Year LIX, 2017, Single Issue, Page 136
Europe after Nice*
Since the Maastricht Treaty came into force, the European Union has shown itself to be incapable, as far as the reforming of its institutions is concerned, of moving any closer to its aim of achieving the progressive building of a more perfect union. Until the introduction of the single currency on January 1st 1999, this is something that went largely unnoticed, the reason being that the efforts of politicians and the attention of commentators were focused instead on the problem of bringing national budgets and the main instruments of public finance into line with the criteria established by the treaty. But once these aims had been achieved, it became obvious that not only were there no longer any ambitious targets left on the horizon for which to strive (targets like that of the European currency), but Europe’s summits had become incapable of agreeing even on minor reforms that might improve marginally the ordinary running of the Union’s institutions. And the resulting situation of stalemate has never been more glaringly obvious than at the European Council in Nice.
This situation has come to light in an extremely delicate phase within the process of European unification. Enlargement of the Union is now not only certain but also imminent. There is a widespread realisation among many of those in power in Europe — with the obvious exception of some who would consciously like to see the Union watered down into a free trade area — that the institutional structure of the Union, which with its present fifteen-member framework is already on the brink of collapse and of total decision-making paralysis, would not be able to withstand the impact of enlargement to twenty, twenty-five or thirty members, and that it will need, before any enlargement occurs, to undergo some form of deepening. But no government figure, with the partial exception of the German foreign minister, has managed to address this need with a concrete project. It is thus in a state of confusion that the European Union is preparing to embark on this latest adventure (the entry of the countries of the central and eastern part of the continent) — a state of confusion that cannot be concealed even in part either by fanciful diversions like the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Security and Defence Identity, or by purely verbal expedients that, like the “Federation of Nation-States”, set out to reconcile the illusion of change with the de facto maintenance of the status quo.
The truth, as far as the process of European unification is concerned, is that the time for drawing closer to the final objective is now over, leaving the Union’s holders of power faced with a decisive choice: to take the final step and create a European federal state, which means renouncing sovereignty in the national setting in order to recreate it in a vaster ambit, or to follow an involutional path destined to lead to the dissolution of the Union. Meanwhile the idea that the present situation can be prolonged indefinitely represents the most unrealistic position of all. What the wait-and-see strategy actually betrays is resignation to the view that all we can do is sit back and watch the European endeavour flounder. In the absence of a great shared project, the very countries that have always been, from the very start, the driving force behind the process of European unification — France and Germany — are condemned to fall into the trap of mutual rivalry and mistrust, and Nice provided proof of this. Indeed, without a common project, the interests keen to see Germany establishing and consolidating a position of hegemony over the countries of central-eastern Europe — even, if necessary, breaking free from the restrictions that its membership of the Union places on it — would, with the passage of time, inevitably grow stronger. Looking around, nationalist, tribalist, xenophobic and authoritarian forces are at work everywhere, albeit in different forms. It is clear then that time is not on Europe’s side. The process of the unification of the continent must advance in order not to go backwards. But today, the only way it can do this is by making the federal leap forwards.
As enlargement has become an increasingly imminent prospect, a second problem within the process of European unification has come to the fore. It is a problem that has been evolving for some time and can now no longer be escaped. We are talking about the fact that — due both to the virtual impossibility of reaching important decisions unanimously in assemblies in which today fifteen (and tomorrow twenty or more) sovereign states are represented, and to the different depths of European consciousness in the different states of the Union — the objective of creating a European federal state can now only be pursued within a smaller territorial framework than that of the present Union, to say nothing of an enlarged Union. The problem, in other words, is that of building a federal core. To advocate the creation of a federal core is not to maintain that there exists a will in some of the Union’s governments (but not in others) to unite the various states with a federal bond. This will, in fact, exists in none of the states. Instead, to advocate the creation of a federal core is to appreciate that there does exist in some states — i.e., in those most deeply involved in the process, those where public opinion is more open to the idea of European political unity and where those in power have a hazy, but nevertheless real, sense of the contradictions that are generated by the incapacity of the current institutional order to reach effective decisions and by the absence of Europe on the international scene — the possibility that, in the right circumstances, this will could in a reasonably short space of time be generated. At the same time, it means appreciating that this possibility does not exist in other states. In other words, in the present situation, a project to found a six-, seven- or eight-member federation could, albeit with difficulty, succeed, while the founding of a federation with fifteen (or twenty, or twenty-five) members would be simply impossible.
