political revue


Year LIX, 2017, Single Issue, Page 71



Albertini: the Strategy of the Fight for Europe and the Role and Organisation of Federalists*





My intention, in this brief contribution, is to highlight several of Mario Albertini’s ideas on the strategy of the fight for Europe and on the significance, in this setting, of the role and organisation of federalists. Albertini’s reasoning on both these questions show his fine analytical skills and his clear understanding of the problems — still unresolved — that beleaguer the integration process; indeed, his arguments remain highly topical today. The writings on which I base my remarks date back mainly to the 1960s and to the period spanning the end of the 1980s-early 1990s (the time of the decision to create the single European currency), and they show that Albertini was already quite clear about the path that needed to be followed in order to build a European federation.

The premise that I would like to take as my starting point is that Mario Albertini’s thought and his reflections on the evolution of the process of European integration and on the federal objective were never divorced from the problem of the strategy necessary in order to achieve the latter. In other words, Albertini’s efforts to fully understand reality — to get to the truth — and develop a clear view of the contradictions inherent in the process of European integration (overcoming the deceptiveness of current thinking), and of the resulting need to create a new power, were always coupled with action. It is thanks to these efforts, and to his determination to treat politics as a science, that his reflections remain so relevant today. They highlight the close interrelationship between theoretical analysis, identification of the strategic objective, and the role and organisation of federalists in the struggle for European unification.

Albertini’s reflections on strategy start from his consideration of the peculiarity of the fight to create a European federation, which is not about changing an existing power, but rather about creating a new one, and thus altering the whole context of political struggle. The opposition mounted by federalists thus has to be directed not at a government, but at an established political community. This characteristic — the fact that the fight is, ultimately, for the creation of a power that does not yet exist — explains the uniqueness of the roles played in the process of European unification by the various actors involved, in particular by governments, parties and federalists.

With regard to the first two categories, Albertini remarks that governments can play a stronger role than parties in the drive for the creation of a new political reality. Indeed, the task of parties, he says, concerns “the balance of power and of votes in the pre-established framework in which they fight — that of the states —, and for this reason they are led to consider decisions and problems more from the perspective of votes lost or gained in the national setting than from that of finding realistic and effective solutions”.[1] Accordingly, they fight to gain power in the national framework, which already exists, not in the European one, which is still to be created.

The nature of the task of governments, on the other hand, leads them to concern themselves not with great ideological questions, but with concrete problems, and when it becomes clear that national solutions to these problems cannot be found, since they demand European ones, then national leaders may act like European leaders. For this to occur, however, there has to be a serious crisis of national power. Indeed, as long as simple collaboration between states proves enough to resolve, at European level, the problems that arise, the states can hold onto their measure of power and thus perpetuate themselves. On the other hand, when there arise problems whose solution demands a European government, the states suddenly find themselves powerless. As Albertini explained, “The crisis of the states and European integration are two aspects of the same phenomenon. The same fact, the dimension of problems, sets both of them off. The irresistible trend toward European unity is due to the fact that the problems of government (defence, foreign policy and the economy) have taken on a supernational dimension. Yet precisely this fact is provoking the fatal decline of the national states, their crisis, and in the long run the crisis of their power.”[2] In such situations it is possible to see the emergence of what Albertini termed occasional European leadership, in other words to see national leaders behaving like European leaders. “This leadership emerges, naturally, in a context defined not by the institutions but by an objective situation (widespread fears, great problems, strength in unity, weakness in division), and it exerts a force of traction on the political class as a whole (which is thus allowed to pursue a European action without having to abandon the field of national politics).”[3] In this way, by drawing politicians with it (and thus taking them out of the national arena where they are naturally inclined to confine their struggle), an occasional leadership has the effect of starting the creation of a European people.

These observations lead on to a further consideration regarding the role of the various forces in the creation of a European power, namely the fact that, fundamentally, the decision to create a European federation cannot be the choice of a single political force; on the contrary, it must reflect a strong degree of national unity, and thus have the backing of all the political forces, regardless of their ideological orientation (excluding, of course, those that make the defence of national sovereignty their supreme objective). In fact, given the exceptional nature of a government’s decision to strip itself of power in order to build a new power, this decision requires the strongest possible political foundations and can therefore be taken only with the consent of the parties (both the governing and the opposition parties) and the support of the citizens.

