Saturday marked the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, the foundation of the European Union. To celebrate the date, leaders from 27 of the 28 EU member states gathered in Rome. But what ought to have been a celebratory event was overshadowed by the looming Brexit and a Europe swept up in a populist reassertion of national sovereignty.
Labeled a “unity summit,” the gathering in Rome was aimed at more than merely commemorating the anniversary. EU member states used the occasion to try to reenergize the EU’s mission. But these days that’s a tall order.
Pope Francis, who spoke at the summit, told the EU leaders they must “blaze the path of a new European humanism,” and that Europe’s “patrimony of ideals and spiritual values” are the “best antidote against the vacuum of values of our time…”
But this message doesn’t resonate with many Europeans. For them, the best way to fill the “vacuum of values” is to allow countries to embrace their cultural patrimony and their own values. To them, the EU is just another behemoth bureaucracy lumbering along, micromanaging people’s lives. It’s not something to believe in or put one’s hope in.
All This Fighting Is a Sign of Unity, Guys
The Rome Declaration, signed by all EU member states over the weekend except Britain, proclaims that the EU is “undivided and indivisible.” But this seems woefully out of touch with the realities within the EU political structure and across the continent.
There was tense disagreement between member states over the wording of the declaration, a reminder of the constant struggle of maintaining a quasi-federalist system made up of independent countries. Poland and Greece both pushed back on the text of the two-page document, on the topics of equal representation, security, and austerity measures.
The summit was held just days before Britain triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which provides the mechanism for a formal exit from the EU. Britain’s departure is a major loss for the EU and a reminder that it is not in fact “undivided and indivisible.” EU leaders also fear that Brexit is a harbinger of things to come. France and Germany hold national elections this year, and both have strong anti-EU populist candidates.
At this stage, the EU appears utterly divisible and not at all unified. EU members stressed the importance of the unity of the European states over rising populism, but this only revealed their anxieties.
Le Pen: The EU Is Going to Die
On Sunday night, Marine Le Pen spelled these out when she declared that the European Union is going to die. The leader of France’s far-right populist National Front party, Le Pen told a cheering audience that the time had come to “defeat globalists.”
But while promising to get France to leave the EU if elected, Le Pen says she wouldn’t do so immediately. Le Pen recently said it would need to be done gradually and in “a rational, well-prepared way.” She also intimated that she would look to create a looser kind of European cooperation, what she called “the Europe of the people.”
This is a new softening of tone for Le Pen, but her underlying message is unchanged. In her view, the EU is sick and not getting better. Le Pen may be beyond the pale on numerous issues, but she’s not wrong that the EU has some serious problems.
The EU simply wants to do too much. The organization was originally envisioned in the 1950s as a path to avoiding another major war on the continent. If the European nations could be bound to one another through legal and financial agreements, then there would be less possibility of future aggression. They didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the punitive Treaty of Versailles after World War I. The future, it seemed, lay in cooperation and unity.
But over the years, Europeans have forgotten the dangers that once loomed so large. In many ways, the EU has also forgotten, as its mission has crept far beyond its initial raison d’être.
Millions of People Aren’t Going to Agree About a Lot
What the EU has tried to do with its shared currency and efforts toward uniform immigration and security policies—not to mention all of the micromanaging about everything from food labeling to language rights—is not sustainable without real political unity. This level of control and uniformity cannot be achieved while also respecting the sovereignty of 27 separate democracies.
This tension is a large part of what drove British voters to reject the EU and many French voters to consider doing the same. European countries do not want to give up their national identity or sovereignty. They don’t want policy dictated to them from unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. EU leaders, of course, claim the EU does not ask member states to give up anything. But they do.
The EU underestimates the importance of national identity to most people in the world. People care about where they’re from. They take pride in it. Politicians in Brussels don’t seem capable of understanding how someone could love a nation. It goes against the heart of progressivism, in which all nations are precisely equal and loving one’s particular nation amounts to a kind of implied bigotry.
But nationalism runs deep in Europe. It isn’t something economic policy or excessive bureaucracy can wipe away. Europe’s political establishment dismisses nationalism to everyone’s peril.
Try Running With Le Pen’s Idea a Little Way
Although Le Pen’s rhetorical softening might just be a campaign strategy to win over undecided voters in the second round of elections, her description of a loose European cooperative nevertheless holds some promise. It could be the middle-road solution to maintaining peace and unity on the continent while allowing individual countries to retain their independence. This is the kind of balance needed for any durable cooperation between European nations.
In light of Brexit and rising populism, this is the future for the EU that the leaders at this weekend’s summit should have been signaling. Would Le Pen really follow through with such a moderate plan? If she loses, would the EU be likely to shrink its own power voluntarily? Doubtful on both counts.
Europe is deeply divided between those like Le Pen’s followers, who distrust the EU’s centralized power, and those who’d like to see a stronger federation of Europe. A breaking point eventually will come—whether Europe’s political leaders are ready for it or not.