Year XL, 1998, Number 2 - Page 101
Sovereignty and the European Currency
Thanks to the determination, at the European Council of Brussels, of the countries which will enter the single currency from the very start, and provided no unforeseen calamities occur, Europe can now be said to have achieved two fundamental milestones on the road towards European unification: the introduction of monetary union and the institution of a European Central Bank. A major advance has been made and, for those fighting for completion of the process (driving, that is, for political union), the outlook is brighter now than at any time in the past.
Having reached this point, federalists are bound to be asking themselves some radical questions. Since currency (like the armed forces) is one of the essential attributes of “statehood”, does this mean that a piece of a European state has, in fact, already been created? Has a transfer of sovereignty from national to European level already taken place? Can the progress towards the foundation of a European federation now be considered irreversible?
Federalists feel that it is imperative to consider these questions as the answers to them will determine the role they play in the phase of the process which is about to begin.
At the heart of the question lies the concept of sovereignty, which has a real sense, and is distinct from the general idea of power, only if it is defined as the power to decide in the last instance. As such, sovereignty constitutes the foundation of law, as a legal order can be valid and certain only when the subject which has the power to decide in the last instance has been determined. And, within a given territory, there can be only one such subject, as the existence of more than one would indicate the concomitant validity of two or more legal systems and, in turn, mean that, in situations of conflict, the applicability of one or the other of these could, in the last instance, be determined only by violence. Sovereignty is therefore the prerequisite for the maintenance of peace in society and for the growth of civilisation.
If there can be only one holder of sovereignty, it follows that those who consider the division of sovereignty between two or more levels of government to be a specifically federalist idea fail to appreciate the difference between the concept of sovereignty and the concept of power. While the institutionalisation of a balanced division of power (along territorial lines) among several levels of government constitutes the basis of a federal state, sovereignty, on the other hand, is indivisible as there must, in any particular instance, be one and only one law by which the citizen of a federal state is bound. And there must always be an authority which, in the event of uncertainty, has the power to settle disputes between the citizens or between the institutions of a state.
Even though, in daily life, this function is carried out by different institutions, it is important to appreciate that, since the institutions are shaped and legitimised by the legal system, and in particular by the Constitution, the true holder of sovereignty cannot be an institution because it is the political subject which renders the legal system legitimate (and therefore represents the last resort in the event of institutional crises).
In the light of this, the one true holder of sovereignty is the people, and each transfer of sovereignty signifies the replacement of one people with another. In the case of Europe, the transfer of sovereignty from national to European level means the exit from the stage of the national peoples, and the entry of the European people to provide the basis of the legitimacy which the institutions of a future European federation will enjoy.
If we accept all this, the implications, from the point of view of the federalist struggle, are considerable.
The birth of the European federation, which must coincide with the passing of sovereignty from the nations to Europe, will not be only an institutional event but also, and above all, one based on consensus: it will be an event signifying that the citizens of Europe recognise their existence as a single people. And it is this act of recognition which will bestow upon the new institutional order that degree of irreversibility without which it would be meaningless to speak of the birth of a new state. In other words, it is only through a constituent process (which, while generating, as it proceeds, a series of events of highly symbolic value, must have a duration) that the transfer of sovereignty from national to European level can come about. This process, already under way, will come to an end after the formal foundation of the federation. It would appear reasonable to consider the first direct election of the European Parliament as the start of this process, and the creation of a single currency as one of its crucial stages. But the real importance of these two events is the contribution they have made towards raising the awareness among an increasing number of European citizens of their existence as a single people. Moreover, the creation of a European currency will not mark the end of the process, nor will it come to an end with the solemn declaration of the birth of the European federation. With the remark “once Italy has been made, then we must make the Italians” Massimo D’Azeglio once suggested that the process by which sovereignty was transferred from the regional peoples to the Italian people would continue after the formal unification of the country (and what a tortuous and difficult process it turned out to be, as the history of brigandage in the country’s southern regions testifies). In the present context, the same idea applies to the transfer of sovereignty from the national peoples to the people of Europe.
