As the European Union turns 60 years old this year, both pundits and detractors are looking at the shape and fate of the post-World War II experiment. Now comprising 28 member countries, what we now call “the EU” began with the signing of the two Treaties of Rome on March 25, 1957. One of the treaties, the European Economic Community (EEC), laid the foundation geographically and philosophically for the current framework and ideals of the European Union.
Although most of the EU countries in the decades since World War II have seen unprecedented prosperity, disparities exist and inequalities are widening in some places. What continues to bind them together, however, is the reason for the EU’s creation: the desire to work together for economic and military security against the threat of outside forces, particularly from the East. Yet as EU member countries have sought to integrate and enlarge with the admission of new member countries, the block’s political aspirations and common values are no longer “givens”.
Perhaps like the Roman Empire itself, whose capital is named in the EU’s founding treaty, critics argue that the European Union has grown too quickly and failed to keep pace with the complex political, economic, and social changes not just beyond the EU’s borders but within its own foundation. To consider that the United Kingdom—a founding EU member and the second largest economy in the bloc—just initiated its withdrawal from the EU, is as much of a shock to the global nervous system as was the election of a reality television personality and real estate baron to be U.S. president. Both events are starkly and profoundly challenging our ways of doing business—and ways of life—but where there is uncertainty, there is also opportunity.
Today the landscape of the EU stretches from the northern tip of Finland near the Barents Sea, to the eastern shores of Romania and Bulgaria on the Black Sea, to the southern Greek isles in the Mediterranean, to the western edge of the continent along Portugal’s rugged coastline. Within those boundaries, the EU experiment continues to strive for peace and prosperity, growth and expansion, and engaging political discourse.
While the EU was not yet envisioned when Irish poet William Butler Yeats penned The Second Coming, his famous lines that “the falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;” were portentous. Six decades into the EU framework, we are at an inflection point. Whether one sides with the plaudits of the societal successes of EU integration or with EU detractors pointing at the UK’s withdrawal or “Brexit” as an example of the bloc’s fraying edges, we should take stock of what has been achieved to date. Whatever the perspective, the center will continue to hold so long as we value, preserve, and protect democratic institutions wherever they exist.
Despite their imperfections, both the EU and U.S. are experiments in democracy worth preserving and protecting.
The alternative we have seen, and with it, atrocities not to be repeated.