The European mind is closing amid a host of real, exaggerated, and imagined fears. Old narratives for European unity are disappearing, replaced by blame of the EU for insecurity and interference. Europeans increasingly take peace for granted but perceive security as threatened by the reduction of barriers.

Stefan Lehne
Lehne is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on the post–Lisbon Treaty development of the European Union’s foreign policy, with a specific focus on relations between the EU and member states.

In Europe’s relationship with the rest of the world, this mind-set is manifesting itself in two tendencies: withdrawal, as internal paralysis causes inertia in external action; and a defensive reaction of trying to lock the world out with fences and drawbridges. Many mainstream politicians are following populists up the dead-end of isolationism. But the cult of the protective, sovereign nation-state will not provide convincing solutions to twenty-first-century challenges, which are inherently transnational.

The best way to reopen the European mind is to engage with real-world challenges. To move beyond the populist discourse of threats that must be kept at bay with razor-wire fences and burkini bans, the European mind needs to see the reality of today’s interconnected world, in which states can shape developments only by acting together and remaining open.

The Decline and Fall of the Rome Treaty

Sixty years ago this month, six countries set out an ambitious agenda for the peoples of Europe to overcome their differences and grow closer. In the Treaty of Rome, which created what became the EU, leaders agreed to “common action to eliminate the barriers which divide Europe, . . . the removal of existing obstacles, [and] the progressive abolition of restrictions on international trade.” They promised to pool their resources to preserve and strengthen peace and liberty. They “called upon the other peoples of Europe who shared their ideal to join in their efforts.”

The European mind-set of 1957 was confident and optimistic, and viewed opening up to the world as a source of future prosperity and security. The leaders who signed the Treaty of Rome believed that removing barriers and reducing differences were vital to prevent a recurrence of the horrors of two world wars. Their ideals were based on freedoms enjoyed in Western Europe and contrasted with repression in the East, where Soviet tanks had only months before suppressed the 1956 Hungarian Uprising.

Three decades later, this group had doubled in size and spread its mission to the post-Communist transformation of Central and Eastern Europe. From Narva to Istanbul, Valletta to Tbilisi, people sought to join the European project, confident of the benefits of opening borders and overcoming barriers in achieving stability, security, and prosperity. The EU became the world’s first voluntary empire, a rules- and values-based order that expanded its influence thanks to its attractive power.

On the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, the European mind seems to be closing again. Liberal democratic values are challenged by rising anti-establishment parties. Even where populists are not winning elections, their narratives of blaming elites, minorities, and immigrants dominate political debates. Many citizens are losing faith in integration as the best means of ensuring peace, prosperity, and security. Europeans’ mental map has shrunk and darkened.

Recent experiences have traumatized the European mind: a deep economic crisis, an unprecedented influx of migrants, and terrorist attacks. The economic crisis has spread fear of interdependence. Far from turning into a ring of friends, as the EU’s European Neighborhood Policy intended, the neighborhood has become a source of instability.

There are also longer-term trends spreading unease and resentment, heightened by the crises since 2008. Many Europeans feel stagnating incomes, rising inequality, stubborn unemployment, and strained public services. No wonder the EU’s agenda of opening up to the world and across borders has run into a wall of domestic opposition. People oppose trade agreements as a sellout on standards rather than welcoming them as sources of growth and investment. The politics of fear are heightening the sense of threat, as anti-establishment politicians claim that people can be safe only behind national borders and among their own kind. They portray immigration and the EU as threats to identity as well as livelihoods.

These political trends are unlikely to reverse soon. Globalization is here to stay, automation will eliminate more jobs in the future, and Europe’s shares of world GDP and population are in long-term decline. Xenophobic populism could flourish for a long time in these circumstances, especially given the demographic outlook. Europeans are likely to become more conservative and risk averse as they grow older and fear welfare states will not support them. Europe’s aging and shrinking population is likely to have a pessimistic outlook of seeking to protect itself from the world rather than shape it.

Fear causes minds to be less curious, less creative, and more seeking of familiarity and protection. These tendencies are evident in the narratives that dominate politics in many EU countries. They are full of real, exaggerated, and imagined threats to Europeans’ physical, economic, and cultural security. Many of the threat narratives start with a legitimate grievance or concern but then move to blame others (whether minorities inside the country or organizations like the EU outside it) without offering any lasting solution to the original problem.

