Year LXIII, 2021, Single Issue, Page 7
The European Union and the Return of War.
The Urgent Need for a Federal, Sovereign and Democratic Europe
Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine has opened up a new chapter in European and world history. It marks the definitive end of the liberal order built by the USA following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, an order that rested on an ideological belief in the market as the driving force of development and growth that, in turn, would lead to the spread of democracy and the creation of ever closer interdependence between countries, encouraging them to cooperate and thus to overcome the era of geopolitical confrontation.
In the pages of this review, we have often criticised the short-sightedness of this vision, which subordinates politics to the machinery of trade and commerce, and therefore advocates elimination of the central role of state institutions in governance, a stance that diminishes the very concept of citizenship; indeed, while acknowledging and appreciating the merits of globalisation, and recognising the extraordinary role it has played in the development of many countries and regions of the world, we have often pointed out the increasingly evident flaws in this doctrine, together with the fact that it was a system that effectively served the interests of the United States, and helped them to exercise their new global power in the wake of the collapse of the USSR.
All these observations, however, now fall within the realm of historical debate; the present, shaped by the ferocious aggression of Putin’s regime in Europe, is forcing us to address new issues: in particular, we need to consider the paradigm shift in terms of security that the new situation demands, not only in continental Europe but also globally, and also the impact that it is bound to have on the process of globalisation, and consequently on the stability of our economies, our societies and ultimately our democracy.
At this stage, no one yet has any clear and definitive answers to offer. Indeed, this issue of our review is being published later than scheduled precisely because we felt it necessary to take a little time to try and formulate some points for reflection. In our view, the only certainty right now is the obvious need to speed up, immediately, the process of EU reform, so as to equip the European political-institutional system to address the current situation, which poses a very grave threat to it. It seems clear to us that the EU must exploit the energy and momentum created by the present emergency in order to advance towards true political unity, as this would give it the ability, authoritativeness and strength necessary to truly act, both internally and on the global stage, and thus to achieve the standing of a continental power. The conclusions of the recent Conference on the Future of Europe must provide the springboard for this transition; indeed, the Conference prompted an important debate in this sense, and it is now the duty of all those involved to turn words into actions.
The present crisis is exposing, even more starkly than previous ones did, the strengths and merits of the European Union, but also its shortcomings and vulnerabilities. The strengths and merits, of course, are the aspects that really enrage Putin: namely, the fact that the EU is a successful, attractive and democratic model that guarantees high levels of well-being, social protection and respect for people’s rights, in the name of individual self-determination; and the fact that it is a project that was created to establish peace and overcome nationalism. For the Russian government, the support for the EU model that has grown up on Russia’s own doorstep is simply intolerable, given that it challenges the despotic ideas held by Putin’s regime, which would overthrow Western values in the name of illiberalism (i.e., of a closed community identity that rejects diversity and individual rights) and regards democracy as a weakness or “vice”. That said, the EU still has some very serious flaws and weaknesses; these stem from the fact that, notwithstanding the nature of the project and the federal ambitions from which it originated, it remains, essentially, an international organisation: although it has a single (federal) currency, other key areas — foreign policies, defence and budgetary control — are still managed at national level; the EU lacks competences in all the crucial areas of sovereignty including, despite Schengen and the abolition of interstate borders between most EU member states, the field of home affairs. This situation, in which the states remain “masters of the Treaties”, leaves the Europeans politically weak; moreover, nationalism has still not been defeated as we still have no federal institution able to supersede it both politically and historically, and thus allow the affirmation of a new model of supranational democratic governance of interdependence. As a result of all this, the future of the EU continues to hang in the balance. Even though, in the face of common threats, the EU is now showing that it has the ability to cooperate in order to mount common responses, it remains powerless to act; it carries little weight at international level. Moreover, public opinion in the different countries remains vulnerable to manipulation, and there thus remains the risk of a resurgence of the populist and nationalist forces sympathetic to Putin. This particular weakness could even be enough to bring us down; Putin is well aware of this, and it therefore provides him with a further incentive to persist with his plans.
