Year LX, 2018, Single Issue

 

 

The irreversible crisis of
intergovernmental Europe

 

 

The Europe created in Maastricht, namely the European Union based on two systems of governance, i.e. community and intergovernmental, has now entered a state of irreversible crisis. The recent European Council summit, on 28-29 June, which saw the governments clashing yet again, and once more concluding nothing, is just the latest illustration of this. The sooner the implications of the present dramatic situation are appreciated, and efforts are made to redress it (which is what President Macron is calling for), the greater will be the chances of salvaging the European integration project (otherwise destined to implode).

First of all, it is crucial to grasp the true gravity of the pathological and painful situation that has come about, being careful never to underplay its symptoms (the selfish pursuit of conflicting national interests, the increasing distance between various inward-looking public opinions, each trapped within its own borders and sense of identity, and the lack of trust between member states and resulting state of paralysis), or conceal the mortal danger represented by the inexorable advance of different forms of populism and national sovereignism. The enemies of European unity lie both within and outside the EU. In addition to Trump and Salvini, they include Russia, which, no longer able to believe in the possibility of collaborating with Europe, would rather destroy it. They can be found in the Visegrad Group and in the increasingly nationalist and reactionary governments now in office in many European countries; they are also at work in France and Germany, where they are becoming increasingly strong and laying siege to the last bastion of democratic resistance represented by Merkel and Macron. Even though their proposals are purely demagogic and based on patently false assumptions, and their so-called solutions are a direct route to economic, social and political disaster, not to mention conflict (primarily between the respective national interests they claim to represent), their strategies are easily married together and draw strength from each other. The moral decay these forces are ushering in has the effect of throwing into stark relief the justness, wisdom and long-sightedness of the European unification project. It has become strikingly clear that the European Union is the only stronghold capable of defending democracy and progress; if it collapsed and disappeared, it would take with it every last chance of retaining, in Europe, a society that pursues universal values and citizens’ rights, and seeks to combine development and economic wellbeing with the objectives of social justice and sustainability for future generations. Spinelli appreciated this fact from the outset. Indeed, his Ventotene Manifesto warns political forces not to allow the incandescent lava of popular passions to set in the old moulds with past absurdities resurfacing, but rather to take on as their main duty [...] the creation of a solid international state,directingpopular forces towards this goal.

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In grasping the reality of the current threats to Europe and democracy, it is crucial, at the same time, that we develop the capacity to react, in other words to understand what counter action must be taken in order to change the political framework that is feeding nationalism. Gripped by fears, some founded and some totally irrational, Western societies today are becoming increasingly closed and inward looking. Their malaise is now universally recognised to be rooted in a sense of uncertainty about the future and a lack of faith in the traditional political forces that, for better or worse, governed the Western world during the decades between the end of the Second World War and the outbreak of the financial and economic crisis in 2008-2009, and also managed the fallout from that. On many previous occasions, also in this publication, we have analysed the various changes now taking place in the world (the technological revolution to begin with), which are challenging the West, altering its influence on the global stage, and transforming its internal social balances; many have reacted to these changes by impulsively seeking refuge in a precise but closed sense of identity, in the belief that this offers a solution. In this time of epochal transition, Europe is the weak link of the Western system, and there are several reasons for this: its absence as a political power in the global system has had the dual effect of creating a deep vacuum this has helped to strengthen both the rise of nationalism in the USA and the autocratic drift in Russia and further weakening, internally, the bond of trust that needs to exist between citizens, institutions and politics. The Europe of Maastricht, as appreciated by leading European figures of the time (from Jacques Delors to the German government, whose position was clearly set out in the 1994 Schäuble-Lamers plan), introduced a provisional model that demanded rapid correction. It was a model that sought to strengthen, also through enlargement, a large Europe-wide market (deeply integrated in terms of regulatory harmonisation and economic interdependence), but it allowed politics and the issue of democratic legitimacy to remain in the hands of the nation-states. Thus, despite the claim that there would be coordination of the different countries’ policies in reality, nothing concrete was achieved in this sense , foreign and security policy, internal affairs and justice all continued to be governed at national level. In particular, the inadequacy of a single currency created without also creating a fiscal-economic and political union (essential complements if the aim is to obtain a balanced system) could not have been more apparent: while the monetary union protected European countries from financial market turbulence and allowed them all to enjoy extraordinary stability, it lacked the instruments necessary for the eurozone and, with it, the EU to become the strong European “global power” that was, and is, so sorely needed.

