Year XLI, 1999, Number 1, Page 3
The Decisive Battle
The birth of the euro is an important landmark in the process of European unification. As well as representing an unprecedented advance in the movement towards the completion of a single European market, it has turned Europe (albeit to a certain extent only virtually) into a great world financial power. But EMU also highlights a number of serious contradictions inherent in the process and raises anew (in increasingly concrete terms) the question of the political unification of the continent. It is a question which has been dealt with on a number of occasions in this journal, and one to which it is not necessary to return here — above all because the need for political union (or a European constitution, or a democratic European government) has become so pressing, and so obvious, that the arguments traditionally advanced by federalists are now being propounded across the board by politicians and opinion leaders of the most diverse leanings.
It is no longer simply a question of demonstrating the need to give Europe its own constitution but, rather, one of turning words into deeds: a task, no small one to begin with, rendered all the more difficult by the fact that we are required not to seize an existing power so much as to create a power which as yet does not exist. In an effort to understand better the nature of this problem, we must return to one of the main elements of the political and theoretical work of Mario Albertini: his considerations on the power to build Europe and, hence, on the nature of the stakes, on the players involved, on the circumstances in which the process might enter its crucial phase and on the ways in which such a phase will manifest itself.
Sovereignty. First, it must be made clear that the stakes in this phase are represented by the transfer of sovereignty from national to European level. As we have pointed out before, this process of transfer has already begun, and the coming into force of the euro is certainly an important landmark in it. There can be no doubt that, in the sphere of economic policy at least, national governments will find that the euro restricts considerably their freedom to act and that, once the currency is visibly in circulation in the form of banknotes and coins, it will become, in the eyes of the citizens of Europe, a very real symbol of their common membership of a new European entity. Yet, at the same time, the power to decide in the last instance (whose main emblem and instrument is the monopoly of physical strength, in other words, exclusive control of the armed forces) is still in the hands of the national governments, each of which has the formal right (which it could effectively exercise in the event of a real emergency) to pull out of the single currency. It is also true that, in Europe, politics (and thus the process by which the general interests of the citizens are determined) is carried on almost exclusively at national level and that the decisive arguments put forward to gain consensus, and thus to win, and to hold on to, power are still based on the promotion of national interests. There can thus be no doubt that the most difficult hurdles still have to be overcome.
The Intergovernmental Method. On the other hand, it is unrealistic to expect that a politically unified Europe can be created on the basis of intergovernmental conferences, in other words, by applying the method that has, until now, been used for the reform of the Treaties. The intergovernmental approach is deeply rooted in the idea that a government’s natural political objective is to promote national interests, an idea which effectively reduces European politics to a search for compromises among divergent national interests. It is true that the process of European unification has got as far as it has thanks to the fact that the national governments have always recognised the vital importance of reaching such compromises within the European framework. But having said that, each of these national governments has always held the right of veto which, when it feels that a vital national interest is at stake, it can exercise in order to block a decision reached by the majority, a faculty which renders Europe’s political mechanism, based on the national governments, ineffective and undemocratic. From this perspective, the retention of national sovereignty is the most vital national interest of all, and it is thus inconceivable that, unless exceptional circumstances arise, the governments will unanimously decide to relinquish it, in other words, that the intergovernmental method can be suppressed through the adoption of an intergovernmental approach.
Public Opinion. The semi-conscious awareness of the truth of this statement renders acceptable the slogan, “a citizens’ Europe.” And yet it is an ambiguous slogan which generally expresses the unfounded and misleading idea that public opinion is something that can evolve progressively until it becomes so strong that governments will have no choice but to bow to it and renounce their sovereignty. What this idea fails to take into account is the fact that public opinion is, itself, part of the national power game. Underlying power, there must be the consensus of public opinion, but the leanings of public opinion, conditioned by contrasting short-term interests and filtered by the mass communication channels that represent an integral part of the national political framework, become, in turn, nothing more than a reflection of the existing balance of power. In short, the national character of the balance of power serves to reinforce the national character of public opinion, and vice versa. And while this cannot take away the fact that the process of European unification is a reality, and that, as a consequence, public opinion in most of the Union’s member states is pro-European, there continues to be a lack of institutional channels and democratic mechanisms through which this consensus and support might really be made to count and to influence the political direction of parties and governments. Instead, it remains purely passive and citizens continue to see their faculty to choose between different national options as the only channel through which they can influence, to a greater or lesser degree, the decisions on which their future wellbeing depends.
The European People. This is a vicious cycle that can only be broken through the materialisation of exceptional historical circumstances, capable of forcing public opinion (as we have seen, a superficial, disorganised and non autonomous phenomenon) to make way for what can, in the final analysis, be considered the protagonist of all the great political transformations that have taken place in the course of history: a people which, in situations of emergency, proves able to rise above its state of passivity, to adopt a new identity, to shrug off the self-interested impulses and contrasting positions which generally characterise life in a civilised society, and to impose, through the unstoppable force of its will, a new institutional order and a new conception of what constitutes the general good of the citizens. What is needed in Europe, therefore, is a transmutation of many national public opinions into a single European people, in whose name the process of transferring sovereignty from the nation states to a European federal state can be begun and completed. None of this means, of course, that the national governments will be excluded from the process. On the contrary, they will have to remain in power, if only to carry through the transfer of sovereignty and to delegate to an elected assembly the task of drawing up the constitution of the United States of Europe. After all, until a European government has been created, the disappearance of the national governments would produce nothing but anarchy. And yet, when the decisive moment comes, the latter will have no choice but to bow to the will of the European people.