Common features of mind closing are evident across political debates in different languages. The first is a new wave of nationalism. In both bigger EU member states like the UK and smaller ones like Hungary, national sovereignty is portrayed as the highest good and national identity as the only source of legitimacy. This worldview mistrusts international rules and regimes, tending to see foreign policy as zero sum: either “we” (natives) win or “they” (foreigners) win.

Underlying this mind-set is a rejection of complexity, and therefore of experts who don’t offer simple black-or-white solutions. The narratives do not consider coherent alternatives; they seek an object of blame or a conspiracy to explain events.

Denial is another key feature. People feel nostalgia for a mythical golden age of economic growth and full employment, insulation from international trends and external influences, the manufacture of whole products rather than parts in transnational supply chains, and monoculturalism and national sovereignty. This age never existed in reality, but populists present it as an ideal state that could be regained if only people could take back control from financial markets, transnational corporations, and international organizations.

Donald Trump’s actions as U.S. president are spreading protectionism and reviving nationalism in Europe. Even in countries where he is unpopular, his America First message strengthens the narrative that pursuing national interests will deliver more than working together on collective solutions can. London’s approach to the Britain’s EU exit negotiations is also reducing solidarity by setting up irreconcilable conflicts rather than seeking to accommodate interests.

Mind-closing narratives are gaining force as formerly liberal politicians run after the populists. They are holding onto their seats of power while bending with the wind. Some mainstream parties are abandoning their ethical positions in an attempt to retain their institutional ones. But the belief that European integration and an internationalist foreign policy are vote losers creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: if mainstream politicians stop making the case for the EU and engagement with the world, voters stop believing in them.

How to Revive the European Spirit

Political leaders need to help societies work through recent traumas and reach acceptance of new situations and a broader perspective that reduces threats to their real size. This is what the EU’s founding fathers aimed to do after World War II by setting up practical cooperation that built both economic ties and trust among peoples. Here are six ways to help today’s Europeans work through their malaise and revive the spirit of the Treaty of Rome.

Take a Reality Check

The situation is nothing like as bad as it is portrayed in doom-laden media commentary. The EU economy is currently in its fourth year of recovery. Unemployment is still high, but it is now in single digits. Five of the ten most competitive economies in the world are EU members. In the Better Life Index of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, thirteen of the top 20 countries in the world for quality of life are in the EU. The union remains the biggest trading bloc in the world and the largest donor of development and humanitarian assistance.

Migration into the EU, which is driven partly by the attractiveness of life in Europe, has caused a political crisis in recent years. But the inflow has slowed dramatically: in 2016, it was only one-third as large as in 2015. Terrorism causes a high level of anxiety, but it is less widespread and kills fewer people than political violence did in the 1970s and 1980s.

Despite apocalyptic prophecies of imminent disintegration, the EU continues to function. It is even making some progress in areas as diverse as energy, cybersecurity, and defense. Public support for European integration has fallen significantly, especially in formerly Euro-enthusiastic countries like Greece and Italy, as austerity has bitten. But there is still strong support for some of the EU’s core projects: eight in ten Europeans support free movement, seven in ten people in the euro area back monetary union, and nine out of ten are in favor of the single market. The UK’s vote to leave has raised support for EU membership in most other countries. While trust in the EU is low, at 36 percent, it remains higher than trust in national governments and parliaments.

Reconquer the Political Space From Populists

The greatest danger for the EU lies in defeatism among large parts of the political elite. The bitter blows of the Brexit vote and Trump’s election have demoralized many mainstream politicians. Afraid of the new competition, they are trying to copy the populists’ messages and appeal to nationalistic and xenophobic feelings. Mainstream politicians will never outflank their populist challengers on the Right. But they could end up destroying their own credibility and reinforcing the discourse of failure—of the EU and of liberal democracy in general.

Much the better way to fend off the populists is to call their bluff by talking about substance. Public debate about climate change, conflict resolution, and aging populations would bust the myth that societies can somehow return to a former golden age when national governments could solve problems by themselves. The populists’ simplistic solutions ignore the fact that Europe’s prosperity today relies on transnational supply lines and close integration of economies. They do not tackle the complex challenges that no one country can meet alone.

Political debate needs to move back onto the ground of policy solutions rather than identity chimeras. Polls indicate that the public is not against continent-wide solutions. On the contrary, seven in ten Europeans want a common European approach to migration, and large majorities support common EU foreign and defense policies. The problem is finding politicians who are willing to tap into this quiet pool of support and make the case for collective action.

