political revue

Year XLVII, 2005, Number 2, Page 113



Never before now has there been a more timely moment to re-visit and re-analyse the limpid essay written by Altiero Spinelli for the meeting (in Rome, July 1956) organised by Luciano Bolis on the birth of the United States of America in order to answer the question (posed by Bolis in his introduction to the proceedings of the meeting): “‘To what extent can the story of the birth of the present Constitution of the United States of America serve as a historical example for the current process of European unification?”
The usefulness of re-reading this text derives, above all, from the fact that European unification has reached a point at which only completion of the process, through the creation of a European federal state, can bring further progress. In this climate there are emerging various ideas, discussions and theories on what, for Europe, federation should mean, and many of them are having the effect of distorting the objective completely.
In particular, the American federal model — clearly reflected in the expression that has been on the lips of all federalists and Europeanists for much of the European journey: United States of Europe — is becoming, above all in the eyes of politicians and intellectuals, a less and less crucial point of reference.
Thus, in the debate over its future, Europe is increasingly referred to as an “entity”, care being taken to avoid prefiguring it as a state: “The notions of sovereignty and state — writes Thierry Chopin in Le fédéralisme américain: un modèle pour l’Europe actuelle et future?, an essay for the Robert Schuman Foundation (2002) — are no longer adequate criteria to understand the nature of the new entity that is taking shape in the Old Continent… Overcoming the logic of international cooperation (the confederal model) does not imply adoption of the logic of a state organisation (federal state model).” In the same way, for some years now, a new formula has emerged for referring to the European federation: it has become a federation of nation-states (with the emphasis on the “nation-states”). Or, it is stressed that the history of Europe’s nation-states is so different from that of the thirteen American colonies (a historically unexceptionable affirmation, underlined by Spinelli himself) that a European federation can stem only from a radical rethinking of institutional structures typical of a federal state (a dangerous conclusion if, as is indeed the case, no clear indication is given as to the kind of rethinking that is possible without distorting the very concept of the federal state). Others maintain that today’s American federation can be held up as an example and model to be rejected. Chopin, again, writes that the USA cannot serve as a model because it is hierarchical, and the entities of which it is comprised have assumed the form of local communities: in short, the USA is, basically, a strongly decentralised unitary state. But the author fails to take into account the concrete factors, of an essentially international nature, that produced the evolution and the crisis of American federalism, but did not undermine the fundamental principles that allowed its birth (thereby throwing out the baby with the bath water, as the saying goes).
Objectively, this rash of ideas on Europe’s future can be attributed only to an abiding instinct to hold on to power, and it is an instinct that, on the one hand, induces the national forces to be protagonists in the progressive construction of Europe (as a last hope), but, on the other, prompts them, whenever their power really is at stake, to raise their guard and reject the logic of the construction of a new power.
Anyone who, even through nothing more than an intellectual contribution, affirms the need to “rethink the whole thing” is, in reality, supporting the preservation of the nation-state and making the mistake of failing to draw the crucial element from the American example, i.e., in the words of Spinelli, “the capacity of its founders to understand the nature of state building, in which the essential problems are always the construction of a power and the setting of its limits”.
When, at the end of the Second World War, the democratic states of Western Europe found themselves faced with the problem of their supranational unification, it was inevitable that the spotlight should fall on the most important federal model existing at that time: the American federal system. But this model prompted contradictory reactions on the part of those committed to the cause of European unification. Some held up the constitutional system of the United States as an example, whereas others saw it as an essentially American experience, too far removed from the reality facing the Europeans to constitute a feasible model for Europe.
If we leave aside, here, the innumerable expressions of “pro-European” sentiment — I refer to those vague aspirations that have not been properly thought out, and that therefore have no real chance of being realised —, then it is possible to identify, behind the various attempts (finished or ongoing) at European unification, two fundamental currents of political thought, both of which are characterised, among other things, by their attitude to the American model.
Let us take a look at these two currents, which are called functionalism and European federalism.
Both functionalists and federalists firmly believe that the European system of nation-states has run its course and that the democratic peoples of Europe, to avoid their irreversible decline, must overcome their national divisions and achieve some form of supranational unification. Both currents are also convinced that this should not mean total unification in a unitary European state destined to take the place of the existing nation-states, but, rather, a partial unification that would reconcile the continued existence, and autonomy, of the national political bodies with the pooling of national powers in certain spheres.