The real difficulty that needs to be overcome, then, is this weakness of the European Union (certainly not the European Union per se). Indeed, together with the excessive power still in the hands of the nation-states inadequate and powerless, these are a breeding ground for selfish sentiments and resentfulness , it is this weakness that is stopping the political system in Europe from working properly and offering the citizens effective responses, and preventing society from developing the sense of collective responsibility on which the exercise of democracy depends. In short, there will be no stopping the current drift until Europe’s weakness and the excessive power of the member states have been overcome. At the same time, it must be made absolutely clear what overcoming the current framework actually means. Macron has outlined this clearly: it means embarking, without delay, on the construction of European sovereignty, initially in the eurozone in relation to economic and fiscal policy, and subsequently in other key policy areas (such as migration, foreign affairs and internal and external security), in this case more gradually, given that the latter are, as yet, less advanced and less ripe for this change. Put another way, and using terms closer to EU jargon, it means taking several specific and decisive steps towards completion of the monetary union, i.e.: i) creating an ad hoc budget for the eurozone, separate from the one currently in place for the EU (the latter, structured along intergovernmental lines, is designed to support the functioning of a market, not to stabilise and help ensure a balance within a single monetary area); ii) creating a true political government equipped with effective, albeit still possibly limited, powers and resources; and iii) introducing democratic monitoring, by the European Parliament, of revenue and decisions on spending. Furthermore, these steps must be accompanied by the institutional reforms necessary to promote better sharing of the management of other policy areas (security policy, foreign policy and migration), those in which effective policies are currently impeded by the reluctance of many states to share resources, responsibilities and costs, and by Europe’s powerlessness to counter these trends.

At present, however, such reforms are still only proposals, and would in any case likely be opposed by many EU member states. Indeed, most European governments at the present time are displaying, albeit with different registers and objectives, a willingness to re-embrace nationalism. In this regard, the power of the blow to Europe’s foundations with the election, in Italy, of political forces that have created an openly populist and “sovereignist” (in the sense of nationalist) government cannot and must not be underestimated. Even though there is a measure of dialectical exchange within the new Italian government (thanks to the presence of individuals included, at the wish of the President of the Republic, to ensure that there is some continuity in Italy’s internal and European policies), it is increasingly clear that Italy has become a country that causes problems in Europe, rather than a partner that is ready to work to resolve them; and it is difficult to predict whether it will be willing to accept reforms designed to deepen integration.

What the latest European Council meeting shows, therefore, is that in the current framework the European Union, if it continues to operate according to the usual mechanisms, will inevitably remain paralysed and find itself progressively eroded, from within, by the “sovereignist” stances and policies that are increasingly being adopted. Instead, it would do far better to focus, as in the past, on the mechanism of differentiated integrations and the need for a vanguard of member states to take responsibility for breaking the impasse. This is not the first time in Europe’s history that such solutions have been required. The very birth of the ECSC stemmed from the breakdown of the framework of the Council of Europe, within which it had proved impossible to take concrete steps to start a process of integration. In the end, only six countries shared the desire to create the first European Community, endowed with genuinely supranational characteristics. However, it is important to note that this Community always remained open and ready to embrace other countries that might subsequently wish to join it. As in all previous circumstances in which it has proved necessary to resort to the concept of the vanguard and initial core group, there need be no fear that this approach will result in the creation of closed, exclusive entities; as previous experiences have shown, it has never been a question of excluding any state, but rather of starting a process that would allow other countries, initially sceptical, to become part of the group later on, once they have gradually come to the decision to do so.

The birth of the monetary union was another turning point that showed marked similarities to the present scenario. At that time, the international framework that had, until then, allowed the European Community to enjoy stability and continuity was collapsing, and Europe needed to equip itself to face the new challenges that were emerging. It should be remembered that in the field of foreign policy, Europe’s interests no longer coincided with those of the United States, a situation that had radically altered the terms of the transatlantic relationship established in the aftermath of World War II, while its internal balances had been altered by Germany’s reunification and the strong likelihood of an enlargement of the Community to the East. Europe needed to find renewed stability by implementing a project that would deepen its integration, giving it the strength to withstand the centrifugal forces that the new framework was expected to generate. The creation of the single currency thus became the opportunity to fortify European integration to the point, as Draghi memorably put it, of making it irreversible (in the sense that the end of European unity would be a catastrophe for everyone), which, however, does not mean rendering the euro and European unity indestructible. The single currency, too, was a project spearheaded by a vanguard group, a fact that was universally recognised at the time; one need only look back over the debate, in that period, on the issues of a hard core and a federation within the confederation in order to appreciate this. Indeed, alongside the resistance of the few states that had opposed the project from the time of its very drafting, demanding, in the face of other states’ determination to proceed, to be allowed to take advantage of special opt-out clauses, there emerged in some participating countries reservations and difficulties so marked that the project was only able to get started thanks to a strong initiative on the part of France and Germany; their action had the effect of triggering the mechanism whereby the others, initially reluctant to sign up, were stimulated to make the necessary preparations to join. Even though the introduction of the single currency was not accompanied by the creation of a budgetary union, a true economic union, a social union or, above all, a political union, there can be no doubt that the founding of the monetary union gave the EU enough strength to withstand the very strong tensions of the early post-Cold War years and that this strength, in turn, allowed the single currency, notwithstanding its limitations, to survive the global economic and financial crisis.