We are thus faced with the need to tackle two extremely difficult problems contemporaneously. That of creating a federal state is, in itself, more difficult than any of the other problems that the governments have had to face in the course of the process so far, because while the achievement of objectives like the ECSC, the EEC, the direct election of the European Parliament, the single market and the single currency served to shore up the sovereignty of the nation-states, which would have been thrown into crisis without the emergence of increasingly deep forms of European cooperation, the creation of a federation actually implies the abandonment of this sovereignty. Equally difficult, however, is the problem of realising this objective in a narrower setting than that of the Union, because it means changing the political framework within which the next phase of the process will, if it is to have a federal outcome, have to unfold. This implies the loss of what might have been regarded as the centrality of the European institutions and of their role as the main interlocutors and points of reference of federalists in their struggle. At this point, it is important to recall that in earlier stages too (leaving aside the federalists’ role as the Hegelian mole) it was always the entente between the French and German governments — with occasional, but important, contributions from certain leading Italian statesmen — that represented the driving force behind the process of European unification. But while this driving force was once able to operate within the framework of the European Community and later of the European Union, the time has now come to face up to the difficult task of creating a new framework.
Moreover, these are two problems that are indissolubly linked. And it is because of this that attempts to divide them and to tackle them in isolation are destined to lead to nothing. Consequently, to pose the problem of the founding of a European federation without posing at the same time that of the federal core — which is implicitly to give credence to the idea that a project for federal union can today be proposed and have a chance of success in the framework of the Union’s current fifteen, or future twenty or twenty-five, members — is so obviously devoid of any basis in reality that it seems inconceivable that any energies can be mobilised on the strength of it. On the other hand, to pose the problem of a core group of states without endowing the same with a federal content, in other words, to believe that a group of states can establish an efficient form of internal cooperation without forgoing the intergovernmental method, would be tantamount to renewing, within the framework of the six, seven or eight members of the core, an approach that federalists have rejected from the outset and that has even lost all credibility in the eyes of those who once believed in it. This, at best, would give rise to the creation, within the Union, of a sort of directorate that would be not only unacceptable to the countries not included in it, but also, rather like the present Union, devoid of decision-making capacity and subject to no form of democratic control.
But what are the conditions in which, within a group of countries, the will to create a federal core can develop? What does appear inconceivable is that a European federation, whatever its initial geographical configuration, might be born of a clear and calm realisation, on the part of those in power, of the objective need to renounce national sovereignties and create the conditions for the restoration of sovereignty in a wider setting. The fact is that for as long as the lives of the people of Europe continue to be characterised by a high level of prosperity and a reasonable degree of freedom and security, its governing class is simply not going to be prepared to abandon the safe and traditional method of intergovernmental compromise for solving problems, and to find it within itself to express the strong will that is needed in order to impose a traumatic solution like that of the renunciation of sovereignty. This will, then, can be born only under the effect of popular pressure; the latter, in turn, is a force that can be unleashed, also thanks to the action of a conscious vanguard, only in a situation of crisis, in the same way as all the most important advances of the process of European unification until Maastricht were born of crisis situations. But in this case, the crisis will be different in two regards from those that have gone before. First of all, it will be a crisis that can only be solved through the foundation of a federal state, and thus at the cost of the abandonment of sovereignty at national level, and as a result it will bring into play much more deeply rooted interests, and much more dogged resistance than in the past. Second, it will be a crisis that will not manifest itself with the same degree of intensity in all the states of a Union that has now become too large and too variegated for this to occur. It will be much more marked in those states that, linked together by closer bonds of interdependence — consolidated by decades of shared experience, by a closer convergence of interests and by a greater maturation in public opinion of the European idea — will regard themselves as faced with a stark choice: to federate or perish; while it could even fail to manifest itself at all in the countries that are less deeply involved in the process of European unification, countries like Great Britain whose special links with the United States could constitute an alternative to the European Union. Thus, while a strong will to achieve federal unification might emerge in the former countries, in the others the determination to hold on to national sovereignty would remain unshaken. These latter countries will fight tooth and nail to prevent the birth of the federal core and to bring the process back within the ambit of the Union’s institutions. Therefore, in order for the federal core to come about, the determination of the countries that favour it will have to be strong enough to overcome this resistance, even if this means denouncing the Treaties.
