Hannes Richter

Fifty Years of the Treaty of Rome

Hannes Richter

The Austrian Experience

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the European Union, and is cause for celebration. More specifically, we are commemorating the signing of the treaty that marked the founding of the European Economic Community (EEC), which was the beginning of the European peace project. When the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957, only six founding states of the European Union initially participated. The success of Europe’s unification can only be attributed to all the members of the European Union. For this reason Austria, which has been part of the Union for more than twelve years, has every reason to celebrate the anniversary of this unique worldwide, politically pioneering project.

Signing of the treaties establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM) in Rome, March 25, 1957. European Union

From its neutral position between Western and Eastern Europe, Austria followed closely the beginnings of European unification and its subsequent development. Nevertheless, there was never the slightest doubt that Austria was closely  orientated toward and felt a close affinity with members of the European Union. Austria, along with other member states of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), sought close economic ties with the European Union at an early stage and argued against a fragmentized and divided Europe. At the same time, Austria used its position as a diplomatic hub in the heart of Europe to forge a better understanding between Western Europe and the former Communist East Bloc countries.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, there were no more impediments to Austria joining the European Union. As an EFTA member and part of the later European Economic Area, Austria had already adopted many of the legal provisions of the European Union before joining the EU in 1995. In retrospect, Austria’s acceptance into the circle of the member states can be looked upon as a natural consequence of a decade-long development. This year’s celebration of the anniversary of the signing of a significant agreement commemorates not only the anniversary of the birth of an idea but also the successful unification of most European countries and the promotion of a lasting peace and formidable prosperity.

The fiftieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome occurs at a time of great challenge. Among the statements praising European integration, there are critical voices, which compare the present condition of the EU to that of a ‘mid-life crisis.’ Young EU citizens look upon the successes of the first fifty years as important but view new global challenges with concern and expect solutions from the European Union which it is unable to produce. This criticism is largely justified because the European Union does not have in many areas the means at its disposal to efficiently meet today’s challenges. Resignation and pessimism are surely not the right way to find solutions, however.

Following an initial phase of euphoria in 1994, when 67% of the populace approved the referendum on becoming a member, Austria is among those EU countries which view the services provided by the European Union with a significant degree of skepticism. At the same time Austria remains firmly committed to membership in the European Union by a overwhelming high majority. Although they are traditionally very critical when judging the politics of the European Union - which may be  part of the Austrian nature  - they do not doubt the justification of the European Union’s existence. The argument that Austrian citizens have lost connection to the European project, therefore, seems to be unjustified.

Which direction will the European Union take during the next fifty years? Despite the great success in achieving the reunification of Western and Eastern Europe under the umbrella of the European Union,  Europe faces many new challenges. Global climate change demands a courageous and uniform stand involving the entire EU with the goal of developing a global policy which provides for  a more efficient and sustainable use of energy sources. Worldwide poverty and problems of increased migration demand long-term meaningful solutions and coordinated action by all EU member states. A strong European Union is also indispensable when resisting threats to national security and responding peacefully to international crises.

Over the next fifty years there is a lot at stake for the European Union. Great opportunities exist for Europe as it begins a century of globalization. There is a need to provide visionary answers, and the European Union is in a position to provide those answers. Regarding the question of energy, for instance, Europe represents, politically, the avant-garde worldwide ever since the summit of last spring. In the areas of social justice and environmental protection, the European Union has great opportunities to determine the course of long-term world policy. The goal is to develop an international framework in which our global trading partners are integrated and to convince them that long-term economic growth can only be achieved on the basis of sustainable eco-social development.

Austria’s experience within the European Union’s community of values gives reason to believe that the next fifty years will be marked by the further successful development of the European economic and social model. At fifty years of age, the European community may have already reached maturity, but we have no reason to worry about its continued existence.

This article is a contribution by the Austrian Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs, which appeared in a publication issued by the Delegation of the European Commission to Tallinn, Estonia, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaties of Rome.