But now, however, all this is no longer enough. The difference today, compared with the past, is that the destructive and subversive anti-Europeanism espoused by many of today’s governments has wormed its way into the Council of the European Union and the European Council — the two bodies that shoulder the greatest responsibility for guiding the present EU and that, to work efficiently (given that they can only proceed by consensus), must be able to count on a constructive attitude on the part of all the member states, even the less pro-European ones. Despite being cumbersome, inefficient and not always completely transparent or truly democratic in nature, until now the Council and the European Council have functioned just well enough to carry the EU forward on the basis of a universally shared will to keep European unity alive (irrespective of the fact that the concept of European unity is understood in different ways). There is certainly no doubt that Europe’s leaders over recent decades have been irresponsible in failing to correct the flawed European system, which has created bigger and bigger gaps between the European partners as the differences in their capacity to respond to the challenges of globalisation and technological development have grown. Now, however, we have reached a point at which the system has broken down completely and irreparably, making failure to act not just irresponsible but suicidal.

Reforms serving to patch up and strengthen the traditional Community method are certainly not the answer. What is desperately needed now is a true political leap, designed to counterbalance national power with European power, creating a decision-making mechanism that is no longer held hostage by the member states, and thus overcoming the situation in which they are the only “masters of the Treaties”. Like it or not, only a breakaway initiative can pave the way for saving the European project an initiative of an exceptional nature and strength, commensurate with the dangers we are now facing. Perhaps it is already too late, but it is nevertheless a moral duty of all who hold democratic values dear to make a final attempt to fight back.

Stemming from Macron’s France and Chancellor Merkel’s Germany, which a few weeks ago in Meseberg reached an initial agreement in particular on several points for a reform of the eurozone (even indicating ad hoc instruments: an investment budget and a stabilisation tool against unemployment), there needs to emerge a strong and growing determination to relaunch Europe, and this must be reflected in a solid reform project proposal. Now, for the first time in many years, Germany is admitting that the single currency and the European Union are not two overlapping frameworks, and may well not be for a long time to come. This admission has had the effect of debunking the idea that the 27-member framework is inviolable, an idea that has hitherto been used, also by Germany, to justify the refusal to accept any real change in the existing European order. Hence, right now, these two countries’ only chance of saving the European integration project (providing Berlin can avoid getting tangled up in a deadly crisis) is to prepare a vanguard initiative that will create, within an initial core group of countries, greater unity and a new system that is more solid, more cohesive and more effective, as well as more legitimate in the eyes of citizens. A process of gradual EU reform starting with the current Treaties is inconceivable in the 27-member Community framework, given that, under the flexibility instruments currently in place, any advance would require the agreement even of those opposed to it. In short, even the opponents of reform would have to play a constructive role. Equally, it would not be feasible, in the current situation, to change the Treaties through a constituent reform process involving the 27 member states. This therefore brings us back to the one possible solution, namely the launch of an initiative by a small vanguard of states ready to embark on the deepening of integration that the other partners are not yet ready to accept. The purpose of the initiative, which would always remain open to any country that might subsequently wish to join it, would be to bring about a pooling of sovereignty among the countries willing to participate from the outset. This sovereignty sharing would concern at least two areas: migration policy and economic and social policy. In the first case, it would involve the creation of a single framework based on shared control of external borders and a genuinely common migration policy, whereas in the second it would mean founding a fiscal and economic union. In both these areas, the necessary systems of shared governance would need to be identified, involving the EU institutions in the process and seeking to secure their support for this first embryo of political union, with a view to its subsequent expansion.

This is just an outline of the direction to be followed, and as such it needs to be examined closely and evaluated thoroughly. What is certain, however, is that France and Germany must return to the idea of creating a hard core of countries that might act as a magnet to counteract the current centrifugal forces, as well as their efforts to create the kind of conditions, truly conducive to strong integration, that effectively bind together the destinies of the single states. This time, however, they will have to do what, in the past, was not done, namely, make sure that the political nature of the initiative also translates into institutional changes giving rise to true European political sovereignty.

Only by managing to pursue a project of this kind will France and Germany be able to reverse the current trend. All the countries able to do so must support them without hesitation, aware that this is the only way of launching a credible bid to undermine today’s nationalist forces. Italy, for now, may not be able to lend such support, unless, in the name of this choice and under the pressure of public opinion, a split opens up in its government and the country manages to find the strength to break free from the spell cast by the League. In any case, the one thing that we, as Italians, can say for sure, both to ourselves and to our European partners, is that without Europe, Italy is doomed; but unless it can create a European federation, Europe too is doomed. Therefore, all we can say to our European partners is this: press on, without us if you have to, but for us too.

The Federalist

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