N. 24 July 2002 | For the Convention to bring about real change, real federalists must be given a place

At the Convention, the so-called federalist coalition is still trapped into the community method without challenging the predominant role played by the Member States in the current EU framework. Unlike this method, the federalist one advocates a new State-based decision-making system which is directly connected to our citizens.

There are some who maintain that Europe is today witnessing – particularly within the Convention – a confrontation between a federalist alliance and an anti-federalist alliance, the latter apparently made up of those who would like to strengthen the role of the European Council and the Council of Ministers, accentuating the intergovernmental character of the Union. The federalist alliance, on the other hand, according to this view, embraces those who would like to strengthen the role of the Commission. This makes the federalist alliance the one keen to preserve, and possibly strengthen, the Community method, by extending it to sectors, like foreign policy and defence, that are currently excluded from it.

The fact that the word “federalists” is used to refer to the supporters of the Community method is an indication of the current degeneration of relations within the Union, a degeneration that is reflected in a degradation of the language used to discuss them. The history of the process of European integration is marked by a long phase – now long since over – in which the Community method, somehow or other, did work. But during that phase, no one would ever have thought of identifying Community functionalism – that is to say official Europeanism – with federalism. On the contrary, federalism set itself up as a radical alternative to the Communities and to their decision-making process, which federalists, from Spinelli onwards, have always harshly criticised. The federalist design was characterised by its pursuit, as its primary objective, of the transfer of sovereignty to a European federal state. The aim of the Community design, on the other hand, was to perpetuate national sovereignty, which meant offering (through intergovernmental cooperation) only precarious and partial responses to problems of a European dimension.

According to the Community method, the Council, which is to say the member-states, holds executive power and a large share of legislative power, while the Commission has only the faculty to advance proposals; the Parliament, meanwhile, holds an almost negligible share of legislative power and its activity is always subject, in one way or another, to the decisions of the Council. The Community method is thus based on a decision-making mechanism that, while changing over the years, has always been characterised by the national governments’ decisive role in the decision-making process.

The Commission in particular has been able to act as a driving force, namely in times when, thanks to a favourable international climate and to the small number of Community member-states, it served to express a strong, albeit provisional, convergence of the interests of the national governments (without this ever taking away from the latter their role as effective decision-makers). But today, in a profoundly different international setting and with the member-states numbering fifteen (and soon twenty-five) instead of just six, it serves, in fact, as little more than the Council’s secretariat (and as the scapegoat on which the nation-states heap the blame for all the decisions that they themselves have taken but for which they do not wish to accept responsibility before their respective voters). It is no coincidence that Commissioner Barnier has rightly defended the Commission against the accusation of wanting to increase its power vis-à-vis the governments, pointing out that the Commission has never in fact possessed power, nor even laid claim to any.

The Community method is thus but one of many possible versions of the intergovernmental method, and its identification with the federalist design stems from a gross misunderstanding. The question is not one of extending, perfecting or strengthening the Community method, but of replacing it with a state-type decision-making method. The real problem with which we are currently faced is that of creating, in a framework in which this is possible, a government that has a true link with the Union’s citizens – a government that is the expression of their consensus, regardless of the mechanis m through which this consen sus is expressed (parliamentary, presidential, etc.); and which has, within the sphere of its competences, the power to influence individuals directly, imposing, through the right coercive instruments, their observance of federal laws and of the decisions it takes.

The present European Union is more backward than the American Confederation that preceded the Philadelphia Convention and whose manifest inadequacies generated an awareness of the need to found anew, and on new bases, the coexistence of the former American colonies and their citizens. Indeed, foreign policy and defence both fell within the sphere the Confederation’s competences and it was able to decide all questions by majority (except for the reform of its own statute). But it was paralysed by the fact that it depended, for its very existence, on the agreement between the member-states, which kept their sovereignty intact, and by the fact that it did not have the power to impose directly its decisions on the citizens, but instead had to rely, for their execution, on the goodwill of the governments of the former colonies, to which Congress could only issue recommendations.

The founding fathers of the American federation had the far-sightedness and the courage to develop and put to the states for ratification a radical design, before the forces of disintegration could overcome the United States. The men of government in Europe today, on the other hand, concerned solely with defending their own national interests – or rather, their own power – do not seem to have the same far-sightedness and courage. And yet in Europe, too, chaos and disintegration are just around the corner.


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