When 27 EU leaders gather in Rome later today (24 March) to celebrate the EU’s 60th birthday the atmosphere will be sombre and restrained. Just a few days after the Rome summit, the UK will start the process of formally exiting the EU.
Britain’s decision to leave the EU was a shock but now the 27 member states have to focus on how to rekindle public support for the integration process that has helped bring peace and prosperity to Europe for over half a century.
There are still many problems facing the EU including populism, migration pressures and slow economic growth. But the defeat of the populist, Geert Wilders, in the Dutch elections last week could mark a reversal of the populist tide that has made rapid progress across Europe in recent years. Next month France goes to the polls and although Marine Le Pen may come out top in the first round she will not win the decisive second round. The new French president is likely to be Emmanuel Macron, the pro-European centrist. In Germany, which votes in September, the left and right-wing populists are unlikely to challenge the dominance of the centrist CDU and SPD parties.
The number of migrants is also down while economic growth is slowly picking up. The IMF forecasts EU growth at 1.2% in 2017. Not great but moving in the right direction, and importantly unemployment is also falling.
Although the EU will not be ready to take any major steps forward until after the various elections this year, it is clear that the Union will maintain its multi-speed approach. This means that those member states that wish to move faster in a policy area (e.g. adopting the Euro) can do so as long as the door remains open for others to follow. Defence and fiscal policy are two areas where a small group is likely to set the pace from 2018.
The EU also has to cope with an American administration that is turning its back on globalisation. Trump’s ‘America First’ policy has serious consequences for the global economy. Despite strong pressure from the EU, the US Treasury Secretary refused to endorse the standard language in favour of free trade at the G20 finance ministers meeting in Germany last week.
The EU will thus remain a champion of globalisation and seek allies such as Japan and China to reject protectionism. In addition the EU will continue to support regional integration in other parts of the world from ASEAN in SE Asia to Mercosur in South America to ECOWAS in Africa. EU Trade Commissioner Malmström agreed last week in the Philippines to restart negotiations for an EU-ASEAN trade deal while talks are continuing this week on an EU-Mercosur deal. Trade deals with India, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand have either been signed or are in the pipeline. The EU is thus still the most important trade actor in the world as well as the largest provider of development, technical and humanitarian assistance.
It is also the anchor of stability for a ring of countries in its neighbourhood. Without the carrot of membership there are limits to what changes the EU can demand. But the recent visa liberalisation agreements for Ukraine and Georgia demonstrate the important pull effect of the EU.
As a mature sixty-year old, the EU can look back with quiet confidence in its achievements, promoting peace and prosperity throughout the continent based on democracy, human rights and a common set of laws. It is the main pillar of globalisation and it can still offer much useful advice to regional groupings. The birthday bloc deserves a toast.
Published in EurActiv