Despite enormous and myriad difficulties, despite an accelerating loss of faith in the European project, the EU remains one of the great achievements of modern European history. It is in our interest to rejuvenate it.
The Union has provided, or at the very least facilitated, stability, peace and the kind of economic development that changed Europe from a fractured, bellicose place where people endured real poverty, where people lived in the shadow frequent war and persecution, to what it is today. Despite all of its remoteness, despite its democratic deficit, despite its centralised power, despite its cruelty to Greece, despite that it is dominated by two member states and despite the threat of, or more especially because of it, resurgent, hostile nationalism it remains the best option for the people of Europe who long for a cordite-free future.
It is easy to dismiss that view as the established, conservative position but it is, as those who advocated Brexit are finding out, very much harder to offer an alternative, one that might endure on a continent sandwiched between the worlds of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. The EU was established by a generation who lived through catastrophe because they realised that without a common purpose European civilisation would not endure. Today it is not possible to be certain that their pragmatic idealism will prevail. The announcement yesterday from Prime Minster Theresa May, who would not be denied her Nicola Sturgeon moment, that she will trigger Article 50 just four days after the Rome celebrations is an indication of the scale of the challenge. French and German elections fall into that category too.
On Friday, the EU leaders will endorse a European Commission White Paper on the future of Europe. President Michael D Higgins has criticised it, saying it does not honestly address the issues undermining the EU’s credibility. Like most of these documents, it is a series of bland, familiar generalisations couched in impenetrable language — in other words, it epitomises today’s EU. The most disconcerting aspect is that it does not reflect the scale of the problems facing the EU. This must change but how it might, and who might be today’s Robert Schuman or Jean Monnet, is as remote as a labyrinthine EU directive. Much, much more is needed.
Just over 200 years ago Europe was at another crossroads. Napoleon threatened the old order but he was defeated at Waterloo. Just before that defining moment, the Duchess of Richmond held a ball in Brussels that has been described as “the most famous ball in history”. How wonderful it would be if Friday’s celebrations were a precursor to a new revival of Europe and the noble ideals the European Union was built on. If you doubt the value of that ambition consider those who would see the EU fail and imagine, if you can, how our world might change if they were to prevail. The EU, for all it weaknesses, is a cause worth the huge effort required to make it again active and relevant in the lives of all Europeans.