1957 to 2007: Fifty years of the Treaties of Rome – the European idea

Josef Janning


How farsighted! When Europe now looks back to the middle of the last century from today’s perspective of globalization, the process of worldwide economic and social integration, the founding of a common market with the conclusion of the Treaties of Rome in March 1957 appears visionary. Yet Europeans’ remembrance of this event is marked by a feeling of mundaneness – it is the “sociopsychological misfortune”, as the political scientist Werner Weidenfeld called it, that Europe’s successes have been spent and can no longer arouse admiration.

The bold ideal of integration has become part of the banality of everyday life. It certainly demands a lot of politicians, journalists and citizens to keep the European idea in mind when the matter at hand is the third clause of a paragraph in a directive on services or the 45th amendment to sugar market regulations. It is not easy to see the wood, when you are surrounded by trees. Nevertheless, this situation also holds an opportunity, namely that of the rediscovery of Europe, one that reaches beyond the accolades of ceremonial rhetoric, beyond string quartets and choral odes to joy.

What would it be like if this Europe, if this treaty had never existed? We would never have had the euro, nor the effort of familiarizing ourselves with the new currency, coins and prices. Instead we would still have the drawer full of coins and now out-of-date banknotes collected during the last 20 years of summer vacations; there would presumably be frequent currency fluctuations, probably higher inflation and increased government debt. If the European Union (EU) did not exist, then neither would the single European market, but we would probably be pleased about the recent abolition of customs barriers; on the other hand, we would have to live with a plethora of hurdles about which all producers of goods and services would complain. In brief, each economy would try to work according to the principle: export as much as you can, only import what you really need. Many things would be more expensive because of the higher costs and effort involved in trade, but often we wouldn’t notice that because of fluctuations in the values of the different currencies. People would also no longer enjoy freedom of movement. The numbers of migrant and guest workers would be restricted by governments, recognition of foreign occupational and educational qualifications would be the exception, and the “floridaization” of Spain would be an unknown concept, because British, German and Danish pensioners would neither have any entitlement to live in the south, nor could they simply take their pensions with them.

If the Treaties of Rome had never been signed, the EU would not exist as a trading power. Everyone would negotiate individually with the world’s major powers and Europe’s few large countries would notice that they are becoming relatively smaller on their own. On the other hand, perhaps, they would be able to look down on their neighbours, because the rise of northern Italy, the economic miracles in Ireland and Spain, and Finland’s economic transformation would not have been possible without Europe. Without the single market, Europeans would not have been able to benefit from its growth effects. Perhaps it would not even have been possible to maintain democratic stability in the south of Europe if the then young democracies of Greece, Portugal and Spain had not been able to join and receive support from a system of interest harmonization, of common policy and of laws that applied equally to all.

Without Europe, there would be no reason to complain about the profusion of European regulations, but there would also be no comparable legal protection for producers, investors, traders or travellers. There would also be no common voice on the conflicts and crises that affect Europe – the discord during the Iraq war would be the norm. There would be no secur- ity coordination and, as a result, there would be more soldiers, more borders, but fewer measures against crossborder crime.

If this Europe did not exist, neither would the trust that arises from cooperation, joint decisions and common institutions. Certainly, even without Europe, good and close relations would exist between neighbours, but it would be big mistake to believe that the political leaders of Germany and France would assemble for working meetings every six weeks if they did not discuss interests and decisions within the EU setting. Without Europe, nothing would be decided by a majority vote and many things would never be decided jointly. The fall of the Berlin Wall might have been possible without Europe, although even that is uncertain. It is very clear that the young democracies would not be in the position they are today; there would perhaps have been setbacks and special paths. For Poland, Hungary and all the others, the EU accession criteria, EU standards and EU membership assistance were like a double guardrail on a steep and dangerous path. Certainly, the process of German unification would also have unfolded differently, because without Europe distrust of Germany would have had free rein. In fact, Germany – as a result of its history, its size and location, its economic strength – would have found everything much harder without Europe. Its relative predominance would have burdened the Germans, who would have had to deal with defensive reactions and face economic disadvantages as a result of this perception.

