The EU at 60: becoming a community?

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This weekend, on the 25th of March, thousands of people will gather in Rome. The reason is the celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the Rome Treaties: the first impulse for the integration of Europe towards its current appearance, the EU.

As it is customary with anniversaries, this is an opportunity for looking back and evaluate the road travelled so far. Is there cause for celebration? It is easy to answer that yes, there is still cause for celebration: the European Union, in all its historical iterations, has been the most astonishing piece of institutional architecture to ever be realised. Even if it currently is in the midst of a deep crisis, it is only fair to remind what the European Union has meant: 70 years of uninterrupted peace, free trade, the elimination of frontiers between sovereign states and the creation of a new generation of European citizens. Values that have been at the heart of The New European since its start in 2014, as our own use of the EU’s motto “in varietate Concordia” testifies.

And yet, as right and worthy as it can be to remind the EU’s successes, it is not enough anymore.

Notwithstanding its successes and strengths, the crisis currently engulfing the EU has been long in the making, and it is not going away just by means of wishful thinking. The New European is as worried as one can be about the situation: the rise in populisms, anti-immigrant and protectionist feelings runs counter all we have advocated for in these pages.  

Nevertheless, it would be too easy to dismiss all this as a misunderstanding of the real meaning of the EU, or as a lack of knowledge on what it has done: the reason for discontent is much deeper. While the great economic recession has harmed the block, disconnecting its society and creating waves of pessimism, the big global changes in recent years have not been met with enough strength by European leaders and institutions.

As a consequence, even now that the economic crisis has finally ceased, the value crisis of the EU has deepened. A lack of vision has brought that astonishing project near its collapse. And in this, the EU itself bears a huge part of responsibility.

Having lived for a fair amount of time in Brussels, I have experienced myself the increasing disconnect between those “inside the bubble”, as the EU-affairs sphere is called, and those outside of it. A growing chasm has appeared between the opinions, lifestyles, ideas and ways of life of one part of the population, which we might call the “insiders”, and those of the other, which we might call the “forgotten”. This division has grown slowly but decisively in recent years, powered by the discontent by the latter in not being recognised by the former. Until it has manifested its effects electorally, sending shockwaves all around the block. The result is that, unattended by many in positions of leadership, our society is now broken in two parts that are unable and unwilling to talk to each other. Our divisions have created cracks between us, and now are at risk of breaking the EU.

A solution exists, even if it is complicated. If the EU is to be salvaged and become something more than a functional assembly of Member States, it needs a new vision and a new dream. Such a vision can be obtained only by rivaling the one of the populists, closing the societal gaps that have a huge role in their rise: going on the streets, understanding the needs of the “forgotten” in the current economic and societal situation. It is not enough to talk about the good that the EU has done; it is necessary to show it, by acting aggressively on the ground with bold actions, animated by bold ideas.

In order for it to be successful, the European institutions need to decentralise as much as possible their power to act, engaging the society. One way to do that could be to identify ideal ambassadors and champions who can transfer their values on the ground, in their communities. In this regard, New Europeans have a specific role to play. Given their diverse background, their entrepreneurial approach and their ability to bridge cultures, they could reach parts of the society that are particularly disadvantaged and contribute to their improvement. The EU should become a community itself.

As a general message for this weekend’s celebration, then, instead of limiting themselves to institutional renovation, this is what the EU leaders should discuss in Rome: how to transform the European Union into a community.  Only in this way, they would be able to revive the EU’s values. In order to survive for the next 60 years, the EU should rediscover its heart.

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