Many find it hard to accept that crises and splits are the price to be paid for the advance of history, and of political history in particular. But this is indeed the case. The easy way, the way of compromise, is today leading Europe towards enlargement in the absence of reform and, as a result, towards a further weakening of its already depleted institutions; it is a way that will lead to the dissolution of the Union and to crises far more serious than any that would accompany the denunciation of the Treaties, or the mere threat to denounce them. In Europe today it is necessary to divide in order to unite. But it is essential that any splits that do occur are shown for what they really are, in other words, as the essential prerequisite that will allow the process to be re-launched through the replacement of the intergovernmental method with the federal one and the consequent creation of the essential basis for the establishment of a Pan-European federation; furthermore, every institutional proposal advanced within this setting will have to be presented clearly as non negotiable as regards its content but, at the same time, as open to all the countries willing to accept it, as well as reconcilable with the preservation, on the part of those that feel unable to accept it, of the acquis communautaire.
The eventual creation of a federal core will be based on a decision reached by a certain number of European governments, gathered around the central duo of France and Germany. It will not, as explained earlier, be a decision taken in a vacuum, but will instead represent the culmination of an initiative undertaken by a few leaders who will have developed a keen awareness of the gravity of the historical moment; it will be a decision reached in a climate of emergency and as the result of the pressure of public opinion in favour of it; the latter will, in turn, have grown up and developed as a result of the political agitation and of the permanent presence within the territory of a conscious vanguard. It will have to result in the conferment, on an assembly that represents democratically the citizens of the countries belonging to the federal core, of a mandate to draw up the federal constitution that will regulate the working of its institutions and define the values by which they will be guided. But the decision to found the new state will still rest with the governments as it is they that are the ultimate holders of power in the states involved in the process and they that are the only subjects that can legitimately carry out the formal act of transferring the state’s sovereignty. That the crisis could escalate to a point at which the governments are completely deprived of power is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility. But such a development would be tantamount to the establishment of a situation of anarchy that would be the prelude not to the birth of a federal state but, in all probability, to the micronationalistic fragmentation of the continent.
This is a topic that needs to be discussed in depth in federalist circles, because in this setting it would, as a result of federalists’ fundamental objection to the intergovernmental method, be easy to overlook the fact that some governments will in fact have a role to play in the culminating stage of the process, just as they have had in all its crucial moments in the past. It is a fact that the intergovernmental method, in the running of the European Community first and of the European Union subsequently, is, and has always been, ineffective and non democratic, and has done nothing other than reflect the confederal nature of these entities. It is also true that it is, and always has been, in periods of normality, totally unable to reform their institutional structure. It is not by chance that governments are the places in which sovereignty manifests itself most strongly and thus that they are the subjects naturally entrusted with the task of defending it. But it is precisely because of this that they are also the only subjects that can, in an emergency situation, take the decision to relinquish sovereignty. After all, the reaching of an intergovernmental agreement has been a crucial step of every advance made, in exceptional moments, by the European institutions. And the step will be all the more crucial when the advance in question is the founding of a federal core.
In any case, it would be mistaken to think that the nature of the process might change just by entrusting the task of reaching decisions on the fate of the Union to bodies in which other subjects are included as well as the governments. A “convention” that brings together, alongside the governments, representatives of the European Parliament, of the national parliaments, and of the European Commission — like the one which drew up the Charter of Fundamental Rights, or the one which, according to the Nice agreement, will by 2004 produce a document that defines more clearly the relative responsibilities of the European institutions, the nation-states and the regions — may serve as a form of make-believe, but it does not alter the decision-making process nor the real nature of the power relations.
This is not to say, of course, that the action conducted in all the other settings, like the federalist endeavour to generate popular consensus, to orient it and prepare to mobilise it, is not essential — quite the contrary. But what is really important is the ability to distinguish between those whose task it is to pave the way for the future, to express needs and aspirations and to organise the application of pressure, and those who will, instead, be called upon to make the formal decisions. And it is crucial that each of these plays its designated part.
* More than a decade and a half on, we have decided to republish the editorial of The Federalist, 43, n. 1 (2001), written by Francesco Rossolillo. His analysis of the impasse reached by European Union in the wake of the European Council in Nice, when the will to build a truly federal political union within a narrower framework than that of the Union as a whole was sorely lacking, remains highly pertinent and may still prove crucial in clarifying the deeper meaning of the crisis and challenges facing the European Union in the current historical and political context.