N. 12 January 2000 | Impossible choices to break the deadlock

The European unification process is facing an impasse and the final choice of a european federation will be the only way out of it. Yet, governments don't want to give up the dogma of national sovereignty and the intergovernmental method. Moreover, proposals such as modifying article 48 and the majority vote will only serve the interest of pro-sovereignty movements.

A transverse alignment has been born in France, which is being labelled “souverainiste”, and which is forming alliances in other EU member countries. Its emergence constitutes a demonstration of the fact that the forces that oppose European political unity have recognised that, following the arrival of the euro, the process of European unification has entered a crucial stage in which the question of sovereignty can no longer be brushed under the carpet. As a result, they are, with clear-sightedness and determination, coming forward to spread their message that sovereignty is, and must remain, a prerogative of the nation-states.

On the other hand, the political forces that call themselves pro-European appear to lack both the lucidity and the determination of their opponents. They have neither the capacity to see, nor the courage to affirm, that the transfer of sovereignty from national to continental level has become the decisive issue of our times. Instead, they seek to bolster the idea that sovereignty is a sort of relic left over from the nineteenth century and, as such, a tool that serves no useful purpose as we strive to interpret, and change, the reality of our times. They also shore up the belief that European political unity is a rather vague objective that does not involve radical transformation of the kind that is, on the contrary,a necessary prerequisite for any transfer of sovereignty, and that it is, instead, coming about through a series of imperceptibletransitions, almost without the governments and political forces being aware of what is happening.

Modification of art. 48 of the Treaty on European Union is the expedient most often put forward by those wanting to build Europe “by stealth”, as it would enable the Treaties to be changed by majority decisions, and thus feed the hope that, having removed the problem of the right of veto of governments which are openly opposed to the political unification of Europe, the more pro-European states might, providing the circumstances are favourable, be in a position to modify gradually the structures of the Union until a point is reached at which, to a greater or lesser degree, it can be said to resemble a federation. In truth, however, the possibility that all the Union’s member states would acquiesce to this stratagem is remote, even more remote than the idea – already per se improbable – that they might unanimously decide in favour of founding a European federation. Certainly, it seems absurd to suggest that the same member states which are, hypothetically, unwilling to relinquish their sovereignty to a new state, despite having the possibility to negotiate the conditions that would govern such a transfer, might instead be prepared to relinquish it a priori and blindfold, each placing itself in a situation in which it would be required to accept the conditions imposed upon it by a majority to which it did not belong.

The clear unworkability of this proposal has led to the formulation of another, more “realistic” one. This second suggestion is to incorporate the Treaties into a single document which would then be divided into two parts: one of constitutional import, the modification of which would continue to be subject to decisions taken by unanimity, the system for which provision is made in art. 48, and one of legislative import which could, instead, be modified by majority decisions.

This solution would get round the problem of sovereignty. But all it would ultimately do is bring us back where we started from. Clearly, it would have to be an intergovernmental conference that determined which areas must be regarded as constitutional (and, as such, still subject to the intergovernmental method), and there can be no doubt that the member states would bring into this category all those areas liable to call their sovereignty into play: institutional reform, security,taxation, the budget ceiling, etc. In short, everything would have been changed in order to make sure that everything remains the same.

There will certainly be many ready to point out that a reform of this kind would, in any case, serve to increase the number of areas subject to majority voting within the Council and in which, therefore, the Parliament would (presumably) be able to exercise its right of co-decision. This, they will point out, would be a step forward. But this viewpoint must be countered with the objection that the era of “steps forward” came to a definitive end with the arrival of the single currency. The only step that remains to be taken is the ultimate one: the one that separates the preservation of the current structure of the Union, based on the intergovernmental method, from the creation, through the foundation of a European federal state, of a European democratic power. To deny this reality is to add grist to the mill of the “souverainistes”, who find it easier than their opponents to make themselves heard when they insist that only the current framework of the nation-states can guarantee the citizens their security and wellbeing, and allow them to exercise their democratic rights.

The reality of the present situation must be taken on board, and urgently. The challenges that face the Union are both imminent and enormously difficult. The first of these is its enlargement. Confronted with this particular challenge, the national governments appear to be trying to square a circle. They recognise that governing a Union comprising a growing number of increasingly heterogeneous countries would be impossible without abandoning the intergovernmental method. It is a fact they cannot ignore since governing the Union, in its present structure, through application of the intergovernmental method has already become a practically impossible task. But at the same time, they refuse to question the dogma of national sovereignty, which is incompatible with any non intergovernmental decision-making system, and have thus become drawn into a search for impossible solutions. The process of European unification has reached a decisive impasse and decisive choices must be made if a way out of it is to be found.


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