The celebration of 60 years since the signing of the Treaty of Rome, which established the European Union, was made with pomp on the Old Continent, the event being foreseen, in the face of today’s massive provocations, as a new beginning on the path of deepening continental integration. Why do we underscore massive provocations? Because just a few days after the Rome Summit last month, UK operationalised Article 50 of the treaty, triggering the process of leaving the EU, already endorsed by the British electorate in June 2016 (the so-called Brexit). In other words, the celebration of the founding coincided with one of the great European powers leaving the organisation. And this is a sign of weakness, because the traditional demons of the struggle for power in Europe have already started circling. On one hand, in the UK, Scotland is already preparing for a new independence referendum that would allow it to remain in the EU, and in Northern Ireland the calls for an exit from the UK are growing in number, so that Brexit could foreshadow an Enxit.
On the other hand, Spain has officially declared that it is asking for special clauses concerning Gibraltar, something that awakened old warrior instincts across the Channel. Ancient Spanish territory, annexed by the UK in 1713 as a result of a treaty, the people of Gibraltar voted in proportion of 96 percent in favour of remaining in the EU. On 2 April 2017, in the face of this incident which was given disproportionate newspaper coverage in the UK, G. Rachman noted on Twitter: “Gibraltar row shows why we have the EU in the first place: to get countries to drop nationalist grievances. Without EU, it all pops back up.” Apart from the issue of Gibraltar, which announces not quite easy negotiations for the UK – especially regarding the signing of a new accord with the EU following the legitimisation of the exit –, the older challenges that are yet to disappear are standing before the European organisation.
We are talking about the Ukrainian crisis, which includes EU sanctions on Russia for the annexation of Crimea in 2014, as well as the issue of refugees from the South, closely connected to the civil war in Syria, with a deterioration of relations with Turkey intervening more recently. If this concurrence of challenges at the EU borders was not enough, it is worth adding the member states’ sovereign debt crisis, a new edition of the bulky Greek dossier emerging at the horizon. Let’s add to this explosive cocktail of challenges the fact that the situation in Libya is far from settlement, and the new Trump administration in the US, while becoming the traditional backer of NATO, is not showing the same openness toward backing the existence of the EU.
The somewhat “business as usual” tone adopted at the Rome Summit also attracted retorts that are less polite but based on the historical truth. This is, at least, the case of the known British strategist Julien Lindley-French, who posted on his blog, on March 27, an assessment of what he calls the “true history” of the 1957 treaty. First, he notes a symmetry between the founding summit in 1957 and the anniversary summit in 2017: both took place without the United Kingdom.
And this reality of the 1957 act “was at one and the same time more prosaic and more strategic than the vaguely elegiac Commission narrative.” French basically proposes an alternative narrative to the one that dominated the event that took place two weeks ago in Rome. In French’s narrative, the 1950 treaty establishing the Coal and Steel Community, signed by “The Six” that will go on to become the founding members in 1957, is the veritable EU founding treaty. Because, Lindley-French argues, for France it was essential for Europe to no longer become the target of a reborn Germany, and thus, with a joint heavy industry (coal and steel) it was more difficult for the Teutons to carry out a new warlike attempt. In fact, in the same line of argument, French shows that two treaties were signed in Rome in March 1957, the second, not mentioned this year, being the treaty known as Euratom, which forecast the development of an “European Atomic Energy Community” at a continental rather than national level.
Yet, today it is known which are Europe’s nuclear powers. The essence of the mentioned agreements between “The Six” signatories – Lindley French shows – was revealed by the EU’s Maastricht Treaty of 1991, which also sanctioned Germany’s unification. Paris, French argues, “feared that a united Germany would come to dominate Europe and that the German Bundesbank would be the main architect of that dominance. Therefore, French President Francois Mitterand demanded the Euro as the price for the New Berlin, with a European Central Bank that would both oversee the currency, and ensure it was European, not German.” Hence, fear of the rebirth of German hegemony on the continent, which was seen in the Second World War, prompted Paris to look for ways of containing German power in 1950 as well as in 1957 and 1991.
Another relevant episode of Paris’s orientation was the setting up of the so-called “European army,” more precisely of the “European Defence Community” (EDC). The project was launched in 1950 by Paris itself, as a shield against Germany’s rearming (West Germany was welcomed in NATO and its rearming was allowed in 1955). But, gradually, the “European army” issue became a sensitive topic precisely in France, where the fear of losing the independence of its own army prevailed over the French legislative. But there was another energic opposition to this initiative – French argues –, namely that of the United Kingdom, where Winston Churchill was about to state, in May 1953, when asked whether he will join the “European army”: “we are with them, but not of them.”
In the end, French asks what are the lessons for today. And the answer he identifies starts off from the observation that “the question of a European Germany or a German Europe remains pertinent, particularly so now that Britain the Balancer is leaving the EU. And/…/ European state interests are still the driving force in European politics on a continent where history never sleeps.” Here is this answer: “With a broke France and a broken Britain it is clear that Germany will decide Europe’s course. German interests WILL come first.” However, he optimistically concludes that “Thankfully, it is today’s Germany not some other Germany.”
Hence, in Lindley French’s narrative, the celebrations that took place in Rome last March should not make us forget the issue at hand – “a German Europe or a European Germany,” an issue that remains pertinent today too, following the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the continent and with an unreformed France. On such a continent, German interests will have priority. Could this be one of the hidden reasons for Brexit? Has London possibly decided to resume its traditional role of balancer of power on the European continent, precisely because of Germany’s unsettling growth? At any rate, Lindley French’s narrative suggests just that.