“You can’t say no to Emma”: The radical challenge of making the United States of Europe

 Claudia Basta describes in this article the meeting which took place in Rome, which brought together some pro-European political figures and activists, headed by Guy Verhofstadt, to discuss the prospect of possible United States of Europe

Every country has its own liberal icon: one outstanding political figure that more generations associate with the most epochal liberal accomplishments of the 20th century. What makes the figure of Emma Bonino unparalleled is that those generations are nearly four; that her political influence stretched unchallenged into the current century; and that the unconditioned respect she earned along fifty years of tireless political activity crossed not only the Italian borders, but the European ones.

Born in 1948 in northwestern Italy, Emma is one of the historical leaders of the Italian Radical Party. A thin, discrete, energetic woman who commands European major languages as well as Arabic, at first sight I wouldn’t be able to guess her origins.

Something of her reminds me of the portraits of Dutch writer Etty Hillesum: the inevitable cigarette, the eyes straight into the eyes of the observer, and the attitude of inquiring and challenging her interlocutors at the same time. Her style of argumentation resembles that mix of intellectual rigor, firmness, and yet uncomplicatedness of an experienced scientist; her bearing, that distinct dignity of the Israeli and Palestinian women who walked me through the many gates and walls of their existence with a perpetual smile. In a congress room packed with hundreds of participants, media staff and security, I have never seen her, once, denying a moment of genuine attention to every single person – including myself – who approached her. These traits combined confer to Emma that sort of authoritativeness that one accords to another, somehow, instinctively; without, which is perhaps what impressed me the most, experiencing that distance and subjection so typically emanated by Italian leaders.

Guy Verhofstadt, Emma Bonino

At the beginning of his speech, Guy Verhofstadt summarized all of this very effectively: “You can’t say no to Emma”. Invited to participate in the convention Stati Uniti d’Europa: Una sfida Radicale (United States of Europe: A Radical challenge), held in Rome on October 28th and 29th, Guy showed to having experienced Emma’s invitation as a ‘call to arms’ from the side of the commander-in-chief of a battle that he, too, wishes to win: constructing the European Federation of States that founding fathers like Altiero Spinelli had envisioned at the dawn of the European Union.

Emma’s Radical Party – evolved into the movement of Italian Radicals, which hosted the convention in the framework of the yearly congress led by secretary Riccardo Magi and president Antonella Soldo – endorsed this vision since those early days.

Roberto Saviano

In an Italian political landscape infected by more and more viral anti-Europe narratives – according to which the Italian economic decline is due to the Euro, to ‘Brussels’ bureaucrats’, and to the imposition of so-called austerity – this convention stands out as a stronghold against the populistic drift to which Italian voters, approaching the political elections of 2018, seem so vulnerable to. Once again, Emma and her companions are combating a battle for the common good that few understand, many misrepresent, and many more European Liberals should join.

With the sole exception of writer Roberto Saviano (who stressed his mutual inability of “saying no to Emma” despite the strict security requirements of his movements), the convention opened and closed with the speeches of prominent politicians. Whilst all of them shared the vision of a federation of European States in which regulatory and decisional processes, European citizenship, market and borders, and the latter’s international positioning could be more consistently, cohesively and concretely empowered, each speaker emphasized specific aspects of the relevant challenges. These – from the challenge of implementing one European fiscal policy to the creation of a joint defense system – were discussed in five parallel sessions. Relevant outcomes were reported to the audience on the second day of the congress, before the final speeches and Emma’s conclusions.

Benedetto Della Vedova, Enrico Letta

In the limited space of this article