The Constitution of the United States achieves just such a mix of partial and complete sovereignties. So can it, or can it not, serve as a reference model for European unification?
Many supporters of European unification, even though they often like to use the expression “United States of Europe” to refer to the culmination of the process of European unification that they envisage, have answered, and continue to answer, this question with a resounding “no”. They are very mindful of the enormous differences between today’s European states and the states that, in Philadelphia, ratified the American Constitution.
It is, indeed, difficult to imagine a wider gulf between the situations and problems facing these two groups of states.
The American states of the late 1700s had practically no historical past; by contrast, every one of today’s European states, even those founded relatively recently, like Italy and Germany, boast and jealously guard a proud past — a past that defines them and sets them apart from the other European states. Any European will view the particularism of a citizen of Virginia, or of Massachusetts, for example, as something infinitely more superficial than that of a Frenchman, a German, or a Dutchman. After all, the Americans of the late 1700s had been in their new homeland for just one, or at the most for just a few generations, whereas the bond of any European with his or her country stretches back centuries.
The Americans had English as a common language, and this facilitated relations among them. The Europeans, on the other hand, having lost their common language, Latin, centuries ago, speak a range of profoundly diverse languages, and this makes them more inward looking.
The American states had a single legal system (the English system), whereas the European states have legal systems that, while appearing similar, in fact present differences and are implemented in different ways.
The American states originated from separate colonies, previously united under the dominion of the British Crown. Consequently, in some ways, their federal unification restored an earlier unity that the War of Independence had taken away and for which the confederal solution had proved a poor replacement. The European states, on the other hand, arose many centuries after the decline of the Roman Empire, they held firm in the face of the emerging and disjointed union of the Holy Roman Empire, they repeatedly resisted attempts by different peoples, and by various ambitious tyrants, to restore imperial unity through violence, and each vigorously affirmed, through constancy and sacrifice, its separate and absolute sovereignty. Thus, all that the European states have to unite them are those great (although not political) values known as “European civilisation”, “humanism” and “Christianity”.
In America, unification of foreign policy proved easy, given that the terms of the question were simple and fairly homogeneous across the various states. The states could either remain separate and subject to the machinations of the great European powers, or they could unite in order to exercise their independence and commercial power (avoiding the European diplomatic system and drawing strength from their growing isolationism). For the European states, on the other hand, each of which has to reckon with its particular situations, undertakings, and prospects, foreign policy can mean nothing more than seeking to remain as players on the global stage.
The American states could easily achieve economic unity, because they all had profoundly free-market economies, state intervention was minimal, and unification amounted to nothing more than adopting a single currency tied to gold, and establishing a single customs vis-à-vis third-party countries, and a boundary-free, and therefore obstacle free, internal market. The problem of European economic unification is far more complex, because Europe’s national economies are, today, all subject to constant and far-reaching interventions by the political power in a range of spheres: monetary, financial, commercial, industrial and labour. These interventions, which differ from country to country, have produced rigid economies that do not lend themselves to integration.
Whereas the newborn United States of America seemed to represent a solution too simple to be a serious consideration for Europe, contemporary USA, with its capacity to administer, efficiently and freely, half a continent, with its huge and burgeoning economy, and with its vast military and diplomatic power, was, instead, seen as an ideal that the Europeans might seek to emulate in the Old Continent. And the functionalists felt that there must be a European road to unification, a road different to that followed by the Americans.
This road was based on an approach that, having in the space of a generation become a necessity, was very familiar to the various European countries’ statesmen, diplomats and experts. During both the Great War and the Second World War, the countries of Europe had had to fight in coalitions and mount major and protracted joint efforts; these had necessitated certain methods of interstate collaboration that went far beyond anything achieved through traditional treaties of alliance or trade agreements. Certain important objectives, shared by the various coalition members, had, in the course of the two World Wars, emerged as difficult to achieve without very closely coordinated joint action. Hence, specialist (military and economic) common authorities were created: single military commands, centres responsible for the purchasing and distribution of certain raw materials, foodstuffs or materials of strategic importance, monetary funds to support the currencies of the various states, and so on. The execution of specific tasks was entrusted to supranational authorities, which enjoyed the support of the national administrative bureaucracies. This system allowed concerted actions that facilitated military operations and the winning of common victories. The system did not involve any relinquishing of sovereignty by the states, only temporary transfers of powers, for clearly specified periods and in clearly defined spheres. General political decision-making continued to be the prerogative of the national governments; if new laws were needed, these were still ratified by the individual parliaments.
