By Claudio Radaelli
Last week I taught a Masters class on the Ventotene Manifesto (1941-1943) - 70 years after the first draft appeared. The Manifesto is considered a milestone in the history of federal ideas – an articulated call for a movement of working classes and intellectuals to respond to the disaster of the war with the creation of a European federaton.
We talked about Ernesto Rossi, Altiero Spinelli and Eugenio Colorni. The fascist regime sent them to prison for ‘subversive activities’, in confinement on the tiny Italian island of Ventotene. The three Italians were losers, they had spent most of their life in prison. Spinelli’s mother was begging him to quit politics and do something practical… and get a life! Allegedly, Spinelli travelled to Ventotene with a manual on how to repair watches, and attended to some chickens when on the island. But these three men did not quit politics.
They were alone. There were mass parties in Europe, some in government, some clandestine like the Italian Communist Party – but these men were not at home in any of them, because they were liberals and libertarians. They had the comfort and inspiration of Gobetti‘s Rivoluzione Liberale, Einaudi‘s liberalism, and the British breed of political federalism and economics (Lionel Robbins) – as shown by the moving essay written by Chiara Maria Pulvirenti on L’Europa e L’Isola (2009). But history was speaking loud and, apparently, with eloquence: Europe – so it seemed – was to be united under the sword of Satan, not by a civilian federation of democracies. Rossi said, however, that ideas had to be taken in front of the tribunal of reason, not the tribunal of contingent historical events which might soon change.
The authors of the Ventotene Manifesto thought beyond fascism, Nazism and war. They designed a trajectory of European integration that is still dominating European history now (not for long, my Euro sceptic readers may think!). In class we connected Ventotene to Spinelli’s (1907-1986) formidable input to the EP Treaty for the United States of Europe. The institutional blueprint that did not exist in Ventotene materialised later, when Spinelli was chosen by citizens for the first directly-elected European Parliament (see the collection of documents assembled by Agustín José Menéndez http://www.reconproject.eu/main.php/RECONreport0107.pdf?fileitem=4325406) . We commented on Ernesto Rossi (1897-1967), who was instrumental in establishing a truly European, federal, transnational party, the Partito Radicale of 1955 which is still active in Italian and global politics. Colorni died in 1944, assassinated in Via Livorno in Rome by the Koch brigade.
I finally stressed that the language of Ventotene is anything but elitist, with frequent, almost obsessive calls to the ‘lava of popular passions’ and the role of the working class in the would-be United States of Europe.
The discussion that followed my presentation went into familiar territory: a student asked where is the demos for the United States of Europe? Citizens will never give their consent and authorisation for something like a federal Europe, certainly not today when it is clear that cross-country fiscal solidarity does not exist.
Another said we are still too attached to our nations. People – he reasoned – have strong and positive feelings about their state – but not about the EU. So, we cannot move towards European federation only because Rossi and Spinelli had a vision in Ventotene. This would be yet another elite-driven project, predestined to fail.
I see these objections and arguments in a different light. A light that led me in the past, when I studied European integration, to conclude that the federal vision, especially if democratic and bottom-up, is a robust argument for European integration theories. I thought that federalist arguments were at least as good as inter-govermentalist or neo-functionalist arguments and deserved a place in any decent debate on what Europe ought to be. It is important, at least for me, to read Ventotene alongside Vincent Ostrom‘s notion of federalism as diversity, conflict, checks and balances – a system that is (by design!) not centralised, and not built around a single central locus of power – a system open to the democratic input of lower levels of government.
Today, I think that an up-dated version of Ventotene is the only solid proposition we have to avoid decline and European dis-integration. The only thing I would change is the sentence in the manifesto where the authors make the claim for a strong ‘European state’: today we need a model of open society for a light, pluralist European federation, not a centralised state.
Let us go step by step. To say that we do not have enough consensus for European federal systems confuses demand and supply. The demand for European institutions, federation and the like depends on the supply, that is, on the EU that citizens see here and now. A different, participatory, light federal union with its foreign policy, a 1% of EU GDP investment in a single army, a decent fiscal federal system (instead of the current ad-hoc systems) and resources for major infrastructures and European-wide research funding would certainly elicit different responses of the citizens - Emma Bonino and Marco De Andreis present this proposal at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/bonino8/English. A kind of Europe that would follow up on the commitment taken by the European Parliament (think of Spinelli’s draft treaty on the United States of Europe, or, in more recent times, the Resolution on Human Rights in the World of 2008) would reverberate in a different public opinion. Today, what are the citizens going to make of Junker’s statement about “a disastrous image of the Eurozone” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-15401280)? Citizens respond to this Eurozone, not to a functioning fiscal federal system. Their answers to surveys expose a federal deficit, not the impossibility of federal Union.
