All roads lead to Rome – where Saturday’s 60th anniversary celebrations of the Rome Treaty took place – but there is no single or clear pathway beyond it. There is widespread demand for change and new energy but, simultaneously, an equally widespread sense of helplessness in defining what change ought to mean and where the energy should come from.
We can take some comfort from patterns of the past 60 years. Integration typically moved in two-decade cycles. A period of optimism and dynamic progress, from the end of war to the mid-60s, was followed by the era of “post-Luxembourg” pessimism and stagnation, in turn followed by a major reset of integration in the shape of the Single European Act, Schengen and culminating in the enlargement process of the early 2000s. Hence, it could be that now, after a decade of stagnation and crisis since the failed constitutional project of 2005, the EU stands on the verge of another renewal. But there is no determinism or inevitability about it. Too many possible ‘futures’ – including disintegration – are possible: indeed, my own country’s history teaches us that every political order appears eternal just until the moment it falls apart. It is our common duty and opportunity to actively shape the EU’s destiny.
The first step is grasping the source of our present condition. There are no single reasons for the EU’s current crisis, just as there are no silver bullet solutions to it. But if one concept captures it best, it is alienation. Too many Europeans feel excluded from decision-making, unable to reap the benefits of the European project, deprived of control over their own lives, remote from liberal political institutions and the “elites” – political, technocratic, bureaucratic, but also cultural – who embody them. The fact that anti-establishment and Eurosceptic forces provide a misguided and dangerous antidote does not make the problem of alienation any less real. Its sources are complex, from physical and cultural insecurity to social injustice and failures of democratic accountability. Underlying them is a more existential and omnipresent uncertainty – a sense of ‘end of the future’ – amidst fragmentation of the liberal international order and a digital revolution that may well re-shape the very concepts of work or freedom.
What should be our collective political response – as the EU? First of all, we should avoid the trap of endless institutional fights and inward-looking debates over integration, sovereignty and identity. We should resist the temptation of radicalism when it comes to changing the EU’s basic institutional framework. Any push for Treaty revision would, in my view, be self-defeating and counterproductive, opening a Pandora’s box of power struggles and paralysis. But “staying in Lisbon” need not and must not mean inaction. The EU does need radical change: but in its political vision rather than in its institutional foundations.
From my perspective, the fundamental question is not about tighter or looser integration, or faster or slower lanes, or distribution of power between Brussels and Member States. Rather, the fundamental question is what kind of society – European and Czech – do we aspire to build. This, in my view, must be a vision of a society that balances individual freedom with political cohesion, economic opportunity with social justice, security with openness, and an acute sense of history with the ability to adapt to new challenges. What does it imply in terms of immediate priorities for the EU?
First, a stronger emphasis on social cohesion. Further liberalisation of the internal market must go hand in hand with strengthening of the European social pillar, including the possibility of a future European minimum wage standard. If we want to protect and deepen the four freedoms central to European integration – in particular, labour mobility – we ought to develop an effective and fair governance of the EU’s labour market. That post-WWII establishment of welfare state went hand in hand with the very process of European integration. Equality must come again to be construed as a European issue, lest we end up in a self-destructive “race to the bottom”. Combating tax evasion and predatory optimization practices must be a part of our efforts. Taming the excesses of a financial oligarchy is only possible at a European level.
Second, we must ensure that that the opportunities arising from the digital revolution are accessible to all. The EU must play a major role here, through greater investment in education, science, innovation, and completing an efficient digital market. In the longer term, we should think about a common framework for addressing the many transformative challenges looming on the horizon – not least the advent of robotization – for which, almost by definition, national responses will fall short.
Third, the EU must assume responsibility for protecting its citizens. This implies a capacity to project stability in Europe’s neighbourhood, and assert European interests and values globally. Without duplicating NATO’s role in collective defence, the EU must develop an autonomous and effective security policy, including through greater pooling of resources and capabilities. The same applies to internal security, from border management to intelligence and law enforcement. Effective cooperation to ward off terrorist or hybrid threats is indispensable to alleviating our citizens’ sense of insecurity, which fatally erodes trust in European values and the European project as such.
In charting a path beyond the Rome summit, substance must take precedent over process and institutions. This is particularly important in the context of the debate on a multi-speed Europe. I understand the logic of efficiency implied in differentiated integration. Yet we must all also acknowledge its risks to European unity – in particular if multi-speed leads to discourses of exclusion and institutionalized division between the core and the periphery, going against the very spirit of the Rome Treaty. Hence, it is vital that integration initiatives remain entirely open, inclusive and permeable, unfolding under the existing Treaty provisions and subject to a political consensus of all 27 countries. Our imagination should be one of overlapping communities inside a single framework, not one of concentric circles or core-periphery dichotomies. There is no silver bullet to extricate Europe from the multitude of crises, nor any single pathway to renewal 60 years after Rome. But our best chance is a positive vision of the future that Europeans can shape together.