Europe, if it is to survive as a union, therefore has no choice but to take the essential political-institutional steps (highlighted by the work of the Conference) that will give the European institutions the competences, resources and effective powers they need in order to act in key areas that can be adequately governed only at European level. First of all, the EU needs to have a true foreign policy, the necessary premise for which undoubtedly lies in deeper coordination and cooperation between the national governments, of the kind they have been displaying in response to the war in Ukraine; but to radically increase Europe’s influence in the world, this policy must be born as the competence of a true European government, accountable to a reformed EU parliament (meaning the European Parliament plus the Council, the latter transformed into a legislative chamber representing the member states). In other words, the only way to enable the leap from the current intergovernmental system to a truly European one is to create the conditions for the formation of an initial embryo of a European federal government, i.e., for the creation of autonomous and democratic European power able to make budgetary decisions, thanks to direct taxation at European level, and also to implement certain federal policies at European level, thanks to the assignment of certain powers to the European Parliament, which would also be responsible for controlling the new European executive. In this framework, the EU would acquire decision-making powers in other policy areas, too: energy, migration and some aspects of public health. We, as members of the European Federalist Movement (Movimento federalista europeo, MFE), have endeavoured to draw up, with the help of a group of highly experienced jurists, an organic proposal that takes the form of a set of specific reforms capable of changing the legal and political nature of the EU and giving it the capacity to act effectively; the proposed reforms really would create the common European sovereignty on which the true strategic autonomy and independence of our continent depends, even though gradual transfer of competences is envisaged in those areas that necessarily demand longer time frames. The document in question is published in this issue of the review. It is intended as a contribution to the debate and above all to the work of the Convention that, we trust, will be established following the end of the Conference on the Future of Europe and strive to produce incisive reforms, of a substantially constituent nature.
Finally, to conclude this editorial, we must also consider the current and general absence of certainties, a situation that is making it even more urgent to start the creation of a federal political union; we refer to the emergence in recent times of unpredictable scenarios that hang heavily over our future and will have to be faced in the coming years.
The war started by Russia is part of a determined attack on what still remains of America’s global hegemony, and the fact that the USA is showing symptoms of a profound internal crisis is undoubtedly one of the factors that triggered it (in this regard, one need only consider the deep polarisation of American society, and the level of consensus still enjoyed by Trump, as well as the latter’s attempted coup in January 2021); a further contributory factor is surely the mounting evidence of America’s weakness at international level. In this regard, the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan must certainly be seen to have played a role, as must the loss of American influence and control in many areas of the world: we are thinking not only of the power vacuums that have been left behind, which are effectively strengthening the positions of Russia itself (and of other minor regional powers) and favouring the expansion of Chinese influence, as in Africa and the Middle East, but also of America’s declining affinity with traditional allies such as Saudia Arabia, India and Pakistan, not to mention South America, which has been distancing itself for some time. All these areas are now clearly more determined to act independently. In this scenario, we are witnessing the emergence of a growing power struggle in which, with ideology proving to be an important tool, much will depend on the strength of consensus that the two opposing systems manage to win and maintain: the West on the one hand, with its liberal, democratic political systems, high GDP per capita, widespread education, and advanced welfare systems; and, on the other, China and Russia, whose regimes are now tending towards totalitarianism (and therefore regressing drastically with respect to the openness that both of these countries had previously started to display).
Despite the strong interdependence created through the globalisation of trade and commerce, we now find ourselves faced with the very real possibility of having to choose to forgo a slice of economic development today — this is already happening in many fields — in order to have, tomorrow, greater autonomy and independence from what is increasingly becoming the “enemy bloc”. If the world does, indeed, move in this direction, which system will prove to be the stronger? Which will be the one better able to withstand the impact, on political consensus, of the economic crisis that their decoupling and abandonment of interdependence will inevitably entail? Which parts of the world will be stronger (taking into account the characteristics of the different societies and the different demographic realities, of course)?
