Anniversaries are special moments when we take the time to look back and look ahead.
They can be sombre affairs as was the case for the first anniversary of the Brussels terror attacks that killed 32 people and injured many more last year on March 22.
Anniversaries can also be a time for reflection. The EU’s celebration of its 60th anniversary on March 25, marking the moment when the Treaty of Rome was signed and a war-devastated Europe decided to embark on a new era of peace and reconciliation, is a case in point.
Leaders are meeting in Rome for just such a moment of sober deliberation on the bloc’s past and future.
And then there is March 29, the birthday of a “new EU of 27”. History will be made when Britain triggers Article 50 and starts negotiations on its divorce — sorry it’s “new relationship” — with the EU.
Let’s take a closer look. The terrorist attack in London on March 22 made the commemoration of last year’s carnage in Brussels an even grimmer affair.
Brussels is coming back to life after a difficult few months when the city faced a slump in tourism, businesses languished and soldiers appeared on streets.
But with the attacks in London on our TV screens, Europeans have realised that terror can come suddenly and horribly to any country, any city, anywhere.
The EU’s 60th anniversary on March 25, on the other hand, is a bittersweet affair. True, the bloc is celebrating seven decades of peace, the embrace of former Communist nations in Eastern and Central Europe, a frontier-free single market and a single currency.
However, many countries have also seen a rise in Far Right populism, increased polarisation of minorities and unending economic problems. There is much talk of a “collective depression” across the EU. Some have warned that the EU is in the midst of an “existential crisis”.
As it turns 60, however, and Britain triggers Article 50, EU policymakers want us to mark the birth of a new Union of 27 states.
As EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told the European Parliament in Strasbourg recently, “27 of our Member States will stand shoulder to shoulder in peace, solidarity and friendship to mark the 60th Anniversary of the Treaties of Rome”.
And he added: “This will not simply be a birthday celebration. It will also be the ‘birth moment’ of the European Union at 27.”
The Commission President’s message is simple: the EU is turning a new page, commencing a new chapter in it its history. Instead of brooding about losing Britain, it’s time the EU charted out a course for the future of an EU-27.
British Prime Minister Theresa May will not be attending the Treaty of Rome celebrations but if she has any qualms about Brexit, she certainly isn’t showing it.
The news from London is that Britain’ split from the EU after 44 years of living together will be nice and painless. Britain and the EU will remain very good friends.
As British officials like to point out, Britain is exiting the EU, not Europe. Yes, Britain will no longer be in the single market, there will be no customs union, no free movement of people and the future of EU citizens in Britain and British citizens in Europe will remain uncertain.
But apart from that you will hardly notice any change at all. Global Britain will still be Europe’s friend and partner. There will be strong cooperation in areas such as security and counter-terrorism. A new free trade agreement will be just as good as membership of the single market.
It will be neat and tidy, all loose ends nicely tied. Pragmatism and common sense will prevail.
Except they may not. There is that wretched question of the Brexit bill that the EU insists that London must pay. Scotland wants a second referendum on independence.
Officials in Brussels have estimated Britain’s share of debts, pensions and unpaid bills ranges from €55bn to €60bn. Many in Britain say the bill is absurdly high but Brussels has warned that a deal on the cash is essential before.
Michel Bernard Barnier, European Chief Negotiator for Brexit, and others believe that Britain hasn’t really understood what Brexit really means in practice. They warn that talks will be complex and no detail will go “untouched”.
And if as some warn, Britain does decide that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, Barnier has made clear that a chaotic exit would lead to “total uncertainty” for citizens, a breakdown in trade links and chaos at border posts as customs controls are re-introduced.
That may sound grim. But the EU should take heart. Britain’s withdrawal from the EU won’t be quite as bad as what Indian diplomat and author Shashi Tharoor has called the “shambles of that original Brexit” when the British departed from India in 1947, leaving behind a trail of blood, murder and violence — and the birth of independent India and Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2017