Albert Gea / Courtesy Reuters Curtain call: hanging the EU flag in Barcelona, May 2008

Europe Reborn

How to Save the European Union From Irrelevance

In 1982, The Economist marked the 25th anniversary of the European Economic Community, the precursor to the European Union, by featuring a tombstone dedicated to the organization on its cover. “Born March 25, 1957. Moribund March 25, 1982,” it read. Then came an epitaph courtesy of the ancient Roman historian Tacitus: Capax imperii nisi imperasset, “It seemed capable of being a power, until it tried to be one.” Inside, the magazine pilloried the community for its institutional weakness, bemoaned its citizens’ growing disenchantment with European integration, and warned of a possible British exit.


Yet those dark hours marked the dawn of the European project, not its dusk. Just three years later, Jacques Delors, the former French finance minister, became the European Commission’s eighth president and immediately injected a dose of vitality into the sluggish organization. His campaign to create a single market in Europe—an initiative that enjoyed enthusiastic support from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—paved the way for the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which established the EU. During Delors’ decadelong tenure, the union strengthened its institutions, extended its authority into new policy areas, and welcomed five new member states. In the early 1990s, opinion polls found that 70 percent of Europe’s citizens favored EU membership and less than ten percent opposed it. Within a decade, European integration had risen from the grave; the EU had proved itself to be far more resilient than even many of its supporters had expected it to be.


This is a curious bit of history to recall today, as critics ring the EU’s death knell once again. They point to a familiar list of omens—institutional impotence, voters’ disillusionment with Brussels, and the threat of losing the United Kingdom—to suggest that the organization may soon unravel. Doomsayers can be found across Europe’s political spectrum. They include Euroskeptics on the far right, such as the leader of France’s National Front party, Marine Le Pen, who declared in October 2013 that the EU would “collapse as the Soviet Union

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