In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote last summer Italy's prime minister Matteo Renzi invited German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president François Hollande to join him on the little island of Ventotene, an ancient volcano off the coast of Naples. There, as they contemplated their response to Brexit, and what they called "a new impulse" for the EU, they also laid a wreath on the grave of Altiero Spinelli, a journalist and communist activist, who from his jail cell on the island in 1941 drafted the the Ventotene Manifesto, one of the founding texts of the European project.
Written on cigarette papers and hidden in a tin box with a double bottom, the manifesto “for a free and united Europe” was smuggled out and circulated in the Italian resistance.
Three weeks after the more recent gathering, at the EU's Bratislava summit, leaders pledged that their response to the British decision would be a major relaunch, a rebranding, a new vision for the EU to counter Euroscepticism and rising nationalism. It would be discussed initially at next month's special Rome summit commemorating 60 years of the union (Theresa May, understandably, is not expected to attend) with a view to decisions in December.
The commission was this week discussing its contribution to that debate, its deliberations framed around a series of questions, one of which asked, according to the Euractiv website: “If one of the fathers of the European project were beamed from the prison camp on the island of Ventotene to today, which three achievements and strengths of the European Union would he see as the biggest and most unexpected?”
What’s Europe’s unique selling point, the marketers would say? Sell it strongly! The old “peace in our time” formula, however true, is jaded . . .
This will not be the first time our leaders have tried a rebranding and how to make this time “special” is a real challenge. Most of the old ingredients of previous relaunches appear likely to resurface – above all the idea of re-emphasising the aspects of the union closest to the hearts of citizens: jobs and growth. The emphasis must be, as France’s foreign minister
Jean Marc Ayrault
put it in Dublin this week, “not just a market, but a value-driven project”.
Ayrault’s visit was particularly welcome in expressing France’s strong solidarity with Ireland’s Brexit concerns on the Border and a commitment to stand by the stability of the peace process and reconciliation, which, like the Good Friday Agreement, were an “acquis” not only for Ireland but the EU. His unsurprising caveat that any agreement would, of course, have to respect the fundamental principles of the EU and equality of treatment, was a reminder, however, of how difficult some of this may be.
On EU reform, others are arguing that it’s not just about clearly articulating EU policies but reviewing the shape of the union and its fitness for purpose, crucially steps to closer integration. Concrete proof, they say, not least at a time when the union’s footdragger is leaving, that the narrative of an EU in terminal decline is false.
Speaking in London last week, Italy’s prime minister
insisted that: “We have to move forward in a much bolder way with the member states that are willing to do so. This approach would allow all countries to find a place and a suitable degree of integration within the EU. We need a flexible, reformed and united EU in which different degrees of policy integration can coexist successfully.” This vision of a multispeed Europe that allows the union’s several inner cores to move forward at their own pace has support among the founder states of the union, the Benelux countries,
Ayrault also argued that we can’t expect all to travel at the same speed and that the treaty already provides for such flexibility. The challenge for Rome was to seek out areas where reinforced co-operation could accelerate, citing the euro, defence, energy, technological innovation . . . No revolution, he said, but a clear message of forward momentum.
Ireland's commissioner Phil Hogan was more cautious about Rome in addressing the Institute of International and European Affairs last week. Above all he warned against talk of treaty changes for which the weary public has no appetite.
And there will be nervousness in central and eastern Europe, not least strongly Eurosceptic Poland and Hungary, at any further institutionalisation and separation of inner and outer cores. Giles Merritt, founder of Friends of Europe, a Brussels-based think tank, says of the commission's forthcoming paper: "Billed as the road map for securing economic, financial, fiscal and political union by 2025, it in fact risks revealing the true extent of European disunity."
Rekindling the spirit of Ventotene will not be easy.