political revue


Year LVII, 2015, Single Issue, Page 17



The historical significance
of the process of European unification



“We are not living in an era of change, but a change of era. The situations we are experiencing today are presenting new challenges that we sometimes find difficult to understand. The problems of our times need to be treated as challenges, not obstacles”. This reflection by Pope Francis, addressing representatives of the V National Congress of the Italian Church, meeting in Florence on 10 November, 2015, certainly captures the meaning of our times, and helps to clarify the role of politics today. It explains, among other things, why the old ideological clash between left and right no longer corresponds to reality and why, instead, the new demarcation line separating the various political forces is, rather, the one that separates, on the one hand, the ability to understand the current transformations linked to globalisation and the technological revolution, and the desire try to govern them, and, on the other, the refusal to recognise them and to acknowledge the changes they entail. These ideas were clearly encapsulated by Pietro Ichino in an article published on December 9, 2015, in Il Foglio, in which he highlighted the clash between “policies shaped by the desire to defend national sovereignties, return to the closed borders of the past, defend national identities, protect native businesses and workers against competition from outsiders, and favour a strictly local economy”, and “policies shaped by the desire to build a supranational continental system, introducing the internal reforms necessary to make European integration possible, but also by the desire to encourage the inflow of foreign investment (as a vehicle of technological innovation) and promote cultural exchange and the mobility of persons, goods and services”. Ichino remarked that “the construction of the new European Union is nothing other than the first stage in the policy of those who wish to embrace the challenge of globalisation and feel able to overcome it. Conversely, rejection of this perspective is the first stage in the policy of those who shun this challenge, seeing primarily its risks and costs”.

These were precisely the challenges that Altiero Spinelli and Mario Albertini, engaged in the lengthy process of laying the political and theoretical foundations of federalism, had in mind when they referred to post-WWII Europe as the laboratory of new world politics that was preparing solutions for the new era of global interdependence. The affirmation of an institutional model that allows sovereignty to be shared is, indeed, the Gordian knot that the new era must find a way of unravelling. The current level of interdependence between countries, together with the global dimension of today’s problems and opportunities, shows that it is necessary to extend the orbit of the democratic state, in such a way that the sphere of democratic government matches the scale of the various processes taking place. All this explains the need to give rise to a new supranational institutional model (federal) built on the sharing of sovereignty between the different levels of power of government — a system that establishes a new concept of people that embraces unity in diversity and allows all citizens to have multipleloyaltiesand identities. “Normal” politics, on the other hand, which reasons and acts within the existing (national) power framework, lacks the capacity to treat today’s problems “as challenges, not obstacles” and perceives them only as threats; this is precisely because it remains a prisoner of the myth of the nation-state as the ultimate holder of sovereignty, and of the view that a people is necessarily defined by a closed and exclusive identity shaped by the concept of nation, and that the nation-state is therefore the natural framework of politics and solidarity. By refusing to let go of this view, politics remains, quite simply, helpless in the face of reality.

The challenge of overcoming the national dimension is precisely what, in the gut instinct of Europe’s founding fathers (even before their theoretical analysis), the building of Europe was felt to embody. For this reason, as we have repeated many times in this review, what is at stake in Europe is not just the future of our continent, but the future of the whole of mankind. It is through the process of European integration that the struggle to establish a new model, in place of the national one, will be won or lost. No other part of the world is ready to embark on an experiment of this kind, and until Europe succeeds in constructing a new, supranational, democratic, political order, the nation-state will continue to prevail. After all, it is still supported by the weight of its long history, the early part of which brought successes, and by a consensus crystallised in the power relations that still govern the world; it can also count on the lack of cultural alternatives, given that political thought remains tied to the old national categories and is unwilling, or unable, to embrace the federalist ones and use them as the starting point to build something new. Nationalism also thrives on inertia, which, as Machiavelli pointed out, ensures that “there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them”.

All this explains why the European project has a universal character. Understanding this fact makes it possible to appreciate the narrowness of the framework within which almost everyone would see it confined. What is more, because those wanting to defend the process of European integration are not able to see clearly the effect, in terms of profound change, that federal unification would have on the European countries themselves and throughout the world, they almost always find themselves struggling for arguments, especially in the present turbulent phase. Even more than the wellbeing it would generate and the fact that it would allow the Europeans to assume the critical mass needed to play an active role on the international stage, European federation is, first and foremost, a vision of civilisation.

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Analysing the process of European integration from the perspective of the challenge to achieve shared sovereignty also makes it possible to understand clearly the dynamics of its events. After the collapse of the EDC Treaty, which amounted to a refusal by the European countries (France primarily) to “sacrifice” their national sovereignty, the strategy adopted to carry the process forward hinged on the pursuit of greater economic integration, as it was felt that this, by making the Europeans interdependent on a material level, would somehow pave the way for a subsequent political transition. In any case, the political project remained, until the mid-1990s, a crucial point of cultural reference for the Europeans; without it, the internal market (the common market and subsequently the single market), the institutional strengthening of the Community (particularly through the direct election of the European Parliament), and the introduction of the single currency would have been impossible. The Community has never been simply “a free trade area”, and it is only thanks to the political nature of the European process that certain, otherwise inconceivable, developments have been possible (instances of openness, legislative harmonisation, convergence and shared policies, not to mention forms of solidarity). In short, European economic integration was successful precisely because it was supported by the prospect of political integration. In this respect, a comparison with the European Free Trade Area, founded in 1959 by many of the countries that had not joined the European Community, is helpful.