This task cannot be left to the EU institutions. National, regional, and local politicians have to take the lead now in engaging with citizens about priorities, and then see where further EU-level action would help. The European Commission’s March 1 white paper for the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome did not set out a coherent vision for the future of the union, but rather presented five scenarios to illustrate the difficult decisions the EU has to make. The commission’s caution reflects the divisions between members, but the scenarios contain many interesting ideas and options that could inform a rich debate about the future course of European integration.

The Brexit vote and Trump’s election have created a political context in which the EU’s future is questioned as never before. But if political elites and civil society respond intelligently, these shocks can help the public rediscover the fundamental logic underlying European integration and confirm its legitimacy.

Kick-Start EU Reforms

The debate about reforming the EU has focused too much on changing the union’s treaties. To reopen the treaties would deepen divisions and might endanger the consensus around core values of the EU. Moreover, treaty change would have to overcome a double lock—unanimity among governments and ratification by all parliaments. In the current climate, any major reform effort would fail referenda or parliamentary votes in several countries. For the foreseeable future, reforms will have to take place in the EU’s existing treaty framework. They can be implemented through secondary legislation or, when necessary, through intergovernmental agreements among willing and able members.

To overcome the current impasse, France and Germany would have to reconcile their significant differences of approach. Germany’s commitment to the EU is strong, but it is still driven by ordoliberalism—a focus on binding rules and mechanisms to enforce them. Germans remain reluctant to expose themselves to the liabilities of weaker and less disciplined partners—even if they contributed to creating this predicament. The French political elites pay lip service to deeper integration, but underlying their speeches lies much ambivalence. No longer capable of leading the EU, France’s instinct is to protect sovereignty. For Germany and France to build a joint initiative, Paris would have to show greater willingness to deepen integration, and Berlin would need to offer greater solidarity with its weaker EU partners.

Franco-German agreement is a necessary but insufficient condition to relaunch EU reforms. The two countries would also have to mobilize a critical mass of other members willing to go in the same direction. If the parliamentary and presidential elections across Europe in 2017 result in governments that can work together, policymakers need to use the following years to give the EU a new sense of direction and purpose.

Bury Ever-Closer Union but Rebuild Responsibility and Solidarity

For decades, European integration was driven by a federalist philosophy that aimed at eventually supplanting the nation-states. This goal drove much progress in previous decades, but it is now raising major resistance to the EU project. The union has also become too large and diverse to fit a federal model of a political union.

The time has come to lay the Treaty of Rome’s goal of “ever closer union” to rest. That would put the relationship between the union and its members on a healthier and more sustainable basis. Despite their differences, there is a good chance that the 27 post-Brexit member states can agree on four core areas for future progress.

First, governments must defend and complete the EU single market, with the four freedoms—the free movement of goods, capital, services, and people—as the common foundation. Member states must protect it through robust use of EU powers to ensure fair competition and effective regulation.

Second, members need to improve eurozone governance and develop sustainable and humane immigration and asylum policies to make the core projects of the euro area and the passport-free Schengen zone more resilient to shocks and crises.

Third, EU countries should be strict about applying subsidiarity, limiting collective action to areas in which the EU has evident added value, such as innovation or foreign and security policies. This is important to counter the trend toward renationalization of powers that need to stay at the EU level.

Fourth, member states must encourage more flexibility. Although common progress by all EU countries is preferable, members that want to integrate more closely in particular areas should be able to do so, as long as their project is compatible with the union’s overall goals. Members should also be able to drop out of a tighter group if it no longer suits their national interests. Flexibility can help accommodate countries’ heterogeneous levels of will and capacity, but members have to stick to their commitments and obey EU law to keep the union functioning.

Action along these lines can keep the EU together. But this approach will maintain public support only if national politicians take greater ownership of their union. Governments have to kick the habit of blaming the EU for unpopular decisions while presenting popular ones as national victories. They also have to explain and justify decisions made at the EU level, not leave that task to the Brussels-based institutions, to restore a sense of solidarity and common destiny.

Foster Protection Without Protectionism

The closing mind is having a deep effect on the EU’s sense of mission. Growing opposition to the union’s liberalization agenda is threatening the whole integration project. Protection is a theme to which many voters respond, as it offers the prospect of restoring legitimacy to European integration. It is also part of the EU’s history: already the Treaty of Rome introduced the European Social Fund, one of the pillars of cohesion policy. However, after the creation of the single market in 1993, turbocharged neoliberal economics pushed social protection aside.