Without Europe, we would now miss much of what shapes our everyday lives, generates prosperity and preserves security. Therefore if Europe did not exist, it would have to be invented without delay – but would it be? Would it be possible under today’s conditions to accomplish such a feat when the disenchantment with politics is so great, the endurance of the players so weak and the symbolic power of nation-states on the rise again? Perhaps it would not, because there would be a lack of awareness of the challenge. Probably it would, because our small countries’ lack of problem-solving capacity would be very much more self-evident without Europe. That would probably lead at least to a similar form of integration as a means of compensating for the loss of creative power resulting from globalization.

When the Treaties of Rome were agreed in March 1957 their initial goal was the establishment of a common market. The consequence of this step was not foreseeable at the time, because the dynamism of this process only unfolded over the years in the phased development of this market, in the abolition of import taxes and quotas, in the harmonization of external tariffs, in the development of European competition and antitrust law and eventually the single European market with its many ensuing issues. What Europe experts refer to as “spill-over” became clearly visible here: the abolition of tariff restrictions led to the rapid growth of trade in goods within the community; this in turn made the non-tariff trade barriers the main obstacles to growth; their abolition then meant that goods could pass frontiers without checks, but the transporters could not; this problem was solved by the abolition of checks on people on the basis of the Schengen Agreement; this then led to stronger coordination of internal security to counter crossborder crime. Developmental chains of this kind can be found in dozens of areas – and they all have a common basis: the foundation of the European Economic Community (EEC) by the Treaties of Rome.

For decades the economic and political desirability of this model has been reflected in the expansion of European integration. Neither the European Economic Community, the European Community (EC) nor the European Union pursued an active enlargement policy, but rather gave in to pressure for accession – initially from among the EFTA countries and eventually by opening towards the east and the Balkans. The questions of reform and the political organization of the EU that define European politics today are a direct consequence of the development of the common market and the acceptance of new members. The present crisis, prompted by the two negative referenda on the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, is rather like a disease of affluence. It is the result of the European Union’s great success and appeal, which have made Europe strong and its nations self-confident. Without this success, there would have been no need for the constitutional treaty; without the constitution, however, the future success is called into question.

Europe’s politicians now have to do what they have done on many occasions since the negotiation of the Treaties of Rome: find another strategy or a new approach when the project of integration falls into crisis. Like Europe’s citizens, European politicians also find it difficulty to come to terms with the size of today’s EU, the disparate interests of its members and the ponderous nature of its procedures. It has not yet been possible to find a new balance between large and small and between rich and poor. From the start, integration has also been a social project, involving a balance of interests between industrial growth and free trade, on the one hand, and security of income and development for the rural population, on the other. From the outset, the high-income regions of the community have supported those with lower incomes and, above all, contributed to infrastructure development in rural areas. This relationship also needs to be redefined in relation to the current social issues in the EU of 27.

The European Union is one of the players in the world with global political potential. Yet Europe is vulnerable; its lifelines run far outside its borders and its neighbouring regions are troubled. The range of challenges it faces extend from the waves of migration from North Africa in the southwest, the Middle East conflict, the situation in Iraq and Iran, the conflicts of the Caucasus and Central Asia and on to Moscow and the nuclear legacies of the Soviet Union at the submarine graveyard near Murmansk in the northeast. Europe is increasingly becoming an immediate neighbour of these conflicts and the recipient of requests and demands from other countries and regions.

Preserving Europe’s interests and security in the world, shaping the links with the world arising from globalization and maintaining a balance with the other major powers in international relations will be the next steps of European policy in which the Europeans will have to demonstrate cohesion. This will require a new concept of Europe that will be no less ambitious than the founding idea of creating a common market.

Josef Janning is a member of the Management Committee of the Bertelsmann Stiftung and deputy director of the Center for Applied Policy Research (CAP) at Ludwig Maximilians University Munich.

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