Year XLIX, 2007, Number 3, Page 157
Sovereignty and the European People
The most complex issues associated with the possible creation of a European federation include the transferring of sovereignty to supranational level and, above all, the question of whether there exists a European people that could be considered the holder of this new sovereignty. In fact, whenever a European people looks as though it could manifest its presence, it becomes feasible to think in terms of the birth of an out-and-out federal state whose legitimacy will stem from that people; in all other situations, however, the federal state objective can seem quite impossible (or wrong, or even dangerous) precisely because it would take away the sovereignty of the only lawful holders of it, that is the national peoples, in order to create a power not founded on any legitimate consensus.
Connected with these issues, which are nevertheless highly complex and much debated even within the ambit of the traditional doctrine of the state, there is also the question of the role of popular will in the process of European unification. In recent years, an extensive debate has grown up around this topic, stimulated particularly by the French and Dutch rejections of the European constitutional treaty and even before this, by the convening of the Convention entrusted with drawing up the text of this new treaty. In fact, many people saw this Convention as a capable of giving voice to the constituent power of the European people, and thus of transferring sovereignty from the member states to the Union, even against will of the states themselves. For this reason they argued that it was the European people as a whole, rather than the citizens of the single states, that should be called upon to pass judgement, though referendum, on the text of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe.
For anyone wishing to see the creation of a federal Europe, and thus the transformation of the European Union, which is basically a confederal organisation, into a political body equipped with sovereignty and with the capacity to act, it is essential to reflect upon these questions. And this reflection appears all the more urgent in the light of the difficulties that the European Union today finds itself up against. In fact, the possibility of realising the federal project depends on the support of public opinion, in some states at least, for the process of Europe’s unification. However, this faith on the part of the citizens cannot be won unless Europe shows itself to be capable of coming up with concrete responses to the very real dangers, economic and social, to which the citizens feel exposed. Thus, if the crisis that the Union is going through cannot be overcome quickly through the creation of a European political power that can meet the citizens’ needs, there is a risk that, faced with a European Union engaged in striving to establish difficult balances between the positions of the various member states rather than in the attempt to assume a role on the international stage, the faith of public opinion will drain away and the popular support essential for achieving the federal objective will cease to exist.
On the other hand, it is essential to underline that only a clear definition of the objective to be reached — the European federation — will make it possible to clear the field of misunderstandings and of ambiguous uses of terms such as people, constituent power, and citizenship, which are often automatically transposed from the national context, in which they evolved, to the European one.
Indeed, because of the hybrid nature of the European Union — the EU is a confederal entity, based on the existence of sovereign member states, but it has a federal vocation (albeit increasingly weak and shared by only a few states) — , terms of great symbolic value have often, in the attempt to get the process of unification moving, been applied to phenomena that do not reflect their true meaning.
Hence the term constitution, which refers to the body of norms crucial to the life and running of a state, i.e. of a political community equipped with sovereignty and with the capacity to set out its own fundamental rules, has been used in reference to a text, the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, which merely regulates the functioning of an organisation that has neither sovereignty nor the character of a state. The same applies to the institution of European citizenship. Citizenship, which binds single individuals by a sense of solidarity that derives from their belonging to the same political community, is a status traditionally associated with rights and obligations (paying taxes and defending the fatherland, for example). European citizenship, however, in the absence of a political power at European level and since the European Union does not exercise the competences that are the cornerstones of sovereignty, is by definition a flawed citizenship, associated with only a handful of rights established by the Community lawmaker. Finally, to define the Convention as the manifestation or voice of the constituent power of the European people is to fail to recognise that the exercising of constituent power implies a break with the existing rules, and that no norms can regulate constituent power or dictate how it should be exercised; the Convention, by remaining strictly within the mandate conferred on it — which did not call into question the existing power structure — and seeking to do no more than reform the Treaties in force, did not bring about a break of this kind. On the other hand, the very idea of a European people is meaningless in the absence of a political project with which the people can identify (as is the case within the framework of the EU), and if no decision has been taken to create a true political community (which thus remains as a concrete prospect). The fact is that the birth of the European federal people can come about only in conjunction with that of the European federal state. The growing interdependence and the deep integration that Europe has seen in recent decades provide the necessary conditions for this birth, but it will take a severe crisis (or the imminent threat of one) and, as a response to it, a solid proposal to create a European federal power, for the citizens of the member states to realise fully that they are the European people and can demonstrate their concrete support for this evolution.
It goes without saying that should the Europeans actually manage to create a federal state, it would be history’s first ever example of a supranational democracy and it would make it possible not only to overcome the present ambiguities, mentioned earlier, but also to give terms such as people, citizenship, and constituent power a richer meaning, more in keeping with the universal nature of the democratic values express.
A European federation founded on long-established states, like the European ones, would in fact be attributed only those competencies (namely, in the fields of foreign policy and defence) that are the most typical expressions of sovereignty and which it would have to have in order to be able to respond to the needs of the citizens that can no longer be met at national level. What we are talking about, in other words, is a European federation founded on several levels of government, each of which would be assigned the competences it is equipped to exercise. In this way, citizenship would no longer be seen as a bond, based on a sense of belonging, with the nation-state alone; instead it would take on a multiple significance, denoting contemporaneous membership of several political communities, from the lowest level to European level. Equally, the co-existence of several levels of government and thus of various senses of identity and of belonging would show that the concept of people is not based on sameness, ethnic or linguistic, but on the shared belief in a common project and on the sense of being part of a political community capable of expressing universal values.
These topics were discussed at the second international meeting entitled “Building a European Federal State in an Enlarged European Union” held in Pavia on February 26, 2007 and organised by the University of Pavia and the Mario and Valeria Albertini Foundation. The papers we publish in this issue of The Federalist do not claim to exhaust these enormously complex topics, but are intended to serve as a starting point for the process of reflection that anyone wishing to fight for the creation of a European political power must inevitably embark on.