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The EU at 60: Between Globalism and Nationalism

The EU at 60: Between Globalism and Nationalism

Sixty years after the 1957 signing of the Rome Treaties, on March 25, leaders of 27 EU member states united in Rome to celebrate the anniversary. Britain did not send a representative. The event took place in the midst an existential crisis that has infested the European project. Yet, despite all the pessimism that surrounds the European project, the meeting in Rome showed that leaders remain committed to a strong EU-27 that will play a major role in the 21st century international system. The success of this scenario is contingent upon a concrete internal reform program that includes all layers of society.

The problems facing the European Union since 2008 resulted from a combination of crisis mismanagement, partial institutional failure, and a highly unstable international environment. While these factors are closely intertwined, the focus of attention has gradually shifted to the last of these three issues. The alleged “end of history”, which invested neoliberal thought as the dominant and dominating narrative of the current world order and gave the European project a special momentum in the early 1990s, now seems to turn against its inventors.

Within Europe, the resulting sentiment of confusion and defeat has produced new societal divides that defy the traditional left-right spectrum. Denouncing the negative consequences of globalization, populist forces have emerged as part of the European political landscape. In their quest for power, populist parties prescribe protectionism and the reestablishment of national sovereignty as panacea to all of the EU’s ills.

In so doing they contribute to the widening ideological chasm between globalists on the one side and nationalists on the other. If the EU fails to address these divides as part of a larger reform process, the Union is likely to become bereft of both its cosmopolitan ideals and republican identity.

Aware of the looming danger, EU leaders portrayed the celebrations in Rome “as the beginning of a process for the EU-27 to decide together on the future of their Union.”[1] The message to which the 27 Heads of States committed to when signing the Rome Declaration, is clear: “Europe”, as Council President Donald Tusk put it in a statement reminiscent of the revolutionary language of a Benjamin Franklin, “as a political entity will either be united, or will not be at all. Only a united Europe can be a sovereign Europe.” Tusk shows himself expressively defiant, battling on two fronts—the domestic and the international—when making the case for unity being the requirement for stability, prosperity, and sovereignty.

After three days of high level exchanges in Rome, the EU-27 in their final declaration confirmed Tusk’s position and simultaneously acknowledged Europe’s declining influence on the international scene when stating that “taken individually, we would be side-lined by global dynamics. Standing together is our best chance to influence them, and to defend our common interests and values”.

Unity is portrayed as Europe’s last chance to remain at the table of the world’s major powers. For Europe’s leaders, the EU needs to overcome internal divisions to show external strength. The same message of unity was put to the forth more recently during the first EU Council summit meeting without a UK Prime Minister, during which the remainers agreed on “how to go into Brexit negotiations, set to start in June”. After the meeting, Council President Juncker shared his optimism by tweeting, “Unity in action:#EU27 adopt #Article50 Guidelines in less than 15 minutes. #Brexit”.

Transforming this abstract concept of unity into palpable policies is feasible, yet will take more time and energy than Juncker’s hashtagged tweet suggests. Most importantly, leaders need to concede that the concept of unity cannot be reduced to its intergovernmental meaning, referring to consensus among national governments. The functionalist logic according to which the forces of trickle down and spill over will eventually satisfy the European people as long as political elites agree has proven dangerously wrong.

In other words, it is not enough if the executive branches of the EU-27 are in agreement whilst representatives in national parliaments and citizens continue blaming Brussels for their relative deprivation. Instead, unity must be achieved along both the horizontal and the vertical dimensions of the public sphere, recognizing the needs of Europe’s diverse dêmoi. Only in so doing, the EU-27 will be able to defy populists and disintegrationists.

The challenge is huge. Even if Marine Le Pen is defeated in the second round of the French presidential elections on May 7, thus undermining populist momentum, the tasks the EU has to deal with in the immediate are still colossal:

The EU faces a rising current of populist nationalism in the eastern half of the bloc that puts its democratic values in question. It must deal with Russian aggression and with the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean. The architecture of the eurozone does not work as well as it should and its economic recovery remains uneven. Greece’s debts are still unsustainable; and Britain’s departure will inevitably consume energy and alter the balance of power between member states. [2]

To overcome these problems, the EU-27 agreed on a four-point strategy that envisions a safe and secure Europe, a prosperous and sustainable Europe, a social Europe, and a stronger Europe on the global scene. All four propositions place the European citizen at the heart of the solution. While it is too early to offer a final assessment of a reform that is projected to be realized by 2025, it is striking to see how much emphasis is being put on the military and security dimensions of the Union.

This move confirms earlier attempts of the European Union to refashion its identity as a new and powerful security provider on the international scene. Once and for all European leaders seem determined to bid farewell to the notion of Europe being “merely” a normative power. Instead, they acknowledge the existence of a Hobbesian anarchy and the need for hard power as the ultimate means to assure the survival of the Union. Being a “soft power”, the Commission argues, “is no longer powerful enough when force can prevail over rules”.

Whilst developing common hard power capabilities might indeed help strengthen the EU’s role in the world, leaders should be careful not to undermine Europe’s other commitments to global governance and cosmopolitan rule of law, two of the pillars that have made the EU the actor it is today.

Whilst the current phase of reflection and debate is crucial, the EU cannot stop there. It needs to rally the European people behind specific ideas that allow citizens to identify with this abstract supranational polity. As the Financial Times put it in a recent commentary, “far more important will be rekindling public enthusiasm for the EU. The original architects of the European union combined dry, technocratic pragmatism with a fervent belief, founded in personal experience, in Europe as a political project. This emotional attachment has largely been lost.”

Politicians carry a responsibility to defend the European project and to help create a Europe that speaks to its citizens and is carried not only by elites but also by the people. In order to achieve this situation, Europe needs to become the discursive environment that embeds all other debates. European citizens need to regain trust in this political project that governs so many aspects of their daily lives but seems too distant all the same. In other words, what is needed is a Europe of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Of course, defense is not the only issue area the EU can nor should consider when reinventing its identity as a 21st century superpower. Lots can be gained from constructing a new pan-European identity around issues such as renewable energies, smart cities, improved mobility, the promotion of efficient yet regulated market economies, and the image of a responsible third force be it in the UN or as a powerful member of the global financial institutions.

From a foreign policy perspective, for the EU to remain a successful and credible actor in the international system it eventually must transcend the nation-state. None of the other future scenarios the European Commission considered in a recent White Paper, such as a European Union of different speeds, a European Union re-centered on the single market, or a European Union of opt-outs and cherry-picking are likely to defend Europe’s place in the world to the same extent and with the same effectiveness as a federal Europe.

The transformation of the EU into a new political community transcending the nation-state is the toughest of the tasks lying ahead and likely to lead to major resistance on the part of the member states and their constituents.

However, the outlook for the future of “the only converging meta-national continental arrangement of its kind in the world” is brighter than most analysts currently are ready to admit. The EU experienced substantial crises before and pundits predicted its failure many a time. For sure, the EU needs to undergo a process of thorough reform and address the numerous flaws of its present institutional set-up, but if done so properly, the EU will remain an important global player in the future.

[1] European Commission. 2017. White Paper on the Future. Available at:, accessed on 5 May 2017, p.26.

[2] Financial Times. 2017. The EU has much to celebrate – and to do. Available at:, accessed on 5 May 2017.



Benedikt Erforth

Benedikt holds a PhD in International Studies from the University of Trento (Italy). He currently works as a post-doctoral fellow in the Euro-American Program at SciencesPo (France), where he teaches courses in IR, Foreign Policy Analysis, Political Science, and Comparative Constitutional Law.