Year XXXVI, 1994, Number 3 - Page 167
The Timing of European Unification
The European unification process began after the second world war, and has developed over the following decades on the back of what Braudel would have called a movement of long duration: the strong intensification of economic, social and cultural interdependence among peoples above and beyond national borders. In recent decades this process has taken on planetary dimensions, but its most immediately visible form during this period has been in Western Europe.
The long wave of the progressive extension of interdependence in Europe has posed, and continues to pose, unavoidable problems of government. The history of the European unification process and of the institutional evolution that has marked its phases, from the foundation of the Council of Europe to the creation of the Union by the Maastricht Treaty, has been the history of the attempt of the states involved to ensure political control over the process. This attempt has until now been carried out by the states through intergovernmental cooperation, that is by facing the problems of a European scale jointly, but without renouncing individually their own sovereignty. Despite this, the Community was until recently able to maintain a sufficient degree of cohesion, and thereby to guarantee Western Europe almost half a century of peace and prosperity. But the process contained a profound internal contradiction. The maintenance of sovereignty, characteristic of the intergovernmental approach, implies as its logical consequence the progressive weakening of democracy in the European states, in as much as all essential decisions are taken at a level removed from the control of citizens (apart from the ineffective and flimsy checks provided by the European Parliament), while the mechanism of democratic control operates to no useful purpose in spheres where no important decisions are taken. This undermines the very basis of democratic consensus, which in democracy is inseparable from the awareness of citizens to be involved in the process of taking the decisions on which depend their security and quality of life. As a result there is a marked tendency toward the degeneration of political life, since the European decisions concern only the member states’ most senior politicians, while the vast majority of the political class, excluded from the process of preparing for, and taking, important decisions, has developed, with the passing of time, a concept of politics as purely a power struggle, lacking any idealistic perspective, and hence an activity which consists almost exclusively of the granting, in exchange for votes, of favours to vested interests, to the detriment of the general weal.
In this way, the Europe of the Community has for decades witnessed a contrast between two opposing trends: the one, superficial, that has been re-invigorating the states through the economic growth made possible by the European scale of the market; the other, profound, that has been weakening and impoverishing domestic political debate, through the degeneration of democratic life and the loss of the state’s legitimacy.
It needs to be stressed that the outcome of this contradictory process has been delayed by a situation that, while having profoundly influenced the European unification process, was substantially independent of it. Namely, the cold war. The confrontation of power and ideology between the United States and the Soviet Union, led Western Europe into the orbit of the United States, and determined the compatibility of the European unification process with American interests. In this way European unification could begin and continue in the safe context of American hegemony. America’s involvement guaranteed Europe’s security and monetary stability, albeit in a precarious and temporary fashion, and it ensured the European states the survival of their democratic institutions thanks to the support of the great majority of their citizens, who took as their point of reference the role of their governments as allies of the United States in the common battle for democracy against the Soviet danger. In this framework European integration was able to proceed and it overcame with relative ease the difficulties that had obstructed its path. It was perceived by public opinion and by politicians in general as an irreversible trend because it was based on a real convergence of interests among the European states, and one that would have progressed, with slow but sure steps, toward a conclusion that no-one was excessively preoccupied to specify at what particular moment it would occur or what precise nature it would have.
The alteration of the world political situation following the events of 1989 has radically altered the context of the European unification process, and the way in which it is experienced by citizens and interpreted by politicians. It remains a fact that, on the one hand, interdependence continues to intensify, and has enlarged its scope to the whole of Europe, by prospectively including in this process the states of Eastern Europe. But on the other hand, the political framework guaranteed by American hegemony and the importance of European unification for US interests are lacking. Two closely linked, though contradictory, results have emerged from this: the need for Europe to assume first hand responsibility for dealing with foreign and monetary policy issues, and to give itself proper legitimacy; and the re-emergence of the logic of pursuing the national interest, freed from the constrictions imposed by the cold war. In parallel fashion, the intrinsic weakness of the institutions of European unification has been fully exposed, both as regards their lack of effectiveness and insufficient democratic legitimacy.
In light of this it is currently necessary to pose a question on which depends the federalists’ strategy in the run-up to the 1996 intergovernmental conference and the immediately following deadlines for the creation of a single currency. This involves establishing what will happen if attempts to create in the near future a single European currency and a federal institutional core, and thereby a new European legitimacy, end in failure. Will the logic of economic interdependence and of the ever closer intertwining of economic interests be sufficient to support the process and to ensure its continuation, thus guaranteeing the federalists the chance to continue their strategy in a framework that is sufficiently long-term? Or will instead the European structure launch itself toward disintegration, with the inevitable result of the rebirth of nationalism and of a crisis of democracy?
In reality it is this second alternative that seems by far the most probable. It remains true that the slow evolution of economic and social relationships has been the basis and the motor of the European unification process. But the foundation and the commitment of federalist movements have their profound motivation in the awareness that the process can be made irreversible only by the creation of federal states that possess the institutional tools and legitimacy that are necessary for the democratic government of the economy and society. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that, in the absence of a stable political framework, increased interdependence can be turned into a cause for conflict. The collapse of Yugoslavia demonstrates how the existence of a market that is closely integrated and a high degree of interconnecting economic interests are nevertheless not sufficient to guarantee the peaceful co-habitation of a people if there does not exist above them a power that citizens consider to be legitimate, in as much as it is able to establish itself as the guarantor of the defence of the general interest.
Yet if the above is true, then the process of European unification, if it is not rendered irreversible by monetary and political union, is destined, sooner or later, to come to an end; and in the presence of certain conditions, the interests and expectations of economic actors, however important they may be, will not be enough to guarantee its continuation. Without a European power endowed with real legitimacy that is separate from the national one, the interdependence of interests will prove less strong than the destructive tendencies that will originate from the temptation to return to a legitimacy based on the nation. This nation-based legitimacy has been overtaken by history, but it will retain a strong mobilising force, or at least the capacity to dull consciences, until it is substituted by a new European legitimacy, currently non-existent.
It is true that ultimately movements of long duration, which originate in the daily behaviour and concrete interests of men and women, prevail over all obstacles and impose their own logic on politics. But this is true only in the ultimate. History is the history of the emancipation of the human race, but it does not proceed along a straight line: its path is strewn with wars, violence and destruction. Hence it is clear that nobody will be able to stop the march of the world toward its unification. But it remains highly probable that if Europe loses the great opportunity it is being offered in the final part of the 20th century, many years of disorder and decline will pass before it can re-start down the road to its own unification. Nor can it be excluded that Europe will even have to leave to others the leadership of the process toward world unification, and thereby be confined to a decadent peripheral role, like that of Greece in the 4th B.C. century or Italy in the 15th A.C.
The rhythms of history are not the rhythms of politics. But the rhythms of politics are the rhythms of people’s lives. And the deadlines on the European political calendar from 1996 to the end of the century will be decisive for millions of Europeans. On the choices made will depend their quality of life in the decades to come. For this reason, the federalists must maintain the time horizon of history as the general context of their strategy, but know how to act with energy and timeliness in the time horizon of politics and in the framework of the existing balances of power, in the awareness that Europe is faced with a dramatic choice and that this historical opportunity may not re-present itself.