Earlier this year, leaders from the European Union (EU) gathered to mark the 60th anniversary of the 1957 Treaty of Rome, a treaty which first laid the foundations for an ever closer union – shaping the future of the EU in the process.
In principal, the idea of ever closer union has never offered the EU any particular competencies, nor a legal basis to forge closer political ties amongst its member states. However, the case has been different in practice. In reality, the European integration project has always been centred on deepening political and economic ties, driven from the top. Take, for example, the research of EU lawyer and legal theorist Gunnar Beck, who found the European Court of Justice (ECJ) regularly referred to adhering to the ‘spirit’ of EU treaties in its court cases i.e. achieving an ever closer union – an objective “regarded as the master value of the EU legal order”.
This underlying objective, which has driven EU behaviour, has been viewed by certain member states as the EU unjustifiably imposing itself. This desire – seen in the UK as overreaching and overbearing technocratic influence – was one of the drivers of Euroscepticism, wide scale disapproval of the EU institutions, and in turn Brexit too.
What is clear is that although the EU has made momentous progress towards deeper economic and political integration over the past 60 years – whether that be through the introduction of the euro, the creation of the European Single Market, and/or ensuring the freedom of movement, for example – hurdles have continuously prevented the EU from making further strides towards an ever closer union.
For example, there is irony in that one of the EU’s greatest achievements, the euro, has in the past decade caused turbulence and deep divisions within the union. The global financial crisis (2008), shortly followed by the European debt crisis of (2009 – present) began to fray the ties binding the EU member states. Now, to this day, some of the Northern member states still hold hostility towards the South, for their alleged lack of commitment and discipline to maintain budgetary stability.
Elsewhere, a lack of compassion and cooperation in dealing with the migrant crisis has heightened tensions between member states, too. Although funding has been arranged to support settling refugees from the Middle East and Africa, member states have looked to each other to take the lead in hosting refugees on their own soil – something possibly only a handful of European countries can claim to have done willingly. Instead, member states have sparked a war of words over who, and how many refugees each state should support – raising doubt over free travel across the Schengen area. Look no further than elected French president Emmanuel Macron’s recent remarks towards Poland – insisting that the Eastern partner should face sanctions for refusing to host refugees.
More recently, as the French Presidential election and British referendum have shown, the European integration project may well continue to be constrained by strong right-wing populist and nationalistic pressures. For example, despite Macron having gained over 65% of the electorate vote, right-wing extremist Marine Le Pen’s campaign illuminated the deep divisions within the country on key topics such as immigration, security and EU membership itself. These are not ideologies and viewpoints that will disappear overnight, that’s for sure.
Add to this, a flagging Italian economy, with a growing Eurosceptic political party in the Five Star Movement – one which is likely to cause serious threat to Italy’s EU membership, should they govern the country after the next national election – and then Poland and Hungary – both shifting in an entirely different direction to their western counterparts, veering towards an anti-democratic, illiberal model. It is this ideological divergence, and flailing display of European solidarity, which threatens the entire European integration project.
The European integration project outlined its goal of ever closer union in the Treaty of Rome, but with rising internal tensions and growing nationalist agendas, it seems as if the Lisbon Treaty signed 50 years later in 2007 may be the last attempt – in the foreseeable future at least – to pursue deeper integration. This may give impetus to the two tier integration model, or may be an indication that a new approach is needed all round, if the EU is to dampen the voice of its opponents.