The Rome Declaration and the future of the EU: the dream of few, the hope of none?

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The signers of the 2017 Rome Declaration

The Rome Declaration, signed by 27 European leaders on March 25, 2017, is certainly not only the result of a 60-year long diplomatic journey, but also the outcome of tight negotiations among member countries on how to imagine the future of the EU.

In a divided Europe, which will soon face the triggering of Article 50 by the UK (the 28th current member that was absent in Rome), such a declaration is an act of faith that should be followed by concrete attempts to make the EU work again. To date, and according to EU leaders, what seems to be the only practicable strategy is a multi-speed system of integration that will allow countries willing to cooperate more closely to do so without precluding the participation of current and future member states.

Not only is a multispeed Europe the most realistic option, but also a good compromise between those supporting an “ever closer union” and those who believe Brussels should give some powers back to national countries. Yet, in order to reassure some countries, such as Poland, that would otherwise feel sidelined, multispeed Europe has not been directly mentioned in the declaration. In this respect, depending on their impact and implementation, the Rome declaration and multispeed Europe might turn out to be just another empty attempt to delay the collapse of EU basic bonds of solidarity and its institutional legitimacy, without really addressing the causes of its problems.

It is well known that the EU is facing multiple and asymmetric crises, which are generating a number of internal and external divides. The economic downturn has clearly marked disparities between north and south, while Mediterranean countries have been asking for more flexibility and the implementation of financial and economic mechanisms for risk sharing, not just risk containment. Meanwhile, the northern European countries look at their southern neighbors as the “bad students”. A recent comment by Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem is a concrete example of such a perception. He said the south of Europe is spending all its money on women and drinks, to then ask for help from the more diligent north – a statement Dijsselbloem quickly qualified as metaphorical and half-joking. On the other hand, the migration crisis has been generating an east-west divide. Maintaining that migration is a national issue and not a European one, the Visegrad countries have been refusing to implement any relocation or resettlement scheme, or to receive their quotas of asylum seekers.

To date, security seems to be the one area where there is more willingness to find a general compromise and make some progress. Terrorist attacks, an unstable Middle East, the worsening of relations with Russia and the election of US President Donald Trump are indeed a powerful combination: European leaders seem more willing to recognize that internal cooperation is the only way to keep their citizens secure. Yet, to strengthen common security and defense and make their Rome Declaration effective, there is probably no alternative to  the “Permanent Structured Cooperation” (PeSCo) mechanism envisaged in the Lisbon Treaty. However, the launching of such a PeSCo initiative by four countries (Germany, France, Italy, Spain) was met with fierce resistance by the Visegrad group, solidifying an East-West difference of opinion.

In short, while all member countries would admit that standing alone translates into being sidelined by globalization, when it comes to concrete policy actions on security, some European countries might be reluctant to accept the modalities of more cooperation on military matters. Similarly, although the declaration specifically states that the latter would be complementary to NATO, many European countries, such as Poland, would be extremely careful not to undermine their ties with the Alliance.

Furthermore, both the Brussels institutions and national European leaders are facing a general lack of legitimacy with euroskeptic parties on the rise. In this scenario, it is becoming increasingly difficult for traditional political forces to justify “more Europe”, especially as the EU has meant austerity policies and fewer social safety nets for a great number of citizens. Clearly, the Rome Declaration underlines the need for a “social Europe” to boost sustainable growth, foster welfare and fight unemployment. Yet, it also highlights that this should be done while taking the diversity of national systems into consideration. Indeed, on the one hand, the Visegrad countries strongly oppose the institutionalization of general European rules on minimum wages, for example, as they could lose their competitiveness. On the other hand, countries like the Netherlands and Denmark are reluctant to cooperate more closely with indebted countries such as Italy, Spain and Greece. Indeed, to finance a social Europe, member countries would have to transfer more resources to the EU.

In a historical moment when Europe is not only weak, but risks collapse, the Rome Declaration is certainly a positive sign. However, the internal and external threats the EU is facing, together with the rise of anti-European sentiments among citizens cannot be overcome through rhetoric alone: there is an imperative need for tangible action. It is indeed good to celebrate both the EU and a renovated intention to cooperate among countries, but, in an unprecedented time of crises, much more needs to be accomplished.

In the past, the integration process may have saved European nations and citizens from conflict and economic instability and it might well save them in the future if actions will follow lofty official statements. Otherwise the EU risks remaining the “dream of few” but, rephrasing the declaration, the hope of none.