Just three days before 27 European Union leaders gather in Rome on Saturday to celebrate the EU’s 60th birthday, a “terrorist incident” described by London police happened near the British Parliament Buildings on Wednesday afternoon.
The incident, which happened to take place at the one year anniversary of the Brussels airport attack, highlighted the shadow cast over Europe because of terrorism threats. No wonder the EU has divided on many problems such as migration.
The incident also happened at a time when the United Kingdom is preparing to start the process of formally exiting the EU. The atmosphere of Rome summit will be somber and restrained, as the UK will start official Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU on March 29.
The UK’s decision to leave the EU was a shock but now the 27 member states have to focus on how to rekindle public support for the integration process that has helped bring peace and prosperity to Europe for more than half a century.
There are many problems facing the EU, including populism, migration pressures and slow economic growth. But the defeat of populist Geert Wilders in the Dutch elections last week could mark a reversal of the populist tide in the EU.
Next month, France goes to the polls, and far-right leader Marine Le Pen trails centrist leader Emmanuel Macron in the run-up to the first round. This suggests Le Pen’s chances of winning the first round are diminishing, and she may not win the second round either.
In Germany, where elections will be held in September, the left- and right-wing populists are unlikely to challenge the dominance of the centrist Christian Democratic Union and Social Democratic Party.
The number of migrants in the EU is also down while economic growth is slowly picking up. The International Monetary Fund forecasts EU growth at 1.2 percent in 2017, which may not be great compared to China but suggests the bloc is moving in the right direction, and importantly unemployment is falling.
Although the EU will not be ready to take any major steps forward until after all the elections this year, it is clear that the bloc will maintain its multi-speed approach.
The EU also has to cope with a US administration that is turning its back on globalization. United States President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy has serious consequences for the global economy. Despite strong pressure from the EU (and China), US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin refused to endorse the standard language in favor of free trade at the G20 finance ministers meeting in Germany last week.
Trump attacked Germany’s trade surplus when he met German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently and called for a new bilateral trade deal. Merkel had to remind him that it was the EU that negotiated trade deals, not the individual member states.
It remains to be seen how Trump approaches his possible meeting with President Xi Jinping next month given the amount of “China bashing” during the election campaign.
The EU will thus remain a champion of globalization and seek allies such as China to reject protectionism. In addition, the EU will continue to support regional integration in other parts of the world from ASEAN in Southeast Asia to Mercosur in South America to the Economic Community of West African States in Africa. EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom agreed one week ago in the Philippines to restart negotiations for an EU-ASEAN trade deal while talks are continuing this week on an EU-Mercosur deal. And trade deals with India, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand have either been signed or are in the pipeline.
The EU is also sharing its expertise in integration with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and other regional organizations. Given the differences among the ASEAN members, there is no possibility of it just copying what the EU has done. But it can learn how the EU managed to move from a customs union to a single market and cherry pick ideas for its own ASEAN Economic Community.
As a mature 60-year old, the EU can look back with quiet confidence on its achievements, promoting peace and prosperity throughout the continent based on democracy and a common set of laws. It is the main pillar of globalization and it can still offer much useful advice to regional groupings. The birthday boy deserves a toast despite challenges.