The EU at 60: we should not forget what it is really about
Brexit forces Ireland to look at just how superficial some of its EU relationships really are
A van promoting an EU march passes parliament in London. The UK’s impending departure will require Dublin to make a fundamental shift in how it positions itself at European level. Photograph: EPA/Andy Rain
In their eagerness to forge a sense of continental belonging, the stewards of the European project have always been alive to the value of symbols. Some attempts at finding new ones have been clumsy and contentious. Few hearts pound with patriotic fervour at the opening bars of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the European Union’s anthem. What to its advocates is a proud badge of common identity – the single currency – is for its critics an example of how integrationist romance was allowed to trump more prosaic economic imperatives.
Others have been far more successful; the burgundy-coloured passport is for many Europeans a cherished token of the liberating mobility EU membership has given its citizens.
But if you were looking for a symbol of the European project’s greatest achievement you could do worse than cross the Pont de l’Europe, the multi-lane bridge that straddles the Rhine between Strasbourg and the German city of Kehl. A bridge has stood at that spot since 1388, but its history, like that of the surrounding region, is one of destruction and reconstruction, of shifting frontiers and contested rule.
Shortly after the outbreak of the second World War, the French blew up its western end, forcing the Germans to build a wooden replacement. Five years later, in 1944, it was the Germans’ turn to destroy the bridge.
For decades Franco-German reconciliation, and by extension peace in Europe, almost alone gave the European project its raison d’etre and its popular legitimacy. Each state may have had their own reasons for closer integration – France saw an opportunity to guarantee its safety while amplifying its own voice, and Germany sought absolution for the war – but the result was to make armed conflict unthinkable on a continent whose history had been written in blood.
Peace and stability coincided with a period of remarkable growth, turning the heart of Europe into one of the world’s most prosperous economies in the second half of the 20th century.
Today, as the EU marks the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, the concept of European integration is facing existential challenges from all directions. The economy has been slow to recover, the population is ageing, terrorism threatens major cities and instability on Europe’s doorstep, which has resulted in the biggest flow of refugees on the continent since the war, has driven a wedge between member states.
Across the EU, including in its historic core, the populist, Eurosceptic right, feeding off economic discontent and anti-immigrant feeling, is on the march.
And with Brexit the EU project that has lived by the principle of constant forward motion has suddenly discovered a reverse gear, albeit without a rear-view mirror.
Faced with the depth of their own divisions, and ever-louder challenges to the EU’s legitimacy, European leader have shelved what remained of the integrationist ideal of the founding fathers. “The idea of one EU state, one vision...was an illusion,” European Council president Donald Tusk said last year.
Instead, in casting around for the next big idea, it has opted to reject big ideas in favour of the hard-nosed sales pitch of a club that wants it members to renew: “here is what we have accomplished together, and these are the gains you could make in future.”
Access to the single market has fuelled the hi-tech, export-led economic model, while freedom of movement has enabled large numbers of Irish people to work and study abroad. Women’s and workers’ rights have been improved through EU laws and regulation. And that’s without mentioning consumer rights, environmental protections and more intangible benefits such as the role of the EU in facilitating the peace process and helping Ireland to emerge from the shadow of its larger neighbour.
But framing Ireland’s EU membership in these transactional terms (“what has the EU ever done for us?”) carries risks. Many of the gains of EU membership are taken for granted, and being a net contributor to the EU budget, as Ireland now is, changes the dynamic in important ways. Ireland’s question is Europe’s writ small: in a time of political and economic uncertainty, what bonds do we have to fall back on? How strong are the cultural attachments that connect us to the rest of the continent?
In some ways it will force Ireland to confront just how superficial some of its European relationships really are. Take France, for example. While bilateral ties between Dublin and Paris are strong and relations between the two countries are underpinned by real affection, a combination of factors – Ireland’s huge trade reliance on the UK, the cultural influence (and the insularity) of the Anglosphere, different media markets and poor language skills in both countries, for example – have held back the development of a truly meaningful relationship – a shared culture – between the two peoples.
In other words, Brexit will test just how European Ireland actually is. “If I had to do it again, I would begin with culture,” Jean Monnet, one of the European project’s founding fathers, once remarked. You can see his point. Ruadhán Mac Cormaic is Foreign Affairs Correspondent