Speaking to the BBC today, the president of the European commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, described Brexit as ‘a failure and a tragedy.’ The scale of the tragedy will be underlined this weekend when EU leaders – minus the British PM – will gather in Rome to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the signing of the founding treaty of European integration and add their signatures to the Rome Declaration, a two-page summary of EU achievements and the challenges which the organisation now faces.

We, the representatives of 27 member states of the European Union, take pride in the achievements of the EU. The construction of European unity is a bold, far-sighted endeavour. Sixty years ago, recovering from the tragedy of two world wars, we decided to bond together and rebuild our continent from its ashes.

There it is in the draft preamble, stark and bleak: ’27 member states’, not 28. The preamble offers a positive vision of the EU’s achievements in the face of the populist nationalist forces sweeping the continent: ‘peace, democratic rights and the rule of law.’ Memories are short and most Europeans are now too young to remember the 20th century hatreds and wars which the founders aimed to consign to history, or to comprehend the scale of the transformation which European integration has brought.

‘We have united for the better. Europe is our common future,’ the draft declares in a grandiloquent statement of ambition following the shock of the Brexit referendum vote, before going on to acknowledge ‘unprecedented challenges.’ In the Declaration, EU leaders resolve to ‘make the EU stronger … through even greater unity and solidarity’, stating that individually, nations would be sidelined by global dynamics. ‘Standing together is our best chance.’

With the absence of the UK from the Rome gathering this weekend, history will have come full circle, inducing a horrible feeling of deja vu. The refusal to join the attempts to create a European Common Market was once regarded as one of the greatest mistakes of British post war statesmanship. All forgoten now – along with the words of Winston Churchill, in the speech he made in Zurich in March 1946 in which he envisioned building ‘a kind of United States of Europe.’

Churchill spoke of ‘the tragedy of Europe, this noble continent, devastated by the ‘frightful nationalistic quarrels’ of the 20th century that ‘mar the prospects of all mankind.’ ‘If Europe were united there would be no limit to the happiness, prosperity and glory which its 300 million or 400 million people would enjoy,’ he continued. But, for the audience he addressed in a square in Zurich, he painted a vivid picture of the devastation and hostilities which would need to be overcome:

Over wide areas are a vast, quivering mass of tormented, hungry, careworn and bewildered human beings, who wait in the ruins of their cities and homes and scan the dark horizons for the approach of some new form of tyranny or terror.

But there was a sovereign remedy for these ills: ‘to recreate the European fabric … and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, safety and freedom.’

We must build a kind of United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living.

Despite Churchill’s efforts to promote this plan, he never envisaged Britain being a part of it. Instead, it was left to a group of six European states – France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxwembourg and the Netherlands – to pursue the idea, first in the Schuman Plan of 1950 which established the European Coal and Steel Community, rejected by the then Labour government. That was the first of a series of missed opportunities for British diplomacy. But the developments that led to a real parting of the ways between Britain and the Six are those whose anniversary is being marked in Rome this weekend. In 1955–6, the Conservative government merely observed, then left, the talks which eventually led to the founding of the European Economic Community in 1957.

A banner celebrating 60 years since signing the Treaty of Rome outside the European Commission in Brussels
A banner celebrating 60 years since signing the Treaty of Rome outside the European Commission in Brussels

It began with the conference held in Messina in Sicily from 1 to 3 June 1955. Attended by the Foreign Ministers of Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg – the six member states of the European Coal and Steel Community – the UK was also invited to participate. The purpose of the conference was to revive the momentum of European integration after the failure of the project to establish a European Defence Community.

The Palazzo Zanca sede del Municipio, venue for the Messina Conference
The Palazzo Zanca sede del Municipio, venue for the Messina Conference

These were the negotiations which eventually led to the Treaty of Rome in 1957. Having ready declined to become a member of the Coal and Steel Community and rejected the proposed European Defence Community, the UK Government was opposed anything which involved submerging any element of its sovereignty in new European political institutions.

Consequently, the UK was not represented at the Messina Conference. Instead, the government despatched as their representative not a politician, but a trade economist and civil servant, Russell Bretherton, to act only as an observer of proceedings.

