After weeks of build-up in Brussels 27 EU leaders will gather in Rome this weekend to mark the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. There is sadness over Brexit but also a belief that it will not weaken the bonds of the remaining 27, there may be uncertainty about the future but few in Brussels contemplate the idea that the EU will not be around in another 60 years. That is of course to overstate the anniversary, whilst significant gradual integration occurred in the 70s and 80s the EU itself and its deeply integrated architecture date from the Treaty of Maastricht 25 years ago. It suits everyone however to focus on the Treaty of Rome and the greater history and feeling of permanence that anniversary gives the modern EU.
The fact that I can contemplate the unthinkable – that the EU may not always be here- is usually ascribed in Brussels purely to my nationality and ‘the British disease’. Perhaps they are right, Brits have always had a less sentimental approach to European integration influenced by our different national history. Yet, too much is unthinkable in Brussels, it has long been the grandest group think experiment in existence. When a new regulation emerges from the bowels of the European Commission the Brussels debate always seems to revolve around how to tinker with it, no one seems to ask whether it was right to regulate in the first place. Once an idea has been had it must be right. Perhaps there is something in the notoriously hard Belgian water. I’ve witnessed UKIP-lite Eurosceptics on arrival at Gare du Midi morph into hardened federalists in the course of a smooth trip on the gravy train from Brussels to Strasbourg. Well almost that quickly.
Jokes aside, my own views have not really changed, last year I campaigned and believed it was in Britain’s best interests to remain in the EU for the foreseeable future and work towards the goal of European reform. A slimmer, stripped back, wider not deeper EU with a genuine single market free of non-tariff barriers was the strategic vision. Working in internal market and transport policy I’ve seen first-hand the areas where pan-European collaboration is most beneficial. I’ve also seen the EU get things wrong time and again, creating needlessly expensive and inefficient rules and regulations, written by non-experts who failed to listen and heed advice from industries they were upending. The classical liberal case for Brexit has never escaped me. Unfortunately for pro-remain reformers such as myself the Brexit referendum came too early, the rest of Europe was not yet prepared to contemplate genuine reform, as witnessed by David Cameron’s limited renegotiation achievements. Now the decision has been taken there can be no turning back, not only would it be an affront to democracy such an about-turn would be accompanied by a retrenchment of British influence within the EU and no hope of us leading real reform of the system.
So as the Treaty of Rome turns 60, what is the future of its offspring, the European Union? The short answer is no one truly knows, but if the EU is to reform the push will now have to come from within the continent itself, and there are some signs that the sands are shifting on European reform. The European Commission’s (admittedly flimsy) White Paper on the Future of the EU recently acknowledged one route could be a stripped back Europe. A true multi-speed Europe, always a partial reality, is becoming more likely, the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble, acknowledged this week. Significant treaty reform formalising a multi-speed Europe may be a possibility in the medium term. If the EU is smart it will embrace it, instead of deriding, as it did in its poisoned relationship with Britain (for which both sides are to blame), a pick ’n’ mix or a la carte approach. The Union has always proclaimed itself a free club so allowing different tiers of membership makes sense, dragging people into deeper commitment against their wishes is a road to disaster.
The multi-speed approach EU power makers seem to be leaning towards is only one route of course. Commission’s White Paper gave 4 further options for the future: “carrying on,” “nothing but the single market,” “doing less more efficiently,” and “doing much more together.” Whilst federalists cannot let go of the last option, carrying on may be the most likely scenario, just as the Euro has struggled on without significant change since the eurozone crisis began 8 years ago. Doing less more efficiently or nothing but the single market would require radical visionaries in the Berlaymont and key capitals, and go against political physics, once institutions acquire power they never give it back willingly. The only realistic way for those wishing to see less Europe in the nearer term to pull powers back is as part of a quid pro quo in treaty reform allowing those willing to integrate further to do so. A grand bargain on multi-speed seems fair enough for all parties concerned, but can expect fierce resistance from the EU institutions.
Part of the British goal in leading the push for expansion was always to make the EU too wide to deepen much further. Whilst the EU’s very size may make any agreement, even a multi-speed one, difficult to achieve, dooming the EU to carrying or b**gering on, there is a certain degree of irony in Britain leaving just as it may have halted federalism in its tracks.
Regardless of treaty reform, one thing is for sure, if the EU is to survive to see the Treaty of Rome’s 120th anniversary it will need to reconnect with voters and make it feel like it is working for them. If it fails to do so all constitutional reforms will be moot and it will fall like every other trans-national regime before it, through the will of the populace. That job starts with the economy and the single market – it needs to deliver on its promise of eliminating artificial barriers to trade and lowering prices for consumers. Today it works for big business, but most SMEs give up before trying to trade cross-border, faced with a bewildering array of non-tariff barriers, and concurrently consumer prices in the EU are higher than other developed economies, laughable given it is supposed to be a competitive market of 500 million consumers.
Somewhere along the way the urge for more Europe and regulation, combined with instinctive national protectionism, has got in the way of the EU delivering its core economic objectives for EU citizens. The euro was sold as a single market measure, it was no such thing. Federalists today are pushing harmonised taxes under the same guise, whatever the disastrous economic consequences would be for Europe’s competitiveness. Tackling the eurozone crisis must also be part of the economic solution to the EU’s problems, even if it means a managed exit for some Euro countries and German taxpayers having to pay out for the benefits they receive from an artificially low currency. For too many citizens struggling over the last decade it feels like their quality of life is being sacrificed on the high altar of the political project that is the Euro.
Sensible treaty reform, an end to ever closer union, tackling the eurozone’s problems, making the EU’s potential economic benefits deliver for its citizens are all part of the survival jigsaw the EU needs to piece together. An EU that serves its member states and citizens needs and wishes, rather than ruling over them. Whether it will happen is anybody’s guess.