Since the 1990s, the pursuit of liberalization and globalization has eclipsed the protection of workers, women, minorities, rural areas, and poorer regions, which continued in the background as junior policies. The social union was forgotten as monetary union became a central project. Now, protection has reemerged in political debate at the EU level: European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has proposed a “Europe that protects,” while European Council President Donald Tusk has argued for the need to “restore the balance between . . . freedom and security, and [the balance] between . . . openness and protection.”

It is important to ensure that protection does not equal protectionism. Free flow of goods, services, capital, and people under a liberal but rules-based global economy is still vital to European prosperity. But the EU has to address the concerns of the losers from globalization, not only the interests of those who benefit from it. To show citizens that the EU as a whole is paying attention to the consequences of inequality and social injustice, the member states should agree to cushion the effects of global competition and asymmetric shocks on citizens from the EU level, for example through Europe-wide unemployment insurance.

However, the EU institutions are not as well configured to protect as they were to liberalize. Protection requires action in areas that governments consider core state functions. Therefore, EU action should be part of an overall strategy designed to make globalization more responsive to social needs. Such an agenda should include steps to tackle inequality, such as promoting fairer tax systems that ensure multinationals pay their fair share, exposing tax havens, and preventing money laundering and corruption.

Engage With the World

Attempts to lock out the world are self-defeating. Engagement is the best way to maintain quality of life, environmental and labor standards, prosperity, and the values that Europeans hold dear. It is vital to make this argument given the zero-sum worldview of nationalist leaders. The European view of a values-based global order offers an alternative to the outlook of the U.S. president and could be an identity-building project for the EU.

Real security will come from long-term investment in making Europe’s surrounding regions better governed and the world more rules based, rather than militarizing external borders. Globalization will overrun any attempt at a new iron curtain across the Mediterranean. It is much cheaper for the EU to build the resilience of societies and human security outside its borders than to allow conflicts to spread and try to keep them on the other side of a fence.

Europe has the capability to lead an alliance of forces to prevent the world from falling back into rivalry of power centers and zero-sum politics. The EU was born from the idea that integration prevents conflict if it is consistently and predictably managed. This mission of transnational cooperation in the common interest is still relevant in the era of globalization.

But to do it well would require an upgraded institutional and policy infrastructure for common external policies. The EU is weakest in the areas where the case for common action is strongest and enjoys most public support: foreign and security policies. Europe’s international engagement is currently underdeveloped, but it could and should become one of its core missions. To make it work properly, the EU and its member states have to overcome internal rivalries, step up their cooperation, and prepare to take greater responsibility for their security and that of neighboring regions.

Europeans’ long dependence on U.S. leadership has ended with Trump. That could be a much-needed stimulus to get serious about investing in external capabilities and strategic thinking.


The EU needs a bold new narrative to reopen Europeans’ minds to effective use of the union’s remaining powers. A great place to start is with the ideals of 1957 set out in the Treaty of Rome, because they remain the best hope for Europeans to maintain their prosperity and security. Member governments should work to restore a sense of solidarity by recognizing that Europeans share a common destiny.

A more joined-up and outward-looking Europe could be a powerful defender of the rules-based global order that is essential to manage the global commons, including the trading system and action to reduce climate change. Individual countries are losing weight on the global scale, but Europe has a chance to shape international and regional developments by acting collectively.

The year 2017 offers opportunities for the EU to regain the capacity to reform itself. If leaders from the political center regain their nerve, there is a chance that the coming elections will break the dynamic of populist ascendancy. If the year ends with France and Germany able to work together under pro-EU leaders, the outlook for the EU will brighten dramatically. The years 2018 and 2019 could then be a time to put European integration back on the right track.

To dispel the myths spread by populists, pro-European leaders need to reacquaint the public with an interdependent world in which connections are an asset and isolation leads to impoverishment. This is the only way to move Europeans through the stages of grief that accompany losses of economic security and cultural identity. Politicians have a duty to help the public through this process of understanding that interdependence and diversity are irreversible. Only then can Europeans realize that their best chance of shaping the world is by accepting their common destiny and working together.

The central challenge for Europe was summed up by Paul-Henri Spaak, who signed the Treaty of Rome as Belgium’s foreign minister: “There are only two types of states in Europe: small states, and small states that have not yet realized that they are small.” Demography may be destiny, but decline is a matter of choice.

Heather Grabbe is the director of the Open Society European Policy Institute.