“European constitution” is becoming a watchword increasingly used in political debate in all the countries of the Union, and adopted by prominent politicians and influential commentators. That which was, until the last European elections, known in the European Parliament as the “institutional commission” is now referred to as the “constitutional commission”. These are positive developments and changes that have injected into political debate in Europe a term which was, until a few months ago, taboo.
But politics - in particular, the politics of rotten systems - typically has the capacity to seize words which are heavily loaded with symbolism, and which can thus be used as instruments in order to win consensus, only to empty them of their true significance, and turn them into vehicles of propaganda. This is what is happening with the word “constitution”. With a few exceptions - mainly to be found in academic rather than political circles - the term “European constitution” is, through its extended use, taking on the most improper and extravagant meanings. These range from a modest reform of the Union’s institutions (rationalisation of the Commission, modification of the qualified majority voting system used in the Council of Ministers, unspecified extensions of the prerogatives of the European Parliament), to a more precise definition, pure and simple, of the competencies of the Union in relation to those of the states, and even to a mere simplification of the structure and terminology of the existing Treaties.
In this way, the Union’s governing class accomplishes the feat of acknowledging the existence of the need for a radical transformation in Europe while, at the same time, shirking their responsibility to examine it and to take action. Both in the history of political and judicial culture and in the collective consciousness of the peoples that have known democracy, the word “constitution” signifies the constitution of a State. But if this is so, the question of the European constitution is far more than one of drafting a text, however systematic and comprehensible it is rendered; rather, it is one of founding a new power, in other words, of constituting a single sovereign state in a sphere currently occupied by a plurality of sovereign states. There would be no need, in this regard, to point out that this would clearly be a federal state, which as such would be inspired by the principle of subsidiarity, were efforts not being made in a number of quarters to distort the meaning of the principle of subsidiarity - to turn it from a principle governing the distribution of power in a federal state into a spurious reason that might be advanced in order to prevent the creation of a federal state.
It is a problem, therefore, of transferring sovereignty from the national states to Europe; in other words, from the national peoples to the evolving European people. Like all the major historical transformations that have marked turning points in the process of the emancipation of the human race, it is an enormously difficult undertaking. The power of governments, and the promotion of all the interests bound up with them, depend on the preservation of sovereignty. It does not make sense, therefore, to hope that governments might be persuaded to relinquish their sovereignty on the basis merely of a demonstration of the reasonableness of the project, and without being forced in some way. In truth, it is only in a situation of grave danger, one in which the very foundations of the citizens’ loyalty to the national states are severely rocked, that governments can be thrust into taking this step. Many maintain that the federal unification of Europe can never come about since there exists, in reality, no European people. The fact is that, as long as the citizens of the states of the European Union continue to live in conditions of substantial wellbeing and relative security, they will not become active protagonists in the process.
But moments do occur in history in which, thanks to the combined effect of objective circumstances, the action of a conscious minority, the awareness of the most sensitive section of the political class and the presence of a few great leaders blessed with the capacity to understand the nature of the opportunity with which they are faced, a new people (which formerly existed only in an embryonic form) becomes conscious of its existence and in which it is then possible to found a new state. In the case of Europe, this moment will come when intergovernmental collaboration proves no longer sufficient to resolve the increasingly serious contradictions between the dimensions (European) of the problems that emerge and the dimensions (national) of the forms in which power is organised. When this happens, and providing the other conditions mentioned are also fulfilled, governments will feel obliged to relinquish their hold on national sovereignty and appeal to the evolving European people in order to create a new European federal legitimacy.
The war in Kosovo and the affirmation of Haider’s Freiheitlichen in Austria are just two recent episodes which show how the contradictions inherent in the process of European unification are, all the time, increasing in frequency and severity. The time is fast approaching when Europe’s governing class will be faced with a choice between founding the European federation or witnessing the end of the process (with an explosion of micronationalist tendencies and a crisis of the democratic institutions). When that time comes, Europe’s men of government will make the right choice only if they prove able to concur at the deepest level with the better part of public opinion and of the national political classes. And this can come about only if, thanks to the constant presence of federalists, a debate of increasing intensity can be established within the European Parliament, the national parliaments and the democratic parties, and providing claims for constituent powers for the European people are advanced with increasing frequency and effectiveness at all levels.