LIANE HANSEN, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.
Fifty years ago today, a treaty was signed in Rome that would alter the face of Europe. It created the European economic community which, over the years, transformed into what we today call the European Union. At its base, it was a trade and economic agreement. But in a larger sense, it was one of the first major steps toward European unity. Leaders from 27 member states are gathered today in Berlin to commemorate the anniversary.
Joining us is William Hitchcock, professor of history at Temple University and author of "The Struggle for Europe." Good to talk to you again.
Professor WILLIAM HITCHCOCK (History, Temple University): Thank you, Liane.
HANSEN: In 1957 when the treaty was signed, was it solely about trade issues, or was it looking ahead to something bigger, a United States of Europe?
Prof. HITCHCOCK: Well, I think there were those who thought ahead and could see the implications of what was going on, but one of the key things about the European Union, as it has evolved, is that it has always had to take account of the fact that some people were a little bit further out in front than others.
In 1957, the six states that signed the European economic community agreement, the Treaty of Rome, were really focused principally on economic issues. They wanted to lower tariff barriers between the six states so that they could trade goods across borders a little bit more easily and more efficiently. That was good economics. But everybody could see the writing on the wall; this was 1957. It had only been a decade since the Europeans have been fighting each other, and here France and Germany along with four others countries were outlining an agreement to work together on economics and also on politics.
So it was a landmark event that was recognized at the time as the beginning of something very significant. They didn't know what, but they knew it was a remarkable turning point.
HANSEN: It was the French statesman Jean Monnet who was the inspiration for the Treaty of Rome. He's the one that actually proposed the plan right after World War II for this idea of a united Europe. Do you think things have evolved the way he envisioned?
Prof. HITCHCOCK: Oh, I think Monnet is - somewhere, wherever he is, he's absolutely thrilled with the direction that Europe has gone in the past half century. Monnet was one of the most visionary Europeans of the last century and he was remarkably non-national. Although he was a Frenchman, he was a man who felt very much at home in the company of Britons, of Americans and of Germans. And he always was thinking about ways to try to create new links between France and Germany principally, so that these two old antagonists could work out their problems together.
It was he who pushed the idea of a European parliament. He pushed the idea of Europeans generally thinking of themselves first as Europeans and only second as French or Germans or Dutch and so forth. So I think he would be enormously pleased to see the way that Europe has gone.
HANSEN: There are 27 members now of the European Union. What's the prospect that it's going to grow further?
Prof. HITCHCOCK: Well, Europe is the club that everybody wants to get into. This is one of the remarkable success stories about the European Union. It started out with six countries, and now it has 27 members. There are still half a dozen members that would like to get in. The most interesting case, of course, is that of Turkey, and there's an enormous debate inside Europe as to whether European Union would be dramatically changed by letting in a country that most people don't think of as being part of Europe specifically.
And there are also other issues about the Turkish debate, whether what would it mean to have a Muslim country of 60 million people inside Europe, how would that change things? So Europe is probably going to expand a little bit more, but it's reaching the point where it's starting to be inefficient at the size that it is now.
HANSEN: Germany is heading up the European Union at the moment, and Chancellor Angela Merkel is presenting today a proposal to modernize the EU's institutions, give the bloc a renewed common basis by 2009. Do you think this is her response to the fact that the constitution - they had a constitution, but it was rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005?
Prof. HITCHCOCK: The woeful constitution experience. This was one of those cases that the most ardent Europeans could see the writing on the wall. It was never going to pass. European statesmen were unable to find the right wording: a short, pithy, bold imaginative document. And instead, they came up with a very long, dull and ponderous treaty outlining a whole lot of different regulations and areas in which Europe ought to do X and Y.
That was dismissed by French voters, by Dutch voters, and it wouldn't have gone much further even if they had kept on having the referenda. So Angela Merkel, I think very cleverly, is taking the 50th anniversary as a moment to step back and say, look, we need a shorter document, we need something that is not specific but is inspirational. And I think this is the moment to do it.
HANSEN: What would you say has been the EU's biggest success in the past 50 years?
Prof. HITCHCOCK: Well, if you compare the last 50 years of Europe's history to the previous 50 years, you'll see that the principal contribution of the European Union has been to keep the peace of Europe for half a century. The European states that had spilled so much blood amongst each other have been working together peacefully, cooperatively, and they've re-imagined the European architecture. They've come up with a unique political experiment that has no precedent in political history. It's a remarkable achievement.
HANSEN: What would you say has been its biggest failure?
Prof. HITCHCOCK: Well, Europe at 50 is starting to show its age a little bit. It's looking a little gray and has a few wrinkles. I think probably today, the biggest problem that it has to face is the question of immigration: What is Europe going to look like over the next coming decades?
And also its young people. Right now, there is too much youth unemployment. European cities are starting to show institutionalized youth violence. So I think the crisis of young people is probably one of the biggest issues that Europe faces.
HANSEN: William Hitchcock is professor of history at Temple University in Pennsylvania. He's also the author of "The Struggle for Europe," published by Doubleday. Thanks for joining us.
Prof. HITCHCOCK: Thank you, Liane.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.