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60 Years after the Treaty of Rome: Lessons from history for today's EU

Updated Thursday, 23 March 2017
As EU leaders gather to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome against the backdrop of Brexit and rising populism, what lessons can be drawn from history to revive the EU?

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The signing ceremony of the Treaty at the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitoline Hill On 25 March 1957, leaders from six European countries – France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg – gathered in the Italian capital to sign the Treaty of Rome. This agreement created the European Economic Community (EEC), which later became the European Union (EU).  60 years later, leaders from across the EU’s 28 member states will again gather in Rome to celebrate the anniversary of the historic treaty. But the festivities will be dampened by multiple challenges currently facing the EU. 

Just four days after the anniversary the UK is set to trigger Article 50, formally beginning the process of Brexit. Meanwhile,  ongoing financial and migration crises continue to rack the EU, while the rise of populist parties across the continent threatens further political destabilisation. Despite these existential threats, the European Commission (the EU’s executive), has recently published a study setting out five potential future paths for the EU, including a ‘federal leap’ that calls for still deeper integration. As European leaders consider such options for the future of the EU, their decisions should be informed by lessons from the history of the European project.

Understandings of the history of European integration have been shaped by an evocative phrase contained in the Treaty of Rome: that the goal of the process was ‘ever closer union’. According to this interpretation, further integration was seen as both inevitable and desirable, and it was assumed that economic integration (through the creation of the Common Market established by the Treaty of Rome) would simply ‘spill over’ into other areas, culminating in a federal Europe.

Historians of European integration, notably the late Alan Milward, have long challenged the idea that a single European state was either the intention or the likely outcome of the Treaty of Rome. Yet the phrase continues to be used by both proponents and opponents of a federal Europe, and only serves to damage the cause of the European project. For Europhiles it offers no obvious benefits to national citizens across Europe, but it certainly fuels Eurosceptic rhetoric alleging that continued EU membership would inevitably entail the further erosion of the nation state.

Re-reading the Treaty of Rome after 60 years, we must remember that the Treaty originally sought to address specific national interests and priorities. In many ways, the success of the Treaty of Rome can be attributed to the Belgian negotiator Paul-Henri Spaak, who linked the creation of a Customs Union with that of the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM).  The Treaty blended a variety of relatively separate issues into a single package that each country was willing to sign up to. The Netherlands, for example, demanded that economic liberalisation, already underway in the wake of efforts to recover from the Second World War, be entrenched. Dutch producers were dependent on exports, particularly to the resurgent West German market, and feared a return to the protectionism on the 1930s. France, on the other hand, was mainly interested in the integration of transport and atomic energy. Other national interests determined support for these initiatives from among the founding member states. For the former Axis powers of the Second World War (West Germany and Italy), such treaties confirmed their status as respectable members of the international community. For France and the Benelux countries, integration in specific economic areas allowed them to benefit from and, to a certain extent, control the economic resurgence of Germany. By addressing these diverse national interests, with each country feeling that the benefits outweighed the costs, the Treaty of Rome succeeded in winning the support of the six national governments for an ambitious European project.

Britain, meanwhile, chose not to sign up to the Treaty of Rome, feeling that it went against its national interests. Believing that the British Empire and Commonwealth, along with its ‘Special Relationship’ with the United States, were sufficient to ensure British power and prosperity, British governments declined to take part in the first European institutions. By 1961, however, the Suez crisis (a failed British, French and Israeli military intervention in Egypt) and the acceleration of decolonisation had helped to demonstrate the limitations of this strategy. As a result, Britain applied for membership of the EEC. Again, the choice to join was made because the British government felt that the UK would benefit from further integration with other European countries.

As European policy-makers gather in Rome to mark the 60th anniversary of the EEC’s founding treaty, they should be wary of recommendations of a ‘federal leap’. Rather than misinterpreting a striking phrase, they must remember that the destination of the European project is by no means pre-set. Instead, they should look to the history of European integration and innovation.   The Treaty of Rome succeeded precisely because it addressed the needs and concerns of diverse national governments and their populations. If the EU hopes to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, its leaders must be able to present new forms of integration to voters across Europe in a manner that wins their support. 

A longer version of this piece was published as a policy paper on History & Politics.


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