a safe Hungary, we can only rely on ourselves. It is we who must make it safe”. The prime minister added: “If we want to grow economically, we must work harder and better in order to be competitive”.

In 2007, the European Union, seemingly stronger than ever, was getting ready for the fiftieth birthday celebration. It just welcomed the two newest member states, Romania and Bulgaria. Together with the 2004 accession of 10 eastern member states, the enlargement marked another great step forward in what was then a two decades-long political project to overcome the divisions created by the Iron Curtain in Europe. The future seemed to glow with prospects for upbeat economic growth as the first new member state, Slovenia, joined the Eurozone.

That European Union of ten years ago is difficult to recall today. In the lead up to Saturday’s celebration, last week’s news was all about Poland’s and Greece’s reservations about signing the declaration, which has been ridiculed for too being watered down. Great Britain, Europe’s strongest economy would send its farewell message on the 29th , poignant British politesse not wanting to spoil the party.

Brexit, of course, is not the only issue hanging over the European family. Also troubling for many are the ongoing struggles with a growing Brussels bureaucracy trying to grab new powers from the member states.

Eurocrats openly criticize member states just days before the big celebration of unity. First Vice-President of the European Commission Timmermans once again went on a rant against Hungary and Poland, saying that Europe must step up against their democratically elected leaders in defense of core values. Not clear what values he was talking about exactly but, in any case, it was strange timing.

Though we’re beginning to see many economies turn to sustained growth, Europe has yet to fix its own currency crisis that surfaced after the meltdown of global financial markets in 2008.

On the migration crisis, Europe remains sluggish and off track, struggling now for two to three years to put forward a viable solution to protect the external borders of Schengen and manage the migration flow. As a result, one of the most cherished and hard-won freedoms of the European Union, the freedom of movement in the Schengen zone is falling into jeopardy right before our eyes.

No wonder that, compared to the upbeat celebrations ten years ago, some have said this year’s anniversary has had a “let’s get this over with” air about it.

Challenging times however are not necessarily bad times, if as a result, the European community, which is still, in PM Orbán’s words the best one in the world, dares to find the right answers. Going back to what has worked in the first 50 years of European integration might be a good first step.

“[T]he Treaty of Rome finds us at a difficult time; or, to be more precise, a dramatic time,” Prime Minister Orbán said following the March 10th EU Summit at which heads of the European member states spent a fair portion of their time trying to come up with the right text for the anniversary. “I have suggested that we take an optimistic stance. First of all, we should make it clear that, despite all its difficulties, Europe continues to be the best place in the world,” he said.

“In any event, we should place due emphasis on what we’ve achieved so far, and the unprecedented results that European culture, European civilisation and the European economy have achieved since the Second World War,” he continued. “And if we look around the world to see where one can live the best life, with the best prospects for happiness, Europe would have every chance of being considered the best place. Under no circumstances should we ignore this, and we should also make it clear that over the next few years the goal should be preservation of this position.” Prime Minister Orbán said.

Yes, most spectators, inside and outside the European Union agree that the EU has had a tough few years recently. Serious and unresolved conflicts and crises, internal and external, could leave one with a dim view of our prospects going forward. But that would be pessimistic. In the face of adversity, we have a chance now to find our way back to what the European Union was meant to be 50 years ago: unity in diversity that offers meaningful, mutually beneficial cooperation. It should not be so hard, if all the member states do their part well.