The same goes for foreign policy. On the day of the epilogue of this approach to Libya pursued by the EU (21 October 2011), remember that the EP 2008 Resolution on Human Rights argued for an approach that would have made it politically impossible to have Treaties like the Italian treaty with Libya of 2008. According to the EP Resolution, the EU “Considers that nonviolence is the most appropriate means of ensuring that fundamental human rights are enjoyed, upheld, promoted and respected to the full; believes that its promotion should constitute a priority objective in EU human rights and democracy policy and intends to contribute to keeping up to date with and studying modern nonviolent theory and practice” (http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=TA&language=EN&reference=P6-TA-2008-0193)
In short, people judge what they see. If you ask me what I think about the Italian government, I will answer thinking of the Prime Ministers of the last 10-15 years, or the coalitions that have governed Italy, and other contingencies. My scores will be low in terms of appreciation. You would say that my answers indicate the presence of a democratic deficit in Italy, not that a fully democratic, participatory political system in Italy is impossible because of my rating of the Italian governments I know of. To conclude: citizens are pretty accurate when they ‘rate’ this EU, this European Commission, this Eurozone. We do not know what the rates would be if the institutions were different and their democratic and policy performance better than the current state of play.
The second answer I gave to my students is that they have to look at the data. Reading books like Risse’s A Community of Europeans? (Cornell University Press, 2010) is instructive. As I said, I am not arguing for a ‘strong European state’ – this was the unfortunate wording of the Ventotene manifesto. So, what kind of identity and public discourse do we need for a federal Europe? Certainly NOT a community of people who identify themselves exclusively with the EU – Risse argues. But we already have at least 40% of citizens that identify themselves both with Europe and their nation. Read this against another indicator: only 5% identify solely with their nation. So, where is this huge number of people who love their state and hate the EU?
Risse shows that Europeanised identities are nested in, rather than substitutive of, national identities. On this basis, a transnational identity may develop around the concept of pluralist Europe anchored to universal liberal values, human rights, rule of law and the market economy (p.61). He also shows that a transnational public discourse is emerging: but this is not a homogeneous public space of citizens with the same language and the same media. Rather, it is a public sphere where citizens discuss simultaneously the same topics from a single agenda, but with multiple perspectives. In short, Europeanised identities and the transnational public sphere are not all-or-nothing things. Those who say that we have to forget national identities and get a single media system (if not a single language!) confuse the ‘strong European state’ with the pluralist federation I mentioned earlier on.
The same applies to opinions about policies, with some surprises: since 2008, a majority of respondents to Eurobarometer supports a common defence and security policy among EU member states (74% in 2008, 75% in both 2010 and 2011). Today, in 2011, 64% support a common foreign policy for the 27 EU member states, only 26% are against (Eurobarometer 75, 2011).
Or think of environmental policy: no matter how much citizens, according to some students, love their country and hate the EU, they still think that the EU can be highly trusted on climate change and the environment.72% want decisions about the environment to be taken jointly by the EU and the governments of the member states – only 26% want the governments to decide alone (Eurobarometer74, Autumn 2010).
Support for specific policies is not cancelled out, so to speak, by a diffuse distrust for the EU – even if we talk of the ‘EU as it is today’ not the United States of Europe. David Easton‘s differentiation between diffuse and specific support is still valid.
Finally, where are the rational reasons to trust the state today? Rossi and Spinelli argued that the state had failed to deliver on democracy, rights, and economic welfare. Their libertarian message may have looked a bit adventurous given the spectacular recovery of the state and state structures in the aftermath of World War II (a point stressed by the recent Majone, Europe as Would be World Power, Cambridge, 2009). But aren’t the recent events showing the colossal failure of the state in countries as diverse as (I mention only a few and I do not talk about state failure in Africa and Central Asia) Iceland, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and of course Greece? Isn’t this failure exactly pointing to the lack of state capacity to deliver on substantial, strong democracy and economic welfare? Political leaders like Marco Pannella speak of ‘real democracies’ the same way we used to describing ‘real socialism’ or ‘actually existing socialism’. In some European countries we are left with the empty shell of formal democracy, whilst substantive democratic content is withering away. Those are hollowed-out states. Without a democratic federation, we also have all the problems of ‘politics without policy’ at the domestic level combined with ‘policy without politics’ at the EU level that authors like Peter Mair have exposed for a long time. Unsurprisingly then, public confidence in government is down to 32% across the EU – 63% distrust it (Eurobarometer 75, 2011).
Given these three considerations, we can act like Voltaire’s Candide and think that we live in the best of the possible Eurozone and EU worlds. If you think the status quo is good enough, there is nothing that needs to be done. Given what we see in the news, this position is untenable, however. We can also feel happy about the likely process of European dis-integration by looking at what is happening in the Eurozone. For some this may be a return to the golden age of the state, forgetting that economic and geo-political interdependence are not going to disappear even if the EU collapses. For me these two options are not normatively desirable. And I do not see any credible alternative out there. Except Ventotene.
Thus, we have to go back and listen to the old, rusty words of people writing from a jail when Hitler was dominating Europe. Let us these words resonate inside our minds. Let us summon them in front of the tribunal of reason. These obstinate, visionary words will perform very well indeed, today and tomorrow.
Claudio M. Radaelli
21 October 2011
Claudio Radaelli is a professor of political science at the University of Exeter, where he directs the Centre for European Governance. His research interests lie in the theory of the policy process, learning in public policy, Europeanization, and regulatory reform
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