All roads lead to Rome

Prof. Ingrid Shikova

25 March 2017 marks the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community. The commemorations of this anniversary is not only and simply an occasion for celebration, but rather an occasion for reflection and looking ahead. The summit meeting in Bratislava in September 2016 marked the beginning of both the preparations for official celebrations of the anniversary, as well as the outlining of a common vision for development of the integration process in the future. The meeting of the heads of state and government in the capital of Malta – the Council’s rotational Presidency holder in the first half of 2017, aimed to prepare the ground for a common declaration on the occasion of the 60th anniversary in which unity is reconfirmed (despite Brexit) and a direction is outlined for the future development of the European Union. This, however, proved a difficult task, particularly because despite great efforts, the elaboration of a common vision for the future of the EU is a complex endeavor. There have been arguments on the very contents of the declaration – whether it should simply be a celebratory declaration for European unity or should also contain a road map for deepening the integration process, whether to be focused on principles and values or to contain specific steps for the future.
The President of the European commission, Jean-Claude Junker, underlined in his State of the Union speech before the European Parliament in September 2016 that the EU is in an existential crisis. After the summit meeting in Bratislava that same month, the German Kanzler, Angela Merkel, also sent similar message regarding the critical condition and the need for decisions about the European Union.
If the consensus regarding the critical situation and the need for decisions can be described as uniform, the positions on what these decisions might be vary immensely. This can be illustrated and supported by a number of examples. The contentious discussion between the currently former EP President Martin Schulz and the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte during the Davos Economic Forum in January this year is a clear example of the lack of unity on the direction of EU integration. According to Rutte, the aim for “an ever closer Union”, written in the Treaty on the EU, has been buried. On the other hand, Schulz has strongly supported the need for more integration. The argument was so heated that Rutte called for abandoning all romantic ideas as this would be the fastest way for the Eu to dissolve. He added that the sonorous speeches should be ended and a pragmatic approach should be adopted. Angela Merkel signaled a green light during her speech in Malta in favour of a multi-speed European Union and presumed that this may be inserted in the Rome Declaration. It has been a long debated question whether all Member States of the current EU will be able to advance together towards uniform goals or this is unachievable in the future. Multi-speed Europe has its supporters and opponents. A day after Merkel’s speech, Jaroslav Kaszynski strongly opposed a multi-speed EU, foreseeing that this would be the end of the European Union. He is among the adherents of decentralization reforms in the EU and return of competences to the national states. Official positions have been stated in a common declaration by Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. They also support the idea of a differentiated integration in order to respond to the challenges faced by Member States in different ways. The three founding countries have stressed the need for strict compliance to the subsidiarity and proportionality principles, i.e. the EU should concentrate on key priorities and only act when Member States are unable to individually achieve the given objectives. It is crystal clear that the future of the EU needs to be in line with current political realities. The forthcoming elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands limit ambitions and do not stimulate radical decisions. The pro-European political elite seems less convinced in political integration and populist arguments gain speed. Discussions show lack of ambition, fear of decisive actions and of new solutions.
A multi-speed Europe is currently viewed as the “necessary evil”. It is also clear that there are countries whose future membership in a very differentiated Union is uncertain, whether because of their own preference or because they will be unable to join in the majority of future integration projects. In reality, the problem that Member States have to face is how to balance the development of the integration process within a “differentiated” Union. One option is to establish flexibility as a principle of the European integration. The EU can thus be used predominantly as an organizational framework in which Member States play the key role and decide on the level of integration according to their won preferences. Another possibility is the creation of a “core” or “gravitational centre and periphery” in the framework of the institutional structure of the EU. The important challenge, however, is to provide a high level of permeability – i.e. a guarantee that countries which fulfill the necessary criteria can be allowed to join in at a later stage and with the corresponding strategies for supporting their preparation.
These questions are worth reflecting upon in depth and pragmatically. The main challenge remains: how can we move forward together? Moving forward together requires not only tackling the financial and economic consequences of the crisis, limiting unemployment, raising the innovation capacity and competitiveness. The future of the EU is dependent upon the solution of the problems of its cohesion and heterogeneity. A multi-speed Europe will not solve this problems unless there is a shared willingness to achieve economic and social cohesion among all EU members.
The realities of an ever increasing differentiation in the EU predetermine the need for a new European policy in Bulgaria – a policy of intelligent integration. It is related to the need of Bulgaria to develop a clear vision on the developing “new European Union” which reflects both specific Bulgarian interests and the responsibilities stemming from integration. In this view, the active discussions in society are especially important and they should be fostered by public institutions and by political parties.
Will the European leaders succeed in leading Europe towards unity? Will there be a clear response to those who foresee the dissolution of the European Union? All roads lead to Rome…