A further consideration is Russia’s unscrupulous use of ideological propaganda, and its manipulation of reality as means of influencing public opinion both at home and abroad. In this way, it aims, in particular, to weaken support for NATO countries, which, especially in Europe, are also finding themselves called upon to break their ties and their interdependence with Russia, and are already having to pay a hefty price for this in the short term. This war is in fact seriously threatening the post-pandemic economic recovery and related ecological transition process, with the result that solidarity between European countries is also likely to become a complex issue once again. In this context, the risk of social disintegration and power grabs by pro-Putin politicians in some European states is terribly real.
At the same time, what new challenges, in security terms, are being thrown up by this new scenario, which, characterised by the aggressive invasion of a sovereign country with the intention of occupying part of its territory and installing a puppet government to control it, takes us straight back to the last century and its two world wars? In this case, the aggressor is using its possession of nuclear weapons, which it claims to be ready to use if directly challenged, as a form of blackmail to prevent NATO forces from entering the conflict in support of the country that has been attacked. That the USA is condemning Putin’s actions in increasingly strong terms is perhaps, in part, an attempt to conceal this new reality, which leaves America less credible and therefore more exposed, also to possible clashes with China in the Pacific area. Defeating Putin in this war, and this also means increasing military support for Ukraine, is absolutely vital — let there be no mistake about this —, also in order to dismantle the narrative that the West can only bluff, since it lacks the will to intervene effectively to defend its friends and its values.
This new scenario that Putin has created through his aggression towards Ukraine is a nightmare for Europe. The EU system was constructed on the basis of a belief in the ideology of the market as a driving force for the development of the international system. We have built, from choice and also for structural reasons linked to the fact that Europe is an area lacking in raw materials, a system of interdependence with countries that now represent a threat, and this leaves us particularly vulnerable. What we have failed to do, on account of our persistent lack of political unity and therefore of a common vision and will to act, is develop an effective partnership policy vis-à-vis those third countries that could have played a crucial role in our development, often leaving them, instead, in the hands of China and Russia. Having entrusted the USA with the management of international relations and of our own security, we have suffered the repercussions of the Americans’ changing interests and declining ability to govern the world. As a result, we have become an appendage of a West that now risks committing suicide in a bipolar “West vs Autocracy” conflict; and we have no tools to promote a new order that, while avoiding the aforementioned decoupling, is also able to oppose autocracies and, at the same time, strengthen democracy and the links between countries that have no wish to enter the sphere of influence of the new totalitarianisms.
To change this situation, the EU needs to have the political strength that would allow it to offer countries choosing democracy the chance to share new democratic and supranational international institutions, with which to manage, together, existential challenges ranging from climate change to health; and, in its dealings with autocracies, to leverage the force generated by the advantages of interdependence and the global market in order to maintain relations of a kind that avoid total conflict.
This is why the EU’s task now is to rapidly build a political union will allow it to make hefty investments and develop effective and forward-looking European policies in the field of development, in order to drive energy and ecological transition, the development of the digital sector, and the creation of a European foreign and security policy and an autonomous military capability, so that the EU can gradually become a true pillar of NATO, on a par with the USA, and offer international politics a new guide and direction.
In so doing, it must not allow itself to be blocked by the vetoes of opposing countries, which should be free to remain in the single market, retaining all the advantages offered by today’s EU, yet without preventing the advance of those member states that now recognise that the current global situation demands the birth of a European power.
Today, the Europeans must fight with courage and determination to ensure the liberation of Ukraine, and to bring about true and profound reform of the Treaties. It truly is a question of now or never. This is no cliché; it is the reality of the present historical moment and we cannot afford to forget that, even for a second.
Pavia, 20 April 2022