This brings us on to the question of the role played by federalists, who must be ready and able to seize the strategic opportunity when it arises. Indeed, Albertini points out that the two conditions mentioned earlier — the crisis situation generated by the need for a European government to solve certain problems together with the emergence of an occasional leadership — will not be enough, on their own, to allow the federal leap. A third factor needs to come into play, namely the initiative and know-how of a minority group (the federalists) that has made the battle for the creation of a new European power the purpose of its political struggle. It is, in Albertini’s view, a crucial factor because times of crisis, when the existing power is disintegrating and decomposing, are the times when the federalist message (that the solution lies in the creation of a European federation) is more likely to be heard.

Given that the task of federalists is not to reject this or that government, but to oppose an established order of things, i.e. to reject the nation-state as the only political community of reference, their role is very difficult. It is also completely removed from the typical models of national politics. This has necessitated the development of an organisational model based on the idea of autonomy. Primarily, the federalists’ autonomy is political, meaning that they are independent of the political parties and have developed an independent analysis of the historical situation from a European perspective. But it is also organisational (in the sense that the movement they have built is based on the activity of part-time militants who, as such, do not earn a living from their political activity, or use it to promote their careers) and financial (the movement depends on self-financing in order to survive).

Moving on to the second part of my contribution, I wish to focus on the concept of crisis, analysing, in particular, Albertini’s criticism of gradualism, i.e. the idea that the construction of a true European government, and of a European federation, can be the outcome of a smooth and gradual evolution of Europe’s existing institutional structure (Albertini refers to that of the then European Community) — an evolution that allows this structure to remain intact. Albertini actually harboured doubts about the very concept of the European integration process: the idea of a process evokes something that “reaches its goal providing it is not impeded”,[4] and that therefore, in the absence of perturbations, will naturally and gradually accomplish its purpose. But in Albertini’s view, gradualism can produce results only if the constitutional question is left out of consideration. The positive aspect of Jean Monnet’s strategy was precisely this, namely the fact that, by not putting the problem of the transfer of sovereign powers on the table, it allowed exploitation of the states’ European policies and the engagement of active pro-European forces. But according to Albertini, the decision to create a European federation cannot simply be the last step in a gradual process, as demonstrated by the fact that the gradualism seen in the economic sphere and in that of intergovernmental cooperation has failed to bring about a gradually growing will, within the parties, to build a European federation. In fact, this step constitutes a power problem, whose solution is facilitated but not determined by the ongoing integration process.

Gradualism, in the face of problems that have exceeded the scope and dimensions of Europe’s nation-states, inevitably results in “inadequate solutions in the context of the imperfect unity which is compatible with maintaining the formal sovereignty of the states”. This means that it allows greater collaboration between the states, and in this sense its role is a positive one since it “changes the situation in such a way that solving the new problems which arise requires an even greater degree of unity”.[5] However, when gradualism begins to touch the very heart of sovereignty — when it reaches a point at which economic and fiscal policy and foreign and defence policy need to be taken into consideration —, then it comes to a halt. This is the point at which it is necessary to make the crucial leap in the form of a political decision to create a European power. Albertini stresses that “either the transfer of the military from the national governments to the European government is accomplished at once, as part of the act that brings the latter into existence, or it is not accomplished at all. This applies, in general, to foreign and military policy, and also to the part of economic and social policy that is within the remit of the federation”.[6]

This is not to say that a newly created European federation should immediately assume its definitive form. In fact, the purpose of the federal leap is to create an initial form of federal state, which can subsequently evolve towards its definitive form: one that will see it endowed with all the competences “necessary to act as an ordinary federal government”. Viewed from this perspective, the moment of transition, i.e. the creation of an initial federal core, requires the creation of a currency and a government. Thereafter, this initial federal structure can start to evolve, through the creation of a European political and administrative apparatus, and the attribution of new competences.


As can be seen from these brief remarks on Albertini’s reflections on the strategy and role of federalists, which provide just a taste of what was actually an extremely complex and detailed analysis, his ideas, decades on, remain as relevant as ever.

The European Union is an organisation that has achieved very important objectives and reached high levels of evolution, yet in the pivotal sectors of sovereignty it has continued to be based on mechanisms of voluntary cooperation between states. Today, we find ourselves in a situation in which the limits of its mechanisms of functioning are clear to see. Indeed, these limits have been further underlined by the EU’s need, during the economic and financial crisis of recent years, to rely on instruments of intergovernmental cooperation between states, often outside the framework of the Treaties, because it lacks its own tools for dealing with acute emergencies of this kind. This situation constitutes clear evidence (stronger than in Albertini’s day) that the gradualism method has exhausted its potential, making it necessary, finally, to make the transition to a European federation.

