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Messina 1955

            The future treaty which you are discussing has no chance of being agreed; if it was

          agreed it would have no chance of being ratified; and if it were ratified it would have

          no chance of being applied.  And if it was applied it would be totally unacceptable to

          Britain.  Monsieur le president, au revoir et bonne chance.  

These often-quoted words, attributed to the British civil servant, Russell Bretherton, marked the moment when the United Kingdom walked away from the 1955 Messina conference where the foundations were being laid for the treaty which would be signed by the leaders of the Six in Rome on 25 March 1957.[i]

Six decades later, as the leaders of 27 Member States of the European Union gathered in Rome to mark the 60th anniversary of the Rome Treaty, they awaited the letter from Prime Minister Theresa May which, by triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, will initiate a process that will end with a definitive au revoir et bonne chance. 

Those decades had seen the European Economic Community, established at Rome, become the European Union and grow from six members to twenty-eight, with the UK opting to sign up to Brotherton’s ‘totally unacceptable’ treaty but then becoming an ambivalent, semi-detached participant in Europe’s development over the decades from Heath and Wilson, through Thatcher, Major and Blair to Cameron and, finally, May.

Rome 1957

The Treaty signed on 25 March 1957 constituted a significant further step towards the construction of Europe, first of all in the economic field.   In the words of the Declaration agreed at Messina after Brotherton’s exit, progress was to be made “by the development of common institutions, the gradual merging of national economies, the creation of a common market, and the gradual harmonization of their social policies.” The Treaty’s Preamble spoke of the determination of the signatories to lay the “foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”, a commitment which was to become a matter of controversy not least in the UK debate.

The French statesman, Robert Marjolin, a member of the first European Commission, wrote of the signing of the Rome Treaty that “I do not believe it is an exaggeration to say that this date represents one of the greatest moments of Europe’s history. Who would have thought during the 1930s, and even during the ten years that followed the war that European states which had been tearing one another apart for so many centuries and some of which, like France and Italy, still had very closed economies, would form a common market intended eventually to become an economic area that could be linked to one great dynamic market.”[ii]

Sixty Years

Marjolin’s depiction of an entity at once a peace project and an economic area retains its force sixty years later, and is reflected in the European Commission’s 2017 White Paper, which describes the project as “a beacon of peace and stability […]where Europeans can enjoy a unique diversity of culture, ideas and traditions.” Yet, the White Paper also goes on to recognise the disenchantment of EU citizens, many of whom view the Union as either too distant or too interfering in their day-to-day lives.  Importantly, the paper notes that “for too many, the EU fell short of their expectations as it struggled with its worst financial, economic and crisis in post-war history.”

As an Irish Times commentator points out “As the decades have passed and memory of the war has faded, however, the idea of European integration as the most successful peace project in history has ceased to exert the hold it once had. Not only that, but the second part of the grand bargain – prosperity as reward for pooled sovereignty – has itself been undermined by the economic crash, soaring unemployment and the EU’s chaotic and rancorous handling of the euro zone crisis.”

Rome Declaration 2017

In the weeks before the Rome meeting the 27 leaders had engaged in a difficult and potentially divisive debate on the terms of a Declaration.  There was recognition that the EU faces unprecedented challenges, notably “regional conflicts, terrorism, growing migratory pressures, protectionism and social and economic inequalities.” There was also broad agreement that Member States cannot face these challenges alone – to do so would risk being side-lined by global dynamics: “Standing together is our best chance to influence them and to defend our common interests and values.”

Indeed, the need for a unified approach to the Union’s future in the years ahead has been a common theme of the debate.

On his way to Rome, the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, described the EU as a major achievement which had delivered peace and prosperity across the continent. Admitting that there are many serious challenges facing people today; from the migration crisis, to security threats to the uneven economic recovery, he argued that the EU remains Europe’s best chance of confronting these problems: “We are stronger when we stand together. In my discussions in Rome I will emphasise the need for us to remain united, focus on our core values that remain central to our peace and prosperity, and cooperate in areas where we agree and where Europe can add value.”

In his highly significant speech of 22 March 2017 on the Brexit negotiations, Michel Barnier delivered a similar conclusion, saying: “The priority is – and will be – to strengthen our Union to tackle our common challenges. This week, the Heads of State and Government will meet in Rome […] despite Brexit and its difficulties, this anniversary will not be nostalgic or defensive. It will be the moment for us, the 27, and of a new departure for the Union and for action.”