It is opportune, at this point, to recall the dialectical nature of the relationship that exists, within all processes leading to the transfer of sovereignty, between institutional changes and the maturing of the civic consciousness (that is, the formation of a new people). The maturation of the civic consciousness is conditioned by changes in the institutional order, which alter the framework of political struggle and the orientation both of the mass media and of the educational system. In turn, the institutional order can be changed only through the will of men, men who enjoy a degree of freedom and who, faced with the inadequacy of the current institutions to meet the needs emerging within society, are driven to act; in short, men whose opinions and behaviour are not merely a passive reflection of the current institutional order. The constituent process is thus a cycle: the political will of men modifies the institutions and the modified institutions, in turn, favour the maturation of the civic consciousness, and thus the expression of a heightened political awareness. This leads to further institutional change, and so the process goes on until a balance is reached, at which point the transfer of sovereignty, i.e. the process leading to the formation of the new people, is over.
The above idea might appear to be at variance with the idea of the indivisibility of sovereignty, but this is, in fact, only an apparent contradiction. To affirm that sovereignty is indivisible means that, during the phases in which a balance exists, there must be a clearly indicated seat of sovereignty. Without this, caught between opposing orders, (each one cancelling out the legitimacy of the other), and prey to confusion and uncertainty, civil coexistence would be disrupted. However, this does not alter the fact that the phases in which there is a balance are separated by transitional phases during which there is uncertainty over the seat of sovereignty. Furthermore, when such a transition takes place in a relatively stable external context, such phases can be quite lengthy and orderly, as has been the case, so far, with Europe. Ultimately, the transitional phase will come to an end — making way for a new balance, or for a return to the previous equilibrium, or degenerating into chaos. This does not mean that sovereignty can be divided, only that, in certain periods in history, sovereignty may be latent or, and this amounts to the same thing, its true holder undetermined. Therefore, in reference to European monetary union, while it is incorrect to consider monetary sovereignty (supposedly held by the Central European Bank) as quite separate from political sovereignty (said to be exercised by the national governments), it is, on the other hand, right to see the creation of a European currency as a crucial episode in the transitional process leading to the transfer of sovereignty from national to European level.
Many people believe that, because of the information-oriented development of society, the world is moving towards an order in which the very idea of sovereignty will be definitively obsolete, superseded by a superimposition of non hierarchical orders and contractual relations which, leaving the way clear for endemic forms of violence (half way between war and internal anarchy) will make it quite reasonable to talk in terms of the advent of a second Middle Ages.
Those who hold this view consider the current order of the European Union to be the first and the most striking manifestation of this new trend, seeing the EU as a new and stable model of organised social cohabitation which, neither federal nor confederal, represents the progressive evaporation of the very idea of the State or, as some insidiously suggest, the emergence of a new form of State which does not even take the idea of sovereignty into account.
This theory must be rejected on the basis both of its deficiency as an analytical tool and of its underlying philosophy. First, because it is only through the adoption of common standards and a common legal rules that the world society in the form which it has assumed due to the evolution of information technology (a form of society which, moreover, would never have evolved without the stimulus of the United States government) is able to function and, in turn, because such standards and rules can be imposed only by political power (not, simply, as a result of competition between private operators). Indeed, any long absence or withdrawal on the part of the State would provoke the collapse of the very system which is supposedly seeking to supersede it. Second, the theory must be repudiated because of its underlying philosophy, based as it is on the selfish promotion of those private interests which allow immediate gain, (and are strong enough to guarantee, or create the illusion of being able to guarantee their own security), and on a lack of concern for the “Fourth World” both external and internal, which is prey to violence, poverty, crime, disease and social outcasting. It is certainly possible that the world is drawing ever closer to a major civilisation crisis and, should this indeed be the case, we must not simply sit back and wait for the advent of a second Middle Ages but rather, recognising the catastrophic nature of such an eventuality, invest all our strength in the fight to prevent it.