The problem today, in particular, is how to know when this transition can be said to have taken place, in other words, when we have reached the point beyond which there can be no reversing of the process that will result in the establishment of the European federation in its definitive form. Even though, due to the ongoing terrorism threat and the instability of the international situation, there is currently much debate about European defence and security, and steps have recently been taken towards the establishment of a permanent structured cooperation, defence and security continue to be, in my view, a driving force towards European federation, but they do not constitute the moment of transfer of power. Indeed, within the defence sector there is still scope for forms of cooperation that, while representing progress in comparison with the current situation (one example is the permanent structured cooperation mechanism just mentioned), nevertheless keep the issue of defence within the framework of cooperation between states. Instead, taxation is the field in which the point of transition (i.e. the juncture that, historically, has proven to be the turning point in the creation of previous unions of states) is reached. The allocation of fiscal resources to a supranational power rests on the assumption that there is a form of democratic control over the use of these resources and a government to manage them: it thus marks the point when the creation of a new political power becomes inevitable.

Viewed from this perspective, the process of European integration has clearly reached a key moment. After years that have seen differences of opinion, sometimes heated, between the member states, and the predominance of a purely intergovernmental outlook, French president Macron, after building his entire election campaign around the need for stronger European integration, thereby showing that public opinion is still largely in favour of Europe, last September, at the Sorbonne, delivered a speech of historic importance for the integration process.[7] In an analysis that touched on all the sectors affected by integration, he made it clear that the objective to pursue must be a “sovereign, united and democratic” Europe that is capable of dealing with the problems that the nation-states can no longer address, and that puts the destiny of the European citizens back in their own hands. Macron’s intervention represents a historic opportunity and the seriousness of his intentions is demonstrated by the fact that, rather than merely tabling the issue of Europe, he outlined concrete solutions to the problems it raises, underlining the dependence of European public policies on the resources needed to carry them out, and thus highlighting the need to create a budget and fiscal resources for the eurozone, and to complete the Economic and Monetary Union.

It could well be that, in Macron, Europe has found an individual who, driven by evidence of the inadequacy of national solutions and the need for European solutions, is willing to act as a European leader, and thus to provide the occasional European leadership that Albertini deemed so crucial. For federalists, it is important to remember that, as Albertini pointed out, strategic opportunities are not chosen, but have to be recognised and verified, because they do not depend on human will, but on the historical process.[8] However, once such an opportunity presents itself, it is up to federalists to act to ensure that the historic window that has opened up does indeed open onto to European federation. Allowing it to close would be to jeopardise all the achievements in terms of peace, progress and citizens’ rights and well-being that the process of European unification has so far brought.

* This is the text of a presentation delivered at the conference entitled Il federalismo europeo e la politica del XXI secolo: l’attualità del pensiero di Mario Albertini (European federalism and 21st century politics: the relevance of the thought of Mario Albertini), held at the University of Pavia on 16 November, 2017.

[1] M. Albertini, La Comunità europea, evoluzione federale o involuzione diplomatica?, Il Federalista, 21, n. 3-4 (1979), p. 163. Republished in: M. Albertini, Una rivoluzione pacifica. Dalle nazioni all’Europa, Il Mulino, Bologna, 1999, p. 247 ff., see, in particular, p. 256.

[2] M. Albertini, The Strategy of the Struggle for Europe, The Federalist 38, no. 1 (1996), p. 62.

[3] M. Albertini, La Comunità Europea, op. cit., p. 258.

[4] M. Albertini, La crisi di orientamento politico del federalismo europeo, Il Federalista 3, n. 5, (1961), p. 226. Republished in: M. Albertini, Una rivoluzione pacifica, op. cit., p. 97 ff., see, in particular, p. 98.

[5] M. Albertini, The Strategy, op. cit., p. 58.

[6] M. Albertini, The Strategy, op. cit., p. 62.

[7] Initiative pour l’Europe – Discours d’Emmanuel Macron pour une Europe souveraine, unie, démocratique, Paris, 26 September 2017, available at the address:

[8] M. Albertini, L’aspetto strategico della nostra lotta, in M. Albertini, Una rivoluzione pacifica, op. cit., p. 325 ff., see, in particular, p. 327.



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