On 6 March 2017, an important statement by the Honorary Council of the European Movement, including two Irish members, John Bruton and Pat Cox, made the case for a comprehensive policy commitment by the EU leaders in Rome. The statement notes in particular the need for strong foreign policy to represent the EU’s interests on the global stage; joint migration and asylum policies; effective environmental policies; and a fully developed monetary, economic and political union, for the EU to cope with future economic crises and consolidate its economic position. Like Messrs Kenny and Barnier, the statement too notes the need for unity, saying: “No Member State can achieve this on its own.”

But there were also differences of opinion on the means of securing the Union’s future.

The options for the Union’s future set out in the Commission White Paper of 1st March were interpreted as favouring an EU of different speeds or different tiers, with President Hollande saying that “unity is not uniformity” and Chancellor Merkel quoted as arguing that “A Europe of different speeds is necessary otherwise we will probably get stuck.”

This in turn led to a dissenting statement from the four Visegrad states – Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia – insisting that “regardless of the speed of integration we all need to pull in one direction, have a common objective, vision and trust in a strong and prosperous Union.”

The Rome Declaration was formally agreed and signed by all 27 leaders in the same room where the Treaty was signed. It dealt with the important issue of the pace of European integration in a key paragraph:

          We will make the European Union stronger and more resilient, through even greater

          unity and solidarity amongst us and the respect of common rules. Unity is both a

          necessity and our free choice. Taken individually, we would be side-lined by global

          dynamics. Standing together is our best chance to influence them, and to defend our

          common interests and values. We will act together, at different paces and intensity

          where necessary, while moving in the same direction, as we have done in the past, in

          line with the Treaties and keeping the door open to those who want to join later. Our

          Union is undivided and indivisible.

The leaders of the EU27 in Rome also listened to two remarkable addresses, from Pope Francis and Donald Tusk. Both speeches touched on the fundamental nature of the project launched in 1957. First, on 24 March, Pope Francis reminded leaders that the founders of the EU did not see Europe as a manual of protocols and procedures to follow but “a way of understanding man based on his transcendent and inalienable dignity.”

Donald Tusk, reflecting on his experiences in a Poland emerging from the communist regime and welcomed into the European Union in 2004, insisted that  “The European Union is not about slogans, it is not about procedures, it is not about regulations. Our Union is a guarantee that freedom, dignity, democracy and independence are no longer only our dreams, but our everyday reality.”

The Declaration addressed the concerns evident in these comments in its important final paragraph:

We will pursue these objectives, firm in the belief that Europe’s future lies in our own

hands and that the European Union is the best instrument to achieve our objectives. We pledge to listen and respond to the concerns expressed by our citizens and will engage with our national parliaments. We will work together at the level that makes a real difference, be it the European Union, national, regional, or local, and in a spirit of trust and loyal cooperation, both among Members States and between them and the EU institutions, in line with the principle of subsidiarity. We will allow for the necessary room for manoeuvre at the various levels to strengthen Europe’s innovation and growth potential. We want the Union to be big on big issues and small on small ones. We will promote a democratic, effective and transparent decision-making process and better delivery.

We as Leaders, working together within the European Council and among our institutions, will ensure that today’s agenda is implemented, so as to become tomorrow’s reality. We have united for the better. Europe is our common future.

In another recent speech, Donald Tusk spoke of the many challenges facing him and his European Council colleagues and reflected on their predecessors, who founded the project by signing the Rome Treaty.  He told the Speakers of the 27 national parliaments that the best response to what he called ‘tough times’ “is to recapture the humility, clarity and the wisdom of the original signatories. Only then can we make the right choices about the future.  Because the past teaches us that Europe is at its best and most creative when it is at its most vulnerable, however paradoxical it may sound.  It delivers much more with modest patient ambition than with grand visions.”


As in so many cases, it is appropriate to return to the beginnings and remind ourselves of the words of Robert Schuman, written in May 1950: “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.”

Under the shadow of Brexit the Rome summit managed to produce a Declaration which honoured the truly historic achievement of 25 March1957 while addressing the troubling reality of Europe in March 2017. It dealt with the national preoccupations of Poland and Greece and found language to satisfy France and Germany, faced with testing electoral campaigns. From an Irish viewpoint the outcome was positive insofar as its significantly  modest terms avoided what Enda Kenny once called ‘some European Union moonshot’ and stressed the need “to co-operate in areas where we agree and where Europe can add value.”

President Higgins has made a plea for the creation of “more space, not less, for a renewed and mobilised European discourse” and for those who believe in the European project to come to the fore. The Rome Declaration should be seen as “a challenge to imagination and political will.”


[i] Roy Denman    Missed Chances: Britain and Europe in the Twentieth Century. London, Cassell, 1996.

[ii] Robert Marjolin    Architect of European Unity: Memoirs 1911-1986.  London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989.