The line that the Italian government’s European policy has followed in recent months should stir up fear and alarm in all Europeans who have any sense of responsibility. Italy has always belonged to the group of countries at Europe’s heart – the countries whose collaboration gave rise to the initiatives that, over the years, have kept the process of European unification moving forwards (as far as Maastricht). The Italian government’s new line is destined to ensure Italy’s exclusion from a Europe continuing along the road towards the continent’s unification. And were this its only implication, the Italian government’s change of direction could be regarded merely as an unfortunate, but transitory, episode. But in truth, it is more than that. It is an indication that euroscepticism – which the eurosceptics have rechristened “eurorealism” – has now penetrated the very heart of Europe, gravely weakening the group of countries whose governments have, to date, always demonstrated a capacity to carry the process forward and an awareness – albeit confused – of the vital need to turn Europe into an autonomous force in the global equilibrium. This is reflected in a strengthening of the position of those who want to see the Union transformed into a free trade area, which will have no real autonomy and will be unable to govern democratically its own economy and currency. The very real and dangerous scenario that may, as a result of this development, now be glimpsed on the horizon is that of an inglorious end to the process of unification that has, for the past fifty years, allowed Europe to live in freedom and prosperity.
Politically, Italy is a weak country, a country in which society is fragmented and the democratic tradition is not as deep rooted as it is elsewhere. The Italian electorate is thus more susceptible than that of other countries to the attraction of populism, when circumstances favour the emergence of the same. But these considerations serve only as an explanation of why certain degenerative phenomena have manifested themselves first in Italy, rather than elsewhere, and in particularly unpleasant forms. In actual fact, the involution of Italy’s political situation can be seen as the most overt sign of a general involution of the political situation of Europe as a whole, an involution that can be attributed to the fact that, in fifty years of integration, politics in Europe has remained confined within a national framework and has never taken into real consideration the question of creating a democratic European government.
The process of European integration managed to advance as far as Maastricht thanks to a deep level of collaboration between independent states united in the pursuit of grand objectives, like the direct election of the European Parliament, the single market and the European currency. This progress was possible in a framework of stability guaranteed by the Cold War and the resulting convergence of European and American interests. The protagonists of the process were statesmen of great calibre, men in whom memories of the catastrophes of the Second World War were still very much alive. But as monetary union became a reality and the memory of the war faded, the willingness to collaborate among Europe’s member countries – a group that has, due to the successive waves of enlargement, become increasingly numerous and variegated – has progressively been lost, while relations between Europe and the United States have become more discordant. The ‘glue’ that held together first the European Community, and subsequently the European Union, has lost its stick. The activity of the European Councils has degenerated into unseemly bargaining and the blame for this certainly cannot be laid solely at the door of the Italian government.
Some of the Union’s governments are voicing their concern over what is happening in Italy – and they are right to do so. But they must be careful not to make the mistake of thinking that the compactness of the Union can be preserved through a few declarations of condemnation. Europe must move forwards in order not to slip backwards. What is needed, in order for it to do this, is for the most enlightened of the EU governments to appreciate that there is a real need, an urgent need, for a drastic change of direction, and, on the strength of this, to offer the continent’s citizens a great design, capable of raising hopes and mobilising energies.
It must, of course, be a concrete and credible design, not just the simple expression of a wish. It is therefore clear that it cannot emerge in the framework of the current fifteen, or in that of the future twenty-five member countries. A radical change of direction can be achieved, as has been demonstrated throughout the process of unification, only upon the initiative of a small group of countries that a long history of integration has rendered homogeneous. Until fairly recently, it was possible to envisage that such a group might be made up of the six ECSC founder countries. Today, however, one might quite legitimately fear that the present Italian government lacks the vision, ideal drive and international credibility needed to play an active role in the process. If ever such an initiatory group is formed, it is – barring an unlikely change of mind – reasonable to expect that Italy will not be a part of it. Having said that, it is probable that, were this scenario to materialise, Italy would, given the close links between her economy and that of the members likely to form this vanguard group, be one of the first of the EU states to adopt its design, once it became a reality.
But as well as being concrete and credible, this design must also be radical. The initiative – involving six (or more probably five) countries – that is needed must be something quite different from the creation of a “Directory” that merely reproduces, in a narrower setting, the faults and inadequacies of the present Union. Not only would a “Directory” generate tensions between the governments that are part of it and those that are not, it would also be unable to prevent tensions from arising between its own members. Equally, ambiguous ideas, like that of the “federation of nation-states”(which claims to reconcile those who are and those who are not in favour of a united Europe) will never be enough to get the process of European unification started again, and the same goes for institutional expedients that merely preserve the status quo (like the idea of “strengthened cooperation”). In truth, what the governments of those countries that could, realistically, form an initiatory group must decide is to shift the framework of political struggle from the nations to Europe, by relinquishing their sovereignty to an initial, embryonic federal state, open to all countries willing to accept the rules of its constitution. It is a mighty task, one that will require the materialisation of exceptional circumstances, the emergence of a courageous and visionary leader (or of more than one), and the patient ground-laying action of a conscientious and determined federalist vanguard. But there can be no escaping the fact that the sovereignty issue must finally be stated plainly. The enormous difficulty of the historical choice on which Europe’s salvation depends must be faced up to, not avoided.