EU@60 – Five issues shaping the celebratory agenda
EU celebration for 27 member states instead of 28 after the United Kingdom voted for Brexit. Photo: Juris Kraulis/Shutterstock

EU@60 – Five issues shaping the celebratory agenda

EU. On 25 March the Heads of State and Government of 27 European Union member states will meet in Rome to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome and stake out the future direction of EU integration. The meeting, and its planned declaration, was supposed to be the culmination of efforts to insert a new dynamism into cooperation following the decision by the United Kingdom to leave the union. However, recent developments within the institutions and key member states have taken precedence over the more visionary agenda. Björn Fägersten, Director of UI's Europe and Hilda Grönvall, Intern at the Europe program, outline five key issues – on and off the official agenda – that will shape the event and its outcome.

Publicerad: 2017-03-24

 1. It’s not about Brexit: it’s all about Brexit.

After the UK voted to leave the EU, the remaining 27 member states decided to insert a new dynamism into cooperation and to try to establish a positive agenda. The show must go on and the celebrations in Rome were meant to signal just that. For this reason, EU diplomats  warned the UK’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, not to signal the start of formal Brexit negotiations – the article 50 procedure – in direct competition with the meeting. Despite this request, it is clear that the meeting of the 27, in all its ceremonial grandeur, will take place in the shadow of the absent and soon to be departing member. First, Theresa May has finally communicated that she will notify the EU of the start of the exit procedure on 29 March, effectively putting the EU’s negotiation machinery on high alert. Expect EU leaders to use the pauses between ceremonies to fine-tune their positions in advance of the negotiations. Second, the UK’s intention to leave has left its mark on the agenda. Divisive issues such as migration and economic reform have been left out in order to demonstrate unity among the 27. Paradoxically, the previously controversial issue of security cooperation (see below) has been moved centre stage as presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump as well as the challenges of the Middle East increase European cohesion in this area.

2. The year of national politics

Even without Brexit, it is clear that national elections will set the framework for any ambition to renew European cooperation in 2017. The populist politician Geert Wilders created headlines with his controversial and highly Eurosceptic opinions but failed to take a firm grip on Dutch politics. However, the lessons to be drawn from the relative success of the mainstream parties in the Netherlands – with the Social Democrats as a striking exception – will determine political strategy elsewhere. Should populist parties be challenged on their own playing field – with a focus on immigration and EU critiques – or with a more open, liberal agenda? Which strategy will define European political discourse in the coming year, particularly in France if Marine Le Pen makes it to the second round of the presidential election? The German election in September casts an equally stark shadow over the EU’s agenda. Until it is settled, little will be promised and even less delivered on issues ranging from the eurozone to migration. The aim is for the declaration that will be presented this weekend to cover the legacy of the EU, its common values and the future of integration. Given the domestic situation in key member states, expect more about the past, the benefits of cooperation and the need to listen to citizens – and few concrete proposals about the future. 

3. (In)security on the agenda

Several factors have pushed security high up the European agenda and it is likely that it will be further highlighted in the Rome declaration, especially since other prominent issues such as migration and monetary questions are currently more divisive.

First, the security situation has deteriorated with Russia’s resurgence, the ongoing war in Syria and terrorism in Europe – as demonstrated in London this week.

Second, long-term institutional developments culminated last year in the publication of the European Union Global Strategy, which finally replaced the 14-year old European Security Strategy. This has spurred an implementation phase, with much focus on security and defence integration.

Third, Brexit has worked as a catalyst for these ambitions, partly due to the need to show cooperative dynamism but also since the UK had blocked earlier attempts to strengthen such cooperation.

Finally, the election of Donald Trump and his general disdain for European institutions as well as specific European countries has strengthened the idea that Europe must produce a more autonomous strategic capacity to be used within an EU, NATO or UN framework. Thus, somewhat paradoxically, one of the traditionally most controversial policy issues – security and defence integration – has become a priority area for the EU to display its unity. However, here also the politics of differentiation are hampering progress. The chosen formula on Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), which would allow a small number of resourceful states to move further and faster in the defence arena, now seems to have attracted so many member states that the original idea of an avant-garde has been somewhat diluted. Regardless of the cooperative format, however, security – of citizens, member states and borders – is likely to figure prominently in the Rome declaration.

4. Differentiation among member states

The fundamental issue of how the integration of the European Union should develop was one of the big topics of debate as the 60th anniversary approached. That a few committed EU member states must form an avant-garde has been suggested in areas such as the eurozone, the Schengen Area and the Common Security and Defence Policy.

The idea of a union with multiple speeds has been up for debate for many years and is one of the options presented in the European Commission’s white paper on the future of the European Union. France, Germany, Spain and Italy have openly declared their preference for a multi-speed Europe since their meeting of 6 March. The idea of such differentiation has upset the Visegrád countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia), which spoke out against it in their joint declaration on the future of the European Union. The fear is that this would push them further from the centre of power and leave them behind in an EU that has been economically favourable for them. This ‘eastern resistance’ to member state differentiation is perhaps driven in part by other more concrete policy differences, such as on the issue of migration with Hungary, the Polish attempt to prevent the re-election of Donald Tusk as the President of the European Council and the ongoing discussions on the rule of law in both these countries. The polarization and current politicization of the issue make it questionable whether it will surface in the declaration, particularly as unity is the main message of the day. Regardless of the wording of the declaration, the idea of an EU that moves at different speeds, and perhaps even in different directions, is part of several countries’ plans for future integration.  

5. The role of the institutions

Years of crisis management driven by the Council of Ministers and the European Council, and of cooperation initiatives outside of the treaties, have challenged the role of the EU institutions – and the European Commission in particular – in European integration. To this could be added the tendency of member states to scapegoat Brussels rather than take responsibility for the decisions made, a matter that has frustrated the Commission’s President, Jean-Claude Juncker. Perhaps in response, and to force member states to take a position, the newly published Commission White Paper sets out five possible scenarios for EU-27 without naming any preferred option – a process in stark contrast to the feared politicization of the Commission that many argued would be the consequence of the ‘Spitzenkandidat’ process that helped Juncker win his seat.

While EU policymaking in recent years has been marked by ‘new intergovernmentalism’ and even renationalization, the historical role of the institutions in driving EU integration cannot be overestimated. Hence, one of the defining discussions on the integrative path forward will be on the balance between member states and institutions. This balance will be even more complex if more differentiation is introduced between member states.

All these issues will shape the agenda on the Treaty of Rome ’s 60th anniversary. This weekend, differences will be downplayed for the benefit of unity. On Monday morning they will be on full display once again. 

Björn Fägersten
Director of the Europe program at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI)

Hilda Grönvall
Intern at the Europe program at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI)