KUALA LUMPUR: The European Union has been a bold and visionary experiment in socioeconomic and political integration. One would, perhaps, have to acquire a deep and broad sense of Europe's checkered history to even start to appreciate the EU's significance.
Briefly, European history over at least the last two millennia has been one vacillating between some semblance of occasional unification and long stretches of at least de facto fragmentation. Race and religion often became convenient excuses for brutal wars, with wild ambitions being the real motivation. As such, perhaps a sad but constant factor running through its span is the presence of often unbridled violence or even outright evil as was exhibited in most of the first half of the last century.
Out of the ashes of the Second World War that had devastated a large part of Europe arose an ideal that such manmade calamities should not befall the continent again. And in more practical terms, the statesmen of the time thought such a lofty aspiration should perhaps best be materialized, at least for a start, through economic cooperation and integration among the (then mostly Western) European nation states.
Thus, was born the European Coal and Steel Community, which was just a customs union for these important commodities which then (and to a lesser extent now) underpinned the industry and economy of a number of major European states. This mainly economic arrangement must have been seen as a success, and the architects of European integration soon upgraded it to be the European Economic Community (EEC). Essentially a large free-trade bloc for its member states, the cooperation and integration extended to many other economic sectors, and started to acquire a social dimension, such as the gradual adoption of common minimum labor and welfare standards. And these were again, albeit somewhat grudgingly, viewed as a success in maintaining peace and prosperity throughout (Western) Europe.
The last two decades of the last century saw the EEC expand in at least three fronts - politically, geographically and monetarily. It was replaced by an even more politically ambitious EU, in a sense consolidating a large swath of the hitherto national powers of its member states into a supranational entity, requiring them to cede a sizable portion of their national sovereignty, supposedly for a unified political good.
There was also the EU membership expansion into the previously communist Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which fostered the democratization of the formerly authoritarian region, although with mixed success as viewed from recent developments there.
And there was the equally ambitious creation of a single European currency, at least for those EU members which opted into the European Single Market. The euro is arguably less of a success, as its value would need to be propped up by huge financial rescue packages from the more well-to-do EU members to those less well off, as was evident in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.
A sort of tension thus arose between an ever more sophisticated EU bureaucracy based in Brussels and elsewhere, and some of the more guarded member states. The United Kingdom, for example, joined the EEC to seek primarily more economic cooperation with the European continent and thus more mutual economic benefits. It reluctantly went along with the EEC evolution into the EU but opted out of the euro. Over time, the UK apparently saw its EU contributions and obligations as having outweighed their benefits and usefulness. This led to the protracted Brexit process which culminated in a formal break with the EU only early last year. It remains to be seen if the voters in a number of other EU member states would follow suit.
In any case, the lofty and often positive intentions of the EU leadership are almost never questioned. But as the saying goes, the devil is in the details, or as is often the case, in the detailed implementation of the resulting EU policy.
In recent weeks, for example, the EU introduced the Digital Covid Certificate, in view of the coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged large parts of the world, not least many EU member states. The sad scenes of mounting Covid casualties in Italy early last year, for example, are still fresh in the minds of many.
In any case, there is indeed an increasing need for more freedom of movement of people within the EU. The certificate was supposed to facilitate intra-EU travel for those fully inoculated, with a list of EU-approved Covid vaccines. However, it was recently found that these EU-approved vaccines do not include a number of those with the same brands as those approved but manufactured outside of the EU.
At the very least, this differentiation of the manufacturing origins of vaccines would potentially create difficulties for those inoculated with such vaccines to travel freely within the EU. The EU maintained that the entry requirements of its member states ultimately lie in the respective national governments.
A logical deduction would then be that those wishing to travel to several EU member states but inoculated with non-EU approved vaccines would have to go through the hassles of inquiring about the vaccination requirements of each such country.
And Schengen is apparently not a shortcut to circumvent these hassles. The Schengen Agreement, which was entered into by most EU member states and several other non-EU countries, is supposed to enable free travel among its members. But Schengen is primarily an agreement to waive passport controls. It does not necessarily imply that its member states would also waive checks on the vaccination status of the travelers, for example, and also the associated quarantine requirements. So, without Digital Covid Certificates, travelers would indeed still have to go through much vaccination and quarantine restrictions.
And recently the EU, or at least its executive commission, also unveiled an ambitious plan to cut its carbon emission by more than half by the end of this decade. It remains to be seen how the member states will implement this plan that would undoubtedly require some levels of sacrifice on their economic development. But the EU has indeed come full circle from the days where coal and steel, both high carbon-emitting commodities, were the main driving force for its inception.