Relaunching Europe: leaders discuss EU’s future

Trapped: A founding father of the EU was imprisoned on Ventotene by Mussolini during the war.

Britain voted to leave the EU two months ago. The remaining EU leaders hope to use the crisis to reboot the continent’s image. Is now the time for a ‘United States of Europe’?

Last night on the beautiful Italian island of Ventotene, the leaders of Italy, France and Germany stopped to lay a wreath at the grave of a man named Alterio Spinelli.

He had been imprisoned on the island during the second world war after speaking out against fascism. While there, he helped to write a manifesto calling for a federation of European states, similar to the USA. The idea caught on after the war — and eventually became the inspiration for the European Union.

Ventotene was therefore a fitting place for the leaders of its three largest economies to meet yesterday, two months after Britain voted to leave. They had plenty to discuss: how to respond to Brexit, the struggling eurozone economy, extremism and the ongoing migration crisis. But according to the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, the informal summit had one major theme: how to ‘relaunch Europe from the bottom up’.

The Brexit vote shocked Europe, and it has repeatedly been referred to as a ‘wake up call’. It was a ‘political defeat’, Renzi argued last month, proof that the status quo is failing and urgent reform is needed.

For Italy, this means bringing the continent’s economies closer together. The financial inequality between countries can be reduced by sharing debts and introducing common unemployment policies. With Britain out of the picture, this could be the perfect time to press ahead with such large reforms.

But the German chancellor Angela Merkel is wary of any ‘quantum leaps’ towards more integration. Sharing debts mean that stronger economies like Germany are forced to prop up struggling countries like Greece. And as Eurosceptic parties gain more support, any radical plans could spark a new wave of bitterness.

Should the EU return to Spinelli’s optimistic vision — and finally establish the United States of Europe he once dreamed of?

Come together

Yes, say some. There is no point in a half-hearted union; the EU’s problems get far worse when it cannot work together. Just look at the refugee crisis; countries were so worried about protecting their own interests that they could not find a common solution. If their fates were more closely intertwined, they would be more willing to show solidarity for each other, and move forward as a unit.

That would be a mistake, warn others. Brexit is not an isolated incident; Eurosceptic voters are appearing right across the continent. If the EU is going to reform, it must start by listening to what people actually want. By solving real problems and improving real lives, the EU will become a more desirable place to live, and the dissent will fade away on its own. As Merkel put it, the answer is not ‘more Europe’ but ‘better Europe’.

You Decide

  1. What is the EU’s biggest problem: Brexit, the refugee crisis, or the economy?
  2. Will bringing its remaining countries closer together help solve those problems?

Activities

  1. Film a short video which explores your town’s reaction to the Brexit vote two months later. Has much changed? How do people feel about the decision? What do they hope will happen next?
  2. Choose one of the major problems facing Europe discussed in this article. Then write a report which explains three possible solutions, including pros and cons for each.

Some People Say...

“Europe is like a bicycle, you either pedal or you fall.”

Jacques Delors

What do you think?

Q & A

I live in Britain. Does it matter what the EU does next?
Yes — the decisions the EU makes about its own future will affect the way it negotiates with Britain over the terms of their ‘divorce’. France and Germany both have general elections next year, so they will be facing pressure from their own voters to appear strong and decisive. The question is whether that means punishing Britain or coming to an amicable solution.
I live in the EU. Will these decisions make any difference to me?
Absolutely — a truly united Europe would completely revolutionise the continent’s political and economic structures, bringing you much closer to your neighbours. But such a major change would still be a long way in the future; all of the countries would need to agree, and at the moment that looks unlikely.

Word Watch

Ventotene
The island is about two miles long, but less than a mile wide. It is found off the west coast of Italy. Several Roman emperors used it as a place of exile for disgraced family members, and the dictator Benito Mussolini set up a prison camp there during the second world war.
Fascism
Mussolini was the leader of Italy’s National Fascist Party and prime minister from 1922 to 1943. While in power he abolished any opposing political parties and set up a secret police, eventually joining Germany in the war against the Allied forces.
Eurozone
The 19 countries which share the euro currency. It has struggled to recover from the financial crisis in 2008.
Extremism
There have been several terrorist attacks in France, Germany and Belgium over the last 12 months, many carried out by members of Islamic State. There has also been a rise in far-right extremism.
Migration crisis
Over one million refugees arrived in Europe in 2015, and thousands more died on the journey. Similar numbers have continued to make their way to Europe this year.

Subjects

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