In the case of the First World War, these authorities were quickly dissolved once the common objective — victory — had been achieved, as all the states were keen to regain their freedom of action. After the Second World War, however, these special authorities to an extent outlived the conflict, but since all the European states involved in the war — with the exception of Great Britain — had ignominiously collapsed in the course of it, the responsibility for providing common aid was, in practice, assumed by the United States, albeit sometimes through international bodies such as the United Nations.
It was easy to think that this method might also be adopted to achieve European unification. Instead of tackling head on the political problem of creating European governmental and legislative organs and of transferring to these organs some of the powers held by the national governments and parliaments, it was felt that the governments could be induced to create, on a case-by-case basis, special supranational authorities, made up of individuals selected by the governments and entrusted with the task of carrying out certain functions, which would be clearly set out by the governments in special treaties. Compared with the more abstract federalist constitutionalism, this functionalist approach appeared much more concrete, more varied and more flexible in its application. The idea was that each case would involve the clearly visible pooling only of certain functions. On each occasion, all the states would be required, through their customary governmental and legislative channels, to consent to, draw up and approve the relative treaty, i.e., the fundamental law by which the supranational authority would be required to abide. On each occasion, the governments would create a special authority, endowed with just enough autonomy to be able to operate, but otherwise remaining very much under the thumb of the national governments. On each occasion, the states would be careful to retain adequate powers of intervention, both in the decisions reached and in their implementation.
The functionalists have always maintained that the number of these supranational authorities would gradually increase until a point was reached at which they could be gathered together and coordinated in such a way as to create a single system reminiscent of the American federal system.
In this way, contrary to the American experience, the federation would be the culmination and not the starting point of the process of unification.
This functional approach to Europe’s problems, tailored to the mindset of those in high public office in all the European states, was a great success and has been the inspiration for the main attempts at European unification to date. Interestingly, American politicians and diplomats, perhaps conditioned by deference to the venerable, inviolable structure of the European nation-state, have tended to avoid sharing their better understanding of the problem, despite usually being keen to see applied in Europe the federal methods familiar to them. On the contrary, they have accepted the functional method as valid and offered all the support that their political, economic and military influence in Europe has allowed them to.
European federalists, on the other hand, have been, and continue to be, characterised by an entirely different attitude to the American constitutional model.
European federalists recognise the profound differences that exist between 18th century America and contemporary, democratic Europe, but they are not swayed by any superstitious sense of deference to existing structures and long traditions, nor are they willing to accept the conservative maxim, “Woe betide you, as you are but a grandchild”.
There is no doubt that the American Constitution was far easier to realise than any future European federation would be. But if, in the eyes of Europeans today, the American Constitution seems like a spontaneous creation, almost a natural product of that particular point in the history of the American people, this is really only the result of a common error of perspective on the part of those who reflect on the events of history. That which was created has always been viewed by subsequent generations as the necessary (and only) solution to the situations and problems from which it arose, and this can be explained by the simple fact that, having come into existence, it fills the entire stage, and makes it difficult to see all the alternatives that were possible prior to its realisation and to appreciate the probability that it may not have been created at all, and indeed the strong opposition that it had to overcome in order to be created.
There were strong differences of opinion in 18th century America, too, and to those who were attached to the structures that were in place at that time, these differences seemed practically insurmountable. One need only recall the views of English economist Josiah Tucker and French diplomat Louis Guillaume Otto.
Tucker, in 1786, remarked: “As to the future grandeur of America, and its being a rising empire under one head, whether republican or monarchical, it is one of the idlest and most visionary notions that ever was conceived even by writers of romance. The mutual antipathies and clashing interests of the Americans, their differences of governments, habitudes, and manners, indicate that they will have no centre of union and no common interest. They never can be united into one compact empire under any species of government whatever; a disunited people till the end of time, suspicious and distrustful of each other, they will be divided and subdivided into little commonwealths or principalities, according to natural boundaries, by great bays of the sea, and by vast rivers, lakes, and ridges of mountains.” In the same year, Louis Guillaume Otto, a French official in America, wrote this to his government: “Will the states allow themselves to be stripped of part of their sovereignty? …Their policies generate mutual aversion and jealousy… these republicans no longer have Philip on their doorstep!”
