The happiest people live in: Europe. The cities most worth living in are in: Europe. The best health care is in: Europe. The most publicly listed companies and the most Olympic champions come from: Europe. Only one thing has been recently missing in Europe: self-confidence.
Tired, old, worn out – that was the image many Europeans had of their continent. Tired, old, worn out was how most speeches about the E.U. sounded. But since Donald Trump began governing on the other side of the Atlantic and putting to question what the United States stands for – from free trade to the rule of law – something has changed in Europe as well. With nationalists and populists on this Atlantic coast threatening intrinsic European values, the counter-forces have been growing.
It can be felt in Berlin, Vienna or Lisbon, where each weekend, thousands take to the streets to celebrate Europe.
It can be heard in the speeches of European politicians, whose tone toward the E.U. has suddenly changed.
It can be seen in the economic upturn that is currently happening on the continent.
Right after having been written off, Europe is suddenly an option once again. Not as a blast from the past, but a promise for the future; an alternative to the USA and to the authoritarian rulers closer to home from Moscow to Ankara. The existential necessity of the E.U. must no longer be explained and, all at once, it has become intuitively obvious. It is like a reestablishment of Europe.
It is as it was 60 years ago, when six European countries came together in Rome. Renée Haferkamp was involved in the preparations – the Belgian worked as an interpreter and is one of the last witnesses to the event. While the gray-haired woman sits at the dining table of her home in Brussels and gazes into the garden where the first trees have pink blossoms, she recalls the men who invented the E.U. and long ago entered into history: Belgian Paul-Henri Spaak, Frenchman Jean Monnet, German Walter Hallstein, who then became the first president of the commission. "They were great Europeans," says Ms. Haferkamp, referencing their shared attitude toward a firm conviction that together more progress is possible than alone.
When the treaties were signed on the evening of March 25, 1957, it was raining in Rome. The spectators waiting for the politicians on the Capitoline Hill were hidden under large black umbrellas. As 6:00 p.m. approached, the first politicians arrived and hurried up the steps into the magnificent Hall of the Horatii and Curiatii. Photographers were already waiting to capture the crucial moment as earnest-faced men in dark suits would reach for thick fountain pens to sign the birth certificate of the European Union. The fact that the six founding nations of the E.U. gave up part of their sovereignty for the first time and of their own free will, that they established an economic community, an atomic association, the predecessor of the European Parliament and a court of justice was based on the shared conviction that excessive nationalism ends in disaster. But what was crucial was the enthusiasm of a handful of realistic idealists. "They believed in it," remembers Ms. Haferkamp. "They really believed they could create a United States of Europe."
But when do people lose their faith in an idea? Ms. Haferkamp answers hesitantly: "That happens over time. I had my first doubts when, at the beginning of the 1960s, I accompanied the Commission president Walter Hallstein and Paul-Henri Spaak, who at that time, was Belgian foreign minister to Athens, where an association agreement was to be signed." As the commission didn’t have its own airplane, as it still doesn’t today, it used the Belgian state aircraft. Ms. Haferkamp tells how the plane landed, the red carpet was rolled out and Walter Hallstein wanted to step out first – the agenda was Europe and Athens. "But then Spaak thrust out his elbows and pushed to the front – none other than Spaak, who had fought so hard for Europe. He believed that, as the representative of a member state, he was more important than the man who represented Europe."
Ms. Haferkamp continued to work in Brussels during the subsequent decades. She met all the commission presidents and even more heads of government. And she was there as the initial enthusiasm gave way to disillusionment. The Rome treaties turned into more than 85,000 pages of community law incapable of inspiring anyone anymore. Brussels became a synonym for bureaucracy. Even when the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, the derision was greater than the joy: Of all things, the E.U.!
And today, 60 years after the Rome treaties were signed?