The Crisis. It would be naive to imagine that all this might come about through a calm and progressive heightening of awareness among European citizens. Instead, nothing short of a crisis — in other words, the emergence of contradictions so grave that the very real risk of their eruption throws into question the existing order, and makes a European federation seem the only possible alternative to chaos — will suffice to shake them out of their passive acceptance of the existing state of affairs. Only in these conditions can the multitude become a people, and the citizens break free from submission to the political power in order to express their own, independent, free will. And it is only in these conditions that national power will, in the states of the European Union, lose its capacity to condition public opinion: only then, with the future of national power thrown into question, will governments and politicians be free to carry through the traumatic step that is the complete renunciation of sovereignty. Yet until this crisis occurs, in other words, as long as the intergovernmental method goes on managing to overcome (albeit with increasing difficulty) the obstacles which will, as time goes by, present themselves, then national governments will continue to hold on to their power to decide in the last instance, and the political outlook of the people will remain trapped in the national sphere.
The Vanguard. On its own, however, such a crisis is not enough. No political or institutional order will ever be thrown into a crisis that it is not, itself, equipped to resolve (even though this may be at the cost of a progressive outcasting from the historical process of the political community which it regulates and the gradual decline of civil co-habitation). Governments, politicians and public opinion all need, in some way, to be prepared for the advent of this crisis so that, when it does occur, an alternative is already in place. This is the kind of role played by revolutionary vanguards and, in the case of Europe, it is the role played by federalists. This provision of an alternative is the real purpose of their work (obscure, and seen by many as sterile) in the period leading up to the onset of the crisis. Let us not forget (although many already have) that it was federalists, after all, who formulated and promoted the political designs for what have proved to be the two most crucial developments in the process of unification to date: the direct election of the European parliament and the single currency. It is essential, therefore, that they continue to remain on the scene, carrying forward with tenacity their two most important tasks: to promote, tirelessly, the federal message in the face of governments and politicians who, while sometimes ready to applaud their efforts, are nevertheless determined not to relinquish their hold on power, and to keep alive in public opinion (often distracted and passive, as we have seen) the idea of the federal unity of Europe, so that what today can only be considered weak and passive consensus might, when the time is ripe, be transformed into a strong political will and conscious participation in the struggle to win constituent power. Yet the vanguard must not be seen as the only player on this particular stage. There are others who have a part to play in carrying forward this process, and it is crucial that the vanguard realises who they are, and understands the nature of their role.
The Occasional Leadership. It is important to underline that, in the phase of the mobilisation of consensus, these other active protagonists cannot be institutions (even though the vanguard will be required to keep up the pressure on the existing ones, reminding them of their responsibilities and highlighting any failure to fulfil the same); this role cannot fall to the national governments or to parliaments as their function, rather, is to hold back the process; it cannot be fulfilled by the Commission, or even by the European Parliament whose role it is (leaving aside the problem of their current weakness and inconsistency) to manage the acquis communautaire, and not the realisation of revolutionary designs. To find the other leading players in this process, we must look, rather, to great leaders, to individuals who have risen to the highest echelons of political life and who are part of the institutions without, however, identifying with them. In short, we must look to those who, thanks to the sheer height of the position they hold, sometimes manage (in exceptional circumstances) to divorce themselves from the strictly national view of the struggle for power, and pick up on a much deeper reality, developing a very real appreciation of the nature of the historical process, and of the crucial problems inherent in it, that renders them receptive to the message which the vanguard is striving to convey. Such individuals, taking up what Albertini called “occasional leadership” of the process, are the only ones who have the capacity to mobilise popular consensus and to make the citizens of Europe feel like a single people. In the absence of an individual (or more than one) who fits this description, it would not be possible to mobilise and channel into the effort to achieve major institutional transformation the potential energies unleashed by the crisis. In the mediocrity of everyday life, these would, instead, be allowed to burn themselves out.
The Interface. Finally there exist, in the countries of the European Union and in the European parliament, a small number of political figures (not high ranking ones) who, while unable to devote themselves full-time to the cause of European political unification (being involved in national politics and the management of power) do appreciate the historically decisive nature of the problem and may be willing to carry out crucial groundwork, similar to the campaigning carried out (upon the instigation of Altiero Spinelli) fifteen years ago, in the ambit of the European parliament, by the members of the Crocodile Club. These individuals, whom federalists must patiently seek out, could act as intermediaries between the vanguard and the “occasional leaders”; they could play an important role in the mobilisation of consensus whenever “occasional leaders” do come to the fore, and be the first to pick up on and amplify the ideas and proposals advanced by the vanguard.
The Constituent Phase (in the strictest sense of the expression). If the consensus of the citizens of Europe can be mobilised successfully (if, in other words, a European people is formed), the process will move into its constituent phase (an expression used here in its strictest sense). This phase will see the institutions once again taking the field. Presumably the European Council — or in any case a certain number of heads of state and of government — will entrust the European Parliament, or a body made up of MEPs and members of the national parliaments, or (and perhaps most likely) a specially elected constituent assembly, with the task of drawing up a federal constitution. There is no point, at this stage, trying to define the exact procedure that will lead to the accomplishment, and determine the succession, of these various steps as the cards are always thrown up into the air in times of revolutionary change: situations tend to alter with impressive speed and predictions are systematically proved wrong. And let us not forget that, at the present time, we do not even know which countries will form the first federal core — a group that looks unlikely to include all the countries which will then be members of the European Union, and thus responsible for deciding the composition ofits bodies. In the meantime, it is up to federalists to go on spreading the fundamental message of European federal unity, until such time as the evolution of events renders possible the convergence of the vanguard, the citizens and those in power which represents the indispensable condition for any revolutionary change.