Despite this state of affairs, the constituent nature of the pursuit of political unity that underlies economic integration — it implies a transfer, by the states, not only of competences but also of sovereignty and direct powers over the citizens — has never been clearly defined by politicians, who preferred to pretend that political unity meant pursuing “soft” solutions, i.e. transfers of competences that the national governments agreed to coordinate jointly. In this context, only the federalists continued to present the pursuit of political unity unambiguously.

Over the years, therefore, awareness of what building a European federation really means, in institutional terms, has become blurred. In part, this fact can be attributed to the role played by Great Britain: indeed, since the time of the UK’s entry in 1973, Europe has included an influential, albeit minority, group of member states that has never had any intention of participating in a political project, being interested only in economic integration. Accordingly, these countries have always opposed any choice liable to deprive the nation-states of prerogatives and direct control capabilities. To an extent, however, this blurring of awareness can also be attributed to complacency on the part of the founding member countries, which, strengthened by the success of European integration in the economic sphere and reassured by the situation of relative international stability created by the Cold War, ceased to think, in concrete terms, of the need for a European federation.

In this regard, the creation of the euro, as we have often reiterated, represented a turning point, as it entailed an irreversible advance in political terms. In particular, it backed the British into a corner, forcing them accept that other member states had chosen to advance along the path towards deeper integration. Even though the contradictions and paradoxes of a currency existing in the absence of the necessary political institutions did not properly emerge for almost a decade, the financial, economic and political crisis of recent years has certainly laid them bare. As a result, the EU is once again confronted with the need, in order to save the entire European edifice from collapsing, to complete the monetary union with the construction of a European federation.

However, the crucial question of sovereignty remains a taboo that is proving difficult to overcome. In spite of all the talk of political union, powers of government and fiscal capacity for the European institutions, the transfer of sovereignty is the aspect that states have still not accepted and it is therefore hardly surprising that words have still not been translated into deeds, and the decisions on the crucial political advances continue to be postponed. But this situation is only exacerbating the mutual lack of trust between the countries and their nationalistic reactions in the face of problems. This is a vicious cycle that is making it increasingly difficult to reach the agreements necessary to start building political unity.

There was a phase — 2012 in particular — in which specific steps with the potential (despite relating to partial advances such as an embryonic own budget for the eurozone) to shift the axis of power from the states to Europe seemed within reach, perhaps through recourse to the forms of flexibility provided for in the Treaties. The fact that they have never been achieved, despite being deemed necessary and their importance never being in question, is a demonstration of the fact that until the states accept the need to resolve the sovereignty sharing issue, the quantum leap of creating a European federal government, even in an embryonic form, will not be taken. A further demonstration is provided by the continued postponement of completion of the banking union — a step that is now being called into question because it, too, touches on the issue of sovereignty.

What is more, the current contradictory situation in which the states are struggling yet denying the need to create a new European power risks becoming explosive in the face of the security problem created by the recent migratory flows and terrorist attacks. The need for commonly managed external border controls — these should be entrusted to the European Commission, which should therefore be equipped with the necessary powers of government and resources — and a European intelligence service, again coordinated by the Commission, with all the implications that this would have in the field of defence and foreign policy, are issues that should be forcing the states to acknowledge that creating a supranational government is the only possible choice. The alternative is to take refuge in a dangerous and futile attempt to ensure security through a strengthening of national controls. This, however, would only result in the dismantling some of Europe’s essential achievements, such as the Schengen System, in a fuelling of nationalistic and xenophobic tendencies, and in an increasingly bitter confrontation between the member countries that would make it even more difficult for them to agree on the decisions that need to be taken.

This alarming scenario, which is associated with a very real risk of Europe disintegrating, should not be allowed to distract us from the fact that the European alternative to a catastrophic return to nationalism remains on the table, and continues to be supported by the European institutions themselves and by the more responsible representatives of politics and culture within the member states. In this regard, the difficulty inherent in making the transition to a European federation — the federalists have always anticipated this difficulty — should, for those convinced of its necessity, serve as an incentive to step up the battle. Taking care to avoid concealing the radical nature of this choice, they should present it as a choice of civilisation, highlighting its revolutionary significance and the effects it would have, in terms of progress and change, on European society.

It is not yet possible to say by what route the decision to transfer power may eventually be reached: whether it will ultimately be made possible (without the need for Treaty change) by recourse to solutions like the ones highlighted by the European Parliament, which is seeking to establish whether there are still any ways of exploiting the terms of the Lisbon Treaty, or by Andrew Duff in his important proposal for an ad hoc protocol to complete the monetary union with an agreement among the eurozone countries (The Frankfurt Protocol[1]); or whether, instead, the conditions will become ripe for a reform of the entire European edifice, on the basis of indications that the European Parliament could develop starting from the ongoing work in its Constitutional Affairs Committee under the guidance of Guy Verhofstad. All these are mutually reinforcing hypotheses: they all recognise how the European Union needs to change and they are all helping to fight the same battle.

Given that, as pointed out by Mario Draghi, addressing the European Parliament on 1 February, 2016, “we are undoubtedly at a point in time when the cohesion of Europe is being tested”, the important thing is not to ignore reality: the fate of the European Union depends on the creation, within the eurozone, of a federal core by a group of countries that, strengthened by a 65-year history of integration and common endeavour, are ready to accept responsibility for creating a new supranational state, the European federation.

The Federalist

[1] Adrew Duff, The Protocol of Frankfurt: a new treaty for the eurozone, Bruxelles, European Policy Centre, 2016,



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