In America, too, politicians had long sought to solve the problem of unification using methods that today would be called functionalist, and had not dared to imagine that it might be possible to go further than the confederation of sovereign states model. At the start of the period that coincided with their search for a constitutional formula, the Americans had a common army which was under the command of Washington and belonged formally to the confederation, but whose contingents and funds were supplied by the individual states — a solution strongly reminiscent of the European army that was part of the EDC proposal. The end of this period brought the Annapolis Conference, whose aim was to regulate shipping in the Bays of Chesapeake and Potomac, and this was quite similar to our various projects for specialised communities operating in specific sectors.
In spite of the different problems to be tackled, and their relative simplicity in America’s case, the birth of the United States of America is an event of crucial importance for Europeans, because, in something akin to an in vitro experiment, it clarifies the fundamental aspects of a problem identical to the one facing democratic Europe today.
The American states, despite being much younger, more homogeneous and less differentiated than the European ones, were nevertheless sovereign states. The confederation was, to them, not a superior power but simply the sum of their representatives: it was a sort of ante litteram League of Nations or United Nations Organisation.
On reading the Articles of Confederacy, one might form the impression that the “United States in Congress assembled” had the power to take decisions by which all its members would be bound. In fact, the Congress could do nothing more than issue recommendations to the states, which retained their power of decision and implementation.
The American states, like today’s European states, were determined not to lose their political and constitutional identity.
Finally, even though their economy and foreign policy, compared with those of contemporary Europe, were simple and presented different problems, the terms of the question faced by the Americans then, and by the Europeans now, are identical; if the Americans wanted to develop their economic might and avoid becoming mere pawns in a diplomatic game played in the world by powers considerably greater than each of them, they had, in some way, to equip themselves with political unity, and establish a power that could issue and enforce laws applicable to all (designed to protect their own wellbeing) and that would represent all Americans in their dealings with the rest of the world, protect their interests and defend them.
The Americans then, like the Europeans now, were willing to be subject only to a democratic or, to use their term, a republican power by which they meant one that would allow the governed to exercise control over those who governed them, and guarantee the citizens their freedoms.
In the end the Americans, like the Europeans today, had to recognise that this power could not, in practice, arise in the way in which powers are normally established, that is, through the employment of force, but could only be the fruit of consensus among the parties, which would first have to be united.
The American Constitution is a model that deserves consideration, but only for the original and intelligent way in which the American states refused to be overwhelmed by the difficulties they faced and managed to find a profoundly rational solution to the set of problems before them.
If the union had to be born of consensus, this required a written pact that could be freely entered into by the single states.
Any matters of common public interest would have to be entrusted to a sovereign political power whose decision-making and executive capacity would not depend on the good will of the single states, since the latter would normally be equipped to consider and administer public affairs only from the perspective of their own particular community.
Given that the states were determined to conserve their identity, it became necessary to determine the relative competences of the joint power and of the single states, and to establish that each would exercise sovereignty within these specific boundaries, in other words, that each would be able to take and implement decisions on its own behalf and in accordance with its own constitutional rules, without the states interfering in federal life, or the federation interfering in state life. This meant that the states and the federation would not only share the citizens, who would be citizens of both state and federation, bound by the laws of both and subject to taxation in both, but also the requirement to obey a federal court that would be responsible for guaranteeing respect of the federal pact, deciding whether one power or another had overstepped its boundaries and invaded the sphere of the other.
Finally, while democratic freedoms were to be guaranteed at both federal and state level, it fell to the federal Constitution to guarantee the division of power, in its various forms, and the citizens’ right (accompanied by their obligation to respect the decisions of those in power) to exercise control over those who governed them.
The distribution of competences between the federal and the federated powers, the various forms of federal executive, legislative and judicial power, and the methods of constitutional revision can differ considerably from federation to federation. The effective political action of a federation will undoubtedly differ from case to case, because the circumstances will differ. If, with reference to any of these fields, one were to take as a model the American Constitution and American political life, then one would inevitably make some big mistakes.
But when it comes to the supranational unification of certain aspects of political life one cannot fail to take into account the American model, because the logic of the American system is the very logic of political power building.
What the European federalists saw as important in the American construction was precisely this capacity of its founders to understand the nature of state building, in which the essential problems are always the construction of a power and the setting of its limits. They rebuked, and continue to rebuke, functionalists, and European statesmen generally, for the fact that, despite having a clear sense of the concrete policy that Europe — as Europe — should be following, they are blind and deaf to the question of what European power can fulfil these functions and how such a power might be created.
