The European Union: A Hard but Successful Venture

Presidents & Prime Ministers, September-October 1996 | Go to article overview

The European Union: A Hard but Successful Venture


In its almost forty years of existence, the process of European integration has swung remarkably between moments of enthusiasm and pauses of pessimism. Today one even hears the word "Europhobia", a term that we sincerely feel goes too far. This is particularly so because we all remember even harder times, from the failure of the EDC to the recent Danish referendum. But we also recall moments of great success, from the 1973 enlargement to the adoption of the European Monetary System in 1979; from direct elections to the European Parliament to the great reforms to the Treaty of Rome.

From Community to Union

Some aspects of continuity mark the course of the history of European integration in its move from Community to Union. These elements of continuity appear from the outset, from the creation in the first ten post-war years of those international arrangements from which the ECSC, Euratom and then the EEC took root.

There immediately emerged the forms of that "policy of markets", to which De Gaulle counterposed "la Grande Politique ". His view was much more grandiose, aiming to make Europe the third superpower. It shunned the strategy of small but steady steps that instead marked the option in favor of functionalism as the main method in the integration process.

The successive steps taken by integration were marked by that initial approach, entirely centered on favoring the placing in common of the largest number of sectors making up the productive reality of countries taking part in the Common Market, with the constant commitment to convert along the way, step by step, what might seem typical features of free-trade areas into much more structured supranational institutions endowed with increasingly larger autonomous powers in relation to the Member States.

The events that lead to this approach also contributed in parallel to the delayed take-off of the Community's forms of political integration. Political integration, which if the EDC and EPC had been born in the fifties might have been the main feature of a Europe that would look quite different from the one we know, instead remained atrophied for the forty intervening years. This Europe has readily been termed an economic giant but political dwarf, its fragility from these viewpoints emerged dramatically in the events of the war among the Republics of former Yugoslavia.

All these features of continuity were, then, in some way or other linked to that original sin - the economic rather than political Community - that was perhaps, looking at things more realistically, the secret to gaining over these forty years successes that it would likely have been impossible to reach any other way.

The point now is to assess how far it is possible to continue along this path, and how far instead the Maastricht Treaty marked a turning point of such importance as to compel a different approach.

Features of Difficulty

Today, it is true, Europe is at a historic turning point of enormous transformations and complex choices. As always happens in these cases, pessimism tends to prevail. This is partly because there is no doubt that as we gird ourselves for a new process of reforming the Treaties, we are today facing at least two major difficulties.

The first is that public opinion is disoriented in relation to Europe. Apart from growing unemployment, which now affects 18 million Europeans, or 11 percent of the active population, and the difficulties of adjusting to economic and monetary union, a source of concern vis-a-vis the Union, the reasons for disaffection touch also on the question of legitimization of the integration process, its degree of real democracy, transparency and comprehensibility to the citizen: the citizen still finds it hard to feel himself an active part of Europe.

The second difficulty, closely linked with the first, is the lack of an overall "vision" of the future of Europe, its shape and its strategic role; in other words, the absence of a political design able to mobilize energies and consciounesses and explain to the citizen the reasons why the Community project is a good thing. …

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