Featured Image courtesy of the European Parliament via Flickr.
If the last year is anything to go by, the European Union is going to need more than a single ‘day of unity’ to keep it together.
The challenges it faces keep stacking up. Since the first Coronavirus cases were confirmed in France on January 25th last year, there have been 50,722,884 confirmed cases and 1,074.175 deaths (May 6th 2021).
As the headlines and our lives continue to be dominated by the virus, conversations around the failings around the vaccine rollout are beginning to emerge. With the European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen, earlier this year, admitting that delays in authorisation and unrealistic production and distribution goals have stunted progress and risked lives.
And as the world yearns for a future beyond the Coronavirus pandemic, the EU must finally face its overloaded inbox, littered with problems that it has left on read for the last year.
But surely those emails can wait another day? Today - the 9th of May- marks Europe Day and 71 years since the Schuman Declaration. And it is a day that the Meridian’s Europe section simply could not ignore.
What is Europe Day?
The clue’s in the name. It is first and foremost about Europe and Europeans coming together in the name of “peace and unity”. The day shares its origins with a speech made by the then French Foreign Minister, Robert Schuman. He is described affectionately as the ‘Architect of the European Integration Project’. He is the EU’s founding father, if you will.
In this speech, coined the Schuman Declaration, he laid out plans to create the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). Of course, the proposal to share coal and steel resources was far from random. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Schuman believed that sharing the materials most crucially associated with conflict would make another war in Europe impossible.
In April 1951, six states (France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands) signed the ECSC agreement in Paris. The treaty was ratified a year later and quickly began to expand to include more members. Although the ECSC treaty expired and was subsequently dissolved in 2002, without it we would not have the EU we know today.
Is the day still relevant 70 years on?
Europe Day seems to have done what it was prescribed to do. It was the vaccine for hundreds of years of conflict. And over 70 years on, most of us would be satisfied in saying what was between European nations appears unthinkable.
With this in mind, why do thousands of people every year still mark it with visits, debates and all kinds of events?
1.It is the EU’s origin story
Asking why we have a Europe Day is the political and economic union equivalent of why do we even celebrate birthdays? Except it is worse because birthdays happen to us. For whatever reason, that day is marked with cake and candles but we did not actually do anything. But the EU has inspired decades of peace and cooperation, established a world-leading market economy and brought together 27 countries with 446 million people in all their cultural and linguistic diversity. I think we can give them a day.
2. Europe’s citizens are far from united
According to the European Commission’s Eurobarmonter poll published this week of 27 EU states and 12 non-EU countries (including the UK), general trust in the EU is higher than it has been in a decade (49%) which is up by 6% from last year. This would be welcome news if the same poll had not revealed that trust in the EU to make the right decision in the future had fallen in 17 countries including Germany, Belgium and Latvia. While historically Eurosceptic nations like Austria (50%), Czech Republic (53%) and Greece (55%) also reported high levels of distrust.
It appears that not only can Europeans not agree on what Europe’s future should look like but a considerable number do not trust the EU to get them there. Following the Brexit fallout, Italy was pegged as the next member of the ‘big four’ to leave the EU after a Redfield and Wilton Strategies survey revealed that nearly half of Italians would vote to leave the EU, if Brexit proved to be financially beneficial to the UK in the next five years. And Italy is not the only one. The Guardian published research by University of Amsterdam’s Matthijs Roodujin, in March 2020, that declared that support for ‘Eurosceptic’ parties had doubled in the last 20 years.
What is notable here is while populist parties have shied away from calling referendums on the issue or from even using the term 'Eurosceptic’ as a result of growing criticism towards ‘Hard Eurosceptic' groups like Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy. Instead, political parties that are critical of the EU’s policies and practices but not the organisation itself, often opt to identify as “euro-realists” like former Czech President Václav Klaus. Rather than a one-size-fits-all term, we now have a sliding scale from ‘Anti-Europeanism’ to ‘European Withdrawalist’ or ‘Reformist’. Whatever face it chooses to wear, “when it comes to actual voting behaviour and parliamentary representation, Euroscepticism is still alive and kicking,” according to Rooduijn.
3. “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan”
There will not be any prizes for guessing who said those incredibly pertinent words but I will give you a clue, he is a pretty big deal and you know who he is.
*Ding ding ding*
Let us assume you all guessed Robert Schuman or at least you know how to use Google. In that acclaimed speech that we now know as the Schuman Declaration, he reminded us that Rome - nevermind the rest of Europe - was not built in a day. Instead, he prophesied that “it will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity”.
Europe has faced challenges for a lot longer than the Schuman Declaration and the EU has been around and I will wager, it will likely face a lot more still. And while the issues I have hinted at, in this discussion, have only scratched the surface. Not to mention all the obstacles that I did not have space to space to touch on. From its heart-breaking refugee crisis, equal rights disparities, Covid-19 recovery and the constant threats to its democracies. All of which have and will continue to feature prominently here in the Europe section because these stories are created by a talented group of writers and editors who care about what Europe, and Europe Day, stands for.