As the British delegate, Bretherton (himself quite sympathetic to the European position), was therefore barred from participating in the detailed discussions of proposals of which his government disapproved. So, he kept mum, retreating behind his pipe.

It was all a bit like Shakespeare’s comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, itself set in Messina and replete with meditations on honour, shame, and court politics. The ‘nothing’ in the play’s title implies means gossip and rumour, which for decades was the standard fare of the British media when reporting European affairs.

At Messina, the Foreign Ministers of the Six eventually agreed that:

It is necessary to work for the establishment of a united Europe by the development of common institutions, the gradual fusion of national economies, the creation of a common market and the gradual harmonisation of … social policies.

At the end of the conference a committee was set up, chaired by the Belgian Foreign Minister Henri Spaak, to further these ideas. Again, the UK government was invited to join in the discussions but, given that it was not looking for a positive outcome, the UK simply asked Bretherton to continue as an observer. Eventually, he left before the Spaak Committee had arrived at an agreement. A story later emerged (since, sadly, disproved by archival research) that Bretherton soon realised that there was no further point in his staying. Rising to his feet he was reputed to have uttered these words:

Messieurs, I have followed your work with interest, and sympathetically. I have to tell you that the future Treaty which you are discussing a) has no chance of being agreed; b) if it were agreed, it would have no chance of being ratified; c) if it were ratified, it would have no chance of succeeding.

Those apocryphal words have often been cited as being indicative of the fundamental attitude of UK governments to the process of European integration.

The leaders of the Six at the Messina Conference
The leaders of the Six at the Messina Conference: who will have the last laugh?

This weekend the leaders of 27 of the current 28 EU member states will gather in the same room where the Treaty of Rome was signed exactly 60 years earlier. The Treaty proposed all the measures from which the UK (having refused to join for another two decades) is now withdrawing: the elimination of customs duties and the establishment of a customs union; the creation a single market for goods, labour, services, and capital across the EEC’s member states; the creation of a Common Agriculture Policy, a Common Transport Policy and a European Social Fund. It established the instiutions of European integration: the European Commission with the power to propose European laws and the duty to oversee its implementation; the Council of Ministers and European Parliament with decision-making and legislative roles; and the European Court of Justice which would become, with the full consent of the member states, Europe’s supreme judicial authority. Future treaties extended the powers of each of these institutions, driven always by the pledge made at Rome to work for ‘ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe.’

Signing the Treaty of Rome, 25 March 1957
Signing the Treaty of Rome, 25 March 1957

So, we have come full circle, with the UK absent from the celebrations in Rome this weekend. Once again we have retreated to the sidelines and it is left to others to envisage the way forward for Europe – such as Jean-Claude Juncker writing today in a Guardian article entitled, ‘Europe’s people will write the next chapter in the history of the EU.’ I think it’s worth reproducing in full:

European integration was always a project created by the people, for the people. It was a movement carried by a generation who came together to proclaim: “Never again!”

With the signing of the treaty of Rome, on 25 March 1957, the EU’s first six members consigned the ghost of Europe’s past to the history books, leaving them as a cautionary tale for future generations never to repeat.

As we mark the 60th anniversary of that fateful date, we also mark the birth of the European project anew. With a changing and uncertain world around us, the time has come to reaffirm our commitment to a united future in which all citizens and all member states are treated equally. A new Europe of 27 must act resolutely to meet the expectations of its citizens, and show them both hope and determination.

For this we must seek new answers to the question: where do we go from here? Those answers are not mine alone, nor the European commission’s, to give. Europe cannot be instructed through executive orders or dictated in splendid isolation. We must ensure the democratic participation of the people.

For too long there has been a gap between what people expect and what Europe is able to deliver. We should not pretend Europe can solve all problems. “Brussels” should not have been constantly blamed in British political discourse for things the EU is not responsible for: we now know the result of such rhetoric. For example, the EU has few powers in three of the four most controversial areas of policy in UK elections: healthcare, education and welfare.