If the process leading to the transfer of sovereignty is essentially a process of maturation of the civic consciousness, its course must be marked by one or more founding acts which are so loaded with symbolic meaning that they become impressed in the collective imagination and stimulate a greater awareness of the existence of the new emerging people. The oath of the Tennis-Court and the Philadelphia Convention are two such founding acts. In the case of the process of European unification, it is inconceivable that the transfer of sovereignty might come about merely through an agreement among governments, an agreement prompted by the rational recognition of an objective need. The birth of a new people implies the death of the institutions in which the power of all those who stand for the old order is rooted. The transfer of sovereignty is a process destined to encounter stronger and stronger resistance the closer it draws to its conclusion. Like any major revolutionary historical transformation, the founding of the European federation is bound to go through dramatic periods, periods which will draw the citizens into the process, heightening emotions, giving rise to hopes, generating fears and anxieties and provoking conflicts. In such periods, the European people in the making will, in one form or another, take an active and leading role and, by explicitly manifesting its will, underline its importance as the wielder of constituent power in Europe. Before this can happen, however, the inadequacy of the current European institutions vis-à-vis the problems, both internal and external, with which they are required to deal, will have to become so extreme as to provoke social paralysis, crisis and insecurity on such a scale that the daily lives of every citizen are affected.
At this point, it does not, therefore, seem possible to affirm that the process of the transfer of sovereignty from national to European level has, with the advent of monetary union, reached the threshold of irreversibility. This notion of the irreversibility of the process of European unification has always been central to the federalist debate and, because of the important implications it has on the federalist action, it is an idea which must be approached with the utmost care. Indeed, whether we see the process as a rigidly determined series of events or consider its phases to depend exclusively on the free will of the subjects that determine them, the capacity of the Federalist movement to spur others into action is severely compromised. Revolutionary political action is motivated by two things: first, by the awareness that one’s own commitment may make a difference (may, in other words, help to change things) and, second, by the belief that this commitment reflects the direction which the historical course is following and that one’s struggle is not quixotic since the message which the action seeks to convey is directed at men and women who have, by the evolution of events, been rendered receptive to it. Returning to the concrete example of European unification, it can be observed that since this process entered its constituent phase (with the first direct election of the European Parliament), the pro-European forces have presented a stronger and stronger front; furthermore, the federalist position has been simplified as the various aspects of many issues, like that of the single European currency, which previously had to be explained laboriously, have now been clarified by the evolution of events. However, we must not forget that, although the distance still to be covered is now relatively short, this last stage of the journey is bound to be much more difficult than the earlier ones, and that the anti-European forces are becoming fiercer and more determined in their opposition: the more directly and explicitly their power is threatened, the more tenacious they will be in their defence of it.
Historical transformations are driven by the force of contradiction. The process of European unification is, in every phase, driven by the contradictions which continue to emerge between the nature of the Union’s institutions and the nature of the problems with which these institutions have to deal. They are contradictions which, if Europe does become a single subject, the historians of the future will interpret as Hegelian stages in the manifestation of the Idea which, necessarily contain within them their own conclusion. From the present-day perspective, however, and especially from the perspective of the activist striving to achieve a political result in the short- to mid-term, such contradictions emerge as a contrast between interests and alignments in favour of the overcoming of the status quo, and interests and alignments determined to see it maintained — and of course, in this context, the forces in favour of progress may win or lose. While it is true that political action is founded ultimately on faith in the capacity of human reason to overcome, sooner or later, the major contradictions of history in order to promote the emancipation of mankind and its liberation from the clutches of violence and need, it is also true that the gradual journey of mankind towards increasingly humane forms of social cohabitation has been marred by wasted opportunities, war, poverty and oppression. The price paid mankind for its freedom is a high one indeed. But the length of the process and the extent of the costs involved depend, in part, on the will of man — if they did not, it would be impossible to view political commitment as anything other than a pure struggle for power.