Democratising Europe is not about reinventing the wheel. A study of Altiero Spinelli’s efforts, especially the Congress of the European People, may increase our chances of success.
Altiero Spinelli’s grave, Ventotene. Flickr/ Jon Worth. Some rights reserved.
Mr. Varoufakis: beyond your slogans, what is your practical plan to initiate a surge of democracy in Europe? This question is frequently asked in many different ways on (social) media. Though it’s a fair enough question, it is addressing the wrong person. Yanis Varoufakis, main initiator of Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25), says the organisation is horizontal. So it has no fixed leader – in theory anyway. Be very aware of the radical implication. Anyone who offers a great idea could be a leader in a certain phase of such a movement. If your suggestion is accepted by an overwhelming majority of the whole movement, you can effectively direct the movement. You don’t need to wait until the organisational structure and next steps are clearer. Now it’s you who may bring it forward. If anyone may run things in this movement, will even a dead leader do? Odd question. Let me explain. The long term vision is a federation. Varoufakis elaborated on this a little in an interview with euronews‘ Isabelle Kumar: ‘Where we can have a federal government on the basis of a one person one vote system.’ I would argue, whoever says European Federation, says Altiero Spinelli.
Spinelli (1907-1986) started his political life at age 17 as an Italian communist. As a member of an anti-fascist movement he fought Mussolini. In 1927, because of his involvement in the resistance he was sentenced to 16 years of imprisonment and internment. In 1937 he broke with the communists when he heard about Stalin’s purges. He absolutely opposed totalitarianism. After that rupture he studied federalist ideas. In 1941, together with Ernesto Rossi, he wrote the famous Ventotene Manifesto (on cigarette papers): Towards a free and united Europe. This federalist manifesto eventually laid the basis for European cooperation. The Italian constitutional theorist is considered one of the founding fathers of the European Union. Spinelli wrote in his autobiography:
My life can be described by six courses of action, each founded on a different hypothesis. I. Between ’43 and ’45 my working hypothesis assumed an impetuous revival of democracy that would depart from the destruction of both the previous European order and the internal ones of almost all European nation states. II. Between ’47 and ’54 my working hypothesis was that the most important moderate ministers in Europe, encouraged by the missionary democratic spirit of US foreign policy and scared of the developments in Eastern Europe, would listen to us and would start building the federal union. III. Between ’54 and ’60(?) my working hypothesis was that it might be possible to mobilise the already widespread Europeanist feeling into a popular protest – the Congress of the European People – directed against the very legitimacy of the nation states. IV. Between ’60 and ’70 while I was almost completely retiring from political action I profoundly contemplated the meaning of the European Economic Community, the new aspects of military defence introduced by nuclear weapons and the possibility of relaunching the federalist action. V. Between ’70 and ’76 my working hypothesis was that the European Commission could take the role of political guide in restarting the construction of the political union. VI. Between 76 and ’86 my working hypothesis was that the European Parliament should take the constitutional role in the European construction. Altiero Spinelli: Come ho tentato di diventare saggio (Società editrice il Mulino: Bologna 1999 p. 348)
At the end of his life, Spinelli felt disillusioned. Only small steps were taken towards his dream, which he chased mostly in vain.
Steps beyond history
This list of hypotheses shows that more roads could lead to Rome. Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the liberals in the European Parliament, is trying route 6. Obviously, DiEM25 follows the path of Spinelli’s third attempt. In order not to repeat old mistakes, adherents to the movement especially need to know the fate of the Congress of the European People. Up till now, three reasons seem to have caused Spinelli’s failure.
Firstly, in 1954, just 9 years after WW-II, hatred for the Germans was deeply felt by many Europeans. A European federal state was therefore destined to fail.
Secondly, life for western Europeans turned out rather well in the booming years after the war. So, it was felt that there was no need to challenge the leading political figures.
And thirdly, democratisation and federalism are primarily about a political structure, not the instant access to a more prosperous life that is on so many people’s minds. Hence they lack a certain mobilising force.
But times are changing. After seventy postwar years, in general, Germans are not seen as bogeymen, rather the consensus is that the Nazis were the most horrendous representatives of a fascist wave that ravaged the whole of Europe. Furthermore, the EU is going downhill fast now, even disintegrating – so Brexit is possible.
These two circumstances create quite a contrasting scenario with Spinelli’s third period of action and favor DiEM25. When it comes to the last reason, however, the lack of a motivating force remains a challenge. So socio-economic issues have to be connected urgently to the agenda of democratisation.
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and similar treaties, are of course a major threat to democracy, as well as to food safety, any possibilities for economic activities in rural areas, and so forth. They should be rejected. Let more plans on other socio-economic issues be made.
By Sjaak Scheele