On the fourth – immigration – free movement is integral to the EU’s single market, which the UK has always strongly supported, and which is a right with clear limits. Furthermore, most immigration to Britain comes from outside the EU, where policy is made by the UK alone. It is also the UK that decides on the structural economic issues that have led to high demand from British employers for migrant labour.

Nor can individual nation states achieve everything alone. Pollution, terrorism and organised crime – just three examples – do not stop at national borders, so without collective policymaking there can be no effective policy. We need firm action within the EU, rooted where necessary in EU law. We also need close cooperation with external partners on trade, defence, security, climate change, migration and more. That includes partnership with the UK once we have negotiated the terms of its departure. Deep transatlantic cooperation too is essential to making the world more prosperous, cleaner and safer. I believe this is understood in Washington.

Individual nation states cannot achieve everything alone. Pollution, terrorism and organised crime don’t stop at borders
We need an honest debate about what we want from our union. We could carry on as we are doing today. Not resting on our laurels, but focusing all our energy on delivering on the big issues, on our positive agenda of completing the internal market, the digital single market, and on creating an energy union, capital markets union and a defence union.

We could also go the other way, by choosing an EU27 focusing only on the single market. But Europe is far more than a market of goods and money. To say otherwise is to betray the values we fought for, on battlefields and soapboxes over centuries.

As a third scenario, we could allow some member states to forge ahead in areas already framed by the treaties, leaving the door open for others to follow when they’re ready – as groups of countries are already doing today, with an EU patent court, or a European public prosecutor.

Another variant could be for the EU27 to do a lot more, all together, in a small number of areas where our actions have added value and in which citizens expect us to act. This would effectively mean “doing less” in areas where member states cannot agree or are better placed to act alone.

Finally, member states could also go full throttle and decide to share more power, resources and decision-making across the board.

These five scenarios are all feasible. In reality, Europe’s future is most likely to be etched in a sixth scenario, designed by its people. From now until the 2019 European parliament elections, I want every voice to be heard. Our future has to be designed and owned by us all. Not by institutions or politicians, but by the people they represent. When it comes to the EU, it has always been far too easy for presidents and prime ministers to say what they do not want. Now they should organise and take part in debates that reach every corner of Europe, every part of society, to decide on what they do want.

Whatever road we end up following, the future is ours for the making.

For 60 years Europe achieved the seemingly unachievable: a stay in the everlasting European tragedy of war and peace. But this Europe is not a given. Europe always was and remains a choice. And the choices we make today, tomorrow, in two years from now, have to be guided by a full understanding of their implications, for the generations to come. Because we will be judged not for what we inherited, but for what we leave behind.

An alternative – though not Eurosceptic – view is that of Yanis Varoufakis, former finance minister of Greece and founder of the political movement, Diem25, which calls for root-and-branch social and economic reform of the EU.  Varoufakis insists  there is no reason for celebration as EU leaders gather in Rome to mark the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome. He told the Telegraph:

In the collective consciousness of the majority of Europeans, the EU’s legitimacy has died. We are keen to revive it. We are not Euro-sceptics but what the establishment is doing will only accelerate the disintegration of the EU.

I campaigned vigorously in Britain before the vote, trying to convince my audience of two contradictory views – that the EU leaves a great deal to be desired and is in a serious state of disrepair, but that the people of Britain should have stayed to join the rest of us across Europe in trying to fix it.

This weekend Diem25 will unveil what it calls a New Deal for Europe – ‘a comprehensive, innovative policy agenda capable of saving Europe and, more importantly, capable of making Europe worth saving.’ If it gains enough support in countries around Europe, the movement could turn into a political party ready to contest elections.

2 thoughts on “From Messina to Rome sixty years ago: much ado about nothing said Britain

  1. Thank you for an enlightening history. Jean-Claude Juncker writes: “Deep transatlantic cooperation too is essential to making the world more prosperous, cleaner and safer. I believe this is understood in Washington.” As an American who agrees whole-heartedly with Juncker’s first statement, I can only hope that the second is true. Unfortunately, I very much doubt that this point is understood in the White House.

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