EU declaration to voice unity in troubled times
By Eszter Zalan
Four days before one of its largest members, the UK, will officially notify fellow EU countries of its intention to withdraw its membership, the remaining 27 leaders of the European Union will gather in Rome on Saturday (25 March) to recommit to the idea of European integration.
The event comes at a turbulent time.
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The UK’s vote to leave has cracked the historical unity of the bloc, while the new administration of US president Donald Trump has questioned security guarantees for Europe.
At the same time, a revanchist Russia is waging a propaganda and cyber war against the EU on the side of anti-EU nationalists, while the unresolved migration crisis has led to a resurgence of xenophobic and far-right feeling.
Rome will not be a time for deep reflection, however.
Even if they disagree about the way to move ahead, EU countries agree on the one thing they have to demonstrate in the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitoline Square, where founding members have signed the Treaty of Rome 60 years ago: unity.
The draft text of the Rome Declaration, seen by EUobserver, says that "standing together" is the best chance to influence global dynamics.
"Europe is our common future,” the two-page document says.
Whether the display of unity will convince the European public or overseas powers is another matter.
Last minute wrangling over the text of the Rome Declaration indicates how hard fought that show of unity has been.
Poland, led by a nationalist government, has vowed to block any references to a multi-speed Europe, a kind of deeper integration among core members that risks leaving others, such as Poland, behind.
In the end, a classic EU-style consensus seems likely to prevail.
The original formulation was watered down to ease Polish worries.
An EU official said so as long as no new EU mechanisms for integrating at different speeds were to be introduced in the Rome document, opponents of the multi-speed Europe idea could be tamed.
“We will act together in different paces and intensity when necessary, while moving in the same direction … in line with the Treaties, keeping the door open to those who want to join later," the draft Rome text says.
"Our Union is undivided and indivisible,” the document says in the context of the multi-speed issue.
In another row, Greece has threatened not to sign the declaration if it does not include references to respecting national social rules.
Its potential veto represents an effort to push creditors during ongoing bailout condition to defend some of its labour and social laws, but sources say it is very unlikely that Athens will block the text in the end.
The draft Rome document attempts to address the scars left by the euro crisis, terrorism, and the migration crisis.
It seeks to portray the EU as a global leader despite Brexit and the new US administration’s protectionism.
In a reccurring mantra, the draft pledges that the EU will "listen and respond" to all concerns by citizens and engage with national parliaments. It promises to deliver results, and to be big on big issues and small on small ones.
In a thinly veiled response to Brexit and the new US administration, the draft declaration calls for "a stronger Europe on a global scene”.
Sending a message to other countries, it promises "further developing existing partnerships and building new ones”.
The Rome Declaration's 10-year old sister, the Berlin Declaration emphasised the fight against terrorism, organised crime, and illegal immigration with a pledge to fight racism and xenophobia.
It also said the EU would promote freedom, democracy and prosperity around the world, fight climate change and stressed the union’s openness.
Rome’s language is more dark and somewhat bolder.
It describes the “unprecedented challenges” facing the union - terrorism, migration, protectionism, social and economic inequalities.
But instead of openness, it promises to strengthen the external borders of the EU, to create an effective migration policy, and to strengthen common security and defence.
It also vows to create growth and jobs and to strive for a social Europe, which would - in a nod to those who want to avoid EU harmonisation on social issues - “take into account diversity of national systems”.
Risk of complacency
Janis Emmanouilidis, an analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, said Rome should not be expected to be “a historic milestone”.
“This exercise is about trying to portray unity among the 27,” he told EUobserver.
He said the draft Rome Declaration does not even try to build consensus over “hot potatoes”, divisive issues such as the future development of the union, the monetary union, or the solidarity aspect of migration.
“The text has been watered down on what needs to be done because there is no agreement among the 27,” Emmanouilidis said, adding “everyone is aware that showing unity is the maximum to be achieved” in Rome.
That is not to be underestimated though.
“Showing unity in itself has become a key objective in a Brexit world,” he said.
Emmanouilidis said that with the Dutch election out of the way and with little chance of far-right leader Marine Le Pen becoming president of France, there could be a "political window” to move ahead on controversial issues.
He said the likely election of either Angela Merkel or the strongly pro-EU Martin Schulz as chancellor in September in Germany also helped.
“I fear there is a risk that at the end of 2017 there will not be an ambition to use the window of political opportunity, and there will be complacency,” he added, however.
He said that such behaviour would fuel populist sentiment in the long term.