The American system, or its fundamental characteristics at least, has therefore been the model held up by the European federalists in order to counter the functionalist attempts on the part of the European governments. The arguments contained in the The Federalist have, in Europe, reverberated through their words and writings.
Initially, the governments were totally deaf to these criticisms. When presented with a great opportunity for unification in the form of the Marshall Plan, they responded by creating the OEEC — a body with an advisory function and also responsibility for the redistribution of the American aid. The federalists argued that this solution would favour only the reconstruction of the old national economies and contribute nothing to setting up a European economic system. And they were proved right.
When the governments created the Council of Europe, the federalists highlighted the impotence of a consultative body, stressing that “influence is not government”. Again, events confirmed the accuracy of their analysis.
When the governments created the first, and to date the only, specialist authority for the coal and steel sector, the federalists pointed out that the organs of the ECSC had absolutely no power of legislation (even within the limited sphere of the coal and steel markets), and also the impossibility of truly pooling, under a common supranational authority, the markets of these two raw materials, leaving the rest of the economic policy and the whole of the monetary and financial policy in the hands of the national governments. Indeed, events show that the High Authority, far from asserting itself, lacked the force to take, autonomously, the decisions that the Treaty empowered it to take, instead leaving it to the Council of national ministers, which had become the Community’s true leader, to take practically all the decisions. Thanks to a favourable economic climate, recent years have undoubtedly brought considerable progress in the liberalisation of these sectors, but the question of what will happen if there is an economic downturn and if the governments fall back on restrictive economic policies remains to be answered.
At a certain point, the governments, prompted by the course of events, arrived at the idea of establishing a European army. This is the point at which federalist criticism began to be heard. Faced with the absurd prospect of an army that would no longer belong to the single states, yet would not belong to a European state either, because no such state existed, the governments of the Six had to accept the federalist point of view and set about drawing up —taking as their starting point what had been called an Ad hoc Assembly — a statute proper, destined to mark the foundation of an autonomous European executive, legislative and judicial power.
It can be recalled how those developing this project acted in a contradictory fashion, on the one hand creating a federal system of government and, on the other, not a guarantee of representation for the federated states, but an absolute brake on the federal mechanism, in the form of a Council of national ministers which would be required to approve any act of government or legislation by the future Community. Had this Community come about, either the Council of ministers would have completely paralysed the power of the Community, or the power of the Community would have overridden the brake. This crisis was avoided only because, as a result of difficulties within the political alliances promoting the European endeavour, the EDC, and with it the proposed European Political Community, collapsed without ever coming into force.
The governments did not learn from this failure. Instead of recognising that the difficult problems of building effective economic, military and diplomatic unity can be overcome only by creating a secure, strong European power, founded on the democratic consensus of the European people, they took further steps backwards in relation to their previous efforts, replacing the European army idea with a military alliance, trying to create a European Atomic Community along the lines of the ECSC, and even coming up with the idea of a Common Market that would be controlled not by a European government, but by the usual Council of national ministers answerable to the national parliaments.
Once again, the federalists are forced to hold up the American model in opposition to these inconsistent attempts, urging the creation of a European power that will be real and independent of the national powers, and have decision-making competence limited to matters of common interest.
This then, is a brief account of how the American model has influenced attempts at European unification. The Europeans’ refusal to learn from it can be measured in their failures recorded to date, and in the various blind alleys up which they have allowed themselves to be led in their attempts to achieve European unification.
The biggest difference between the American experience of 170 years ago and the current European situation lies in the fact that 18th century American society and culture were young, bold and forward looking. By contrast, today’s European society and political culture are old, rigid and backward looking. The question of whether, notwithstanding this, they still conserve, in latent form, the energy and intelligence to identify the elements from the past that are worth preserving and those that should be destroyed, seeking to be a little less deferential to history and to afford logic a little more respect, is one that is impossible to answer at the present time, and indeed that will be answered only at the end of this difficult renovation work. If the latter ends in failure, we might conclude that the American constitutional model has taught the Europeans nothing. If, on the other hand, it culminates in the creation of a European federation, then there will be no denying the enormous influence that this American political invention — because that is exactly what the federal Constitution was — had in the unravelling of a knot of contradictions that the Old Continent had created and from which it would have found it impossible to break free purely through recourse to its own presumed “wisdom”.
(edited by Nicoletta MOSCONI)

* In Luciano Bolis (ed.), La nascita degli Stati Uniti d’America, Milano, Comunità, 1957.


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