The message that both the European Council and the national governments are currently giving the citizens of Europe is quite devastating. At a time when, more than ever, what is needed is action and a capacity for initiative, what we instead have is a Council that has given up pursuing a political design for Europe, opting instead for “frenetic immobility” as Jürgen Habermas harshly put it this summer, and governments that are desperately seeking impossible national solutions to the various crises. Neither of these responses amounts to government, and this is precisely why confidence in the institutions and in the future is dwindling, and the selfishness in society is increasing.
Europe and the Western World are experiencing a crisis of values that dramatically echoes the climate that emerged in Europe in the decades between the two World Wars. As a result of the growth of global interdependence, which is being addressed in a political leadership vacuum and in the absence of institutions capable of guaranteeing cooperation, international coexistence is becoming more and more aggressive, a trend likely to have ungovernable consequences.
The current global disorder is leaving Western countries, once the economic leaders, cushioned by the political and military predominance of the United States, feeling threatened by the rise, disorderly and full of contradictions, of those countries and continents that they used to regard as disadvantaged partners. And Europe is right at the heart of this disorder. Even though it is a full two and a half decades since the Soviet Union collapsed and Europe’s privileged relationship with the United States came to an end, the European Union, despite being the world’s most developed commercial area, continues to be a huge void on the global stage, in terms of the balance of power and the values and political culture it embodies. This is because it has proved incapable both of definitively overcoming nationalism and its culture, and of establishing a new, post-national concept of the federal political community.
And yet today’s world is crying out for political and cultural leadership from a Europe capable of pursuing stability and cooperation. Even more than this, it desperately needs to see solid institutions built on affirmation of the moral, historical and political concepts that – crucial points of reference – are to be found only in the origins of the process of European integration and can be affirmed, globally, only if this process succeeds.
This, if we analyse it, is the real message behind the tribute that Renzi, Merkel and Hollande, meeting this summer on the island of Ventotene, paid to Altiero Spinelli and his Manifesto for a Free and United Europe. Because, at the present historical juncture, only a Europe with the capacity to express the political will to bring about political unity, to overcome selfishness and closure, and to create strong supranational institutions directly answerable to the European citizens (rather than only to the 27 national peoples) and able to act (within their sphere of competence) in the place of the states can reverse the dangerous trend now under way worldwide. Without this change of direction, which only the Europeans, through their example, are in a position to bring about – peacefully moreover –, Liberal democracy and the values of equality and social justice, which are the defining feature and pride of Western society, are destined to be swept away. The signals now coming from the UK and the USA provide alarming confirmation of this.
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Ultimately, the deep causes of today’s universally acknowledged crisis of Western democracy, which is intertwined with a growing rejection of globalisation, are both political and cultural: political insofar as the Western states (the USA and the European countries), failing to manage the globalisation phenomenon with the necessary farsightedness, allowed contradictions and weaknesses to build up within the economic and social system, faults that the global economic and financial crisis brought brutally to the fore; and cultural, because these failures were accompanied by the failure to develop an adequate system of political thought as a tool for interpreting the changes taking place and the challenges they raised, and for understanding how best to guide institutional development, at all levels.
Their objectives really should have been to ensure social peace and solidarity, both within the different political communities and externally, between countries and peoples; to foster, in every citizen, a growing awareness of, and sense of responsibility towards, the general interest, encouraging constructive involvement of the citizens in public life; and also to adequately govern the effects of global interdependence and of technological developments within different regional and social settings. But these objectives proved out of reach as they were pursued, futilely, by applying the traditional categories, now superseded and inadequate, of right versus left, completely upsetting their points of reference in the process. Only now are we seeing a dawning realisation that, in the 21st century, the real – and new – demarcation line is the one that separates what some call racist nationalism from what many term “cosmopolitan liberalism”, but which more correctly corresponds to federalism in the form and with the features it has assumed in the course of the process of European unification: from the Ventotene Manifesto to the introduction of European elections, the Spinelli Project, the single currency, and the proposals developed in recent years, which, in turn, range from those of the European Commission and various presidents of the EU institutions to the ones, currently being finalised within the European Parliament, for a strengthening of the European Union and its institutional transformation into a true federation.
Politics, in the highest and noblest sense of the term, is at a crossroads. The future of Europe, and indeed the fate of the world, hangs on the capacity of the European Parliament, with tenacity and courage, to carry these proposals forward, and on the European governments’ capacity to initiate, farsightedly, a phase that must, necessarily, be constituent. If, instead, the heads of state and of government and the parliaments, primarily, insist on using the power entrusted to them simply to try and win support from today’s ill-informed and confused public opinion, rather than seeking to guide it towards the common good, then the current wave of populism and xenophobia will continue to increase, and democracy will be swept away.
Time is running out, but there will soon be an opportunity to ascertain the state of play. If the forthcoming 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaties of Rome (25 March, 2017) is to be – as indeed it cannot fail to be – a watershed moment for Europe, it will not be enough, on that occasion, to kick start the concrete policies intended to serve as rapid responses to the problems of the citizens, necessary as these are. It will also be crucial to kick start the much needed process of institutional reform for which the proposals developed within the European Parliament are the essential starting point.
For this reason we must all be present in Rome on that day, to show that there is still broad consensus on the need to build Europe, and to demand the crucial quality leap forwards in the direction of a federal Europe.
For everyone, then, a reminder of the place and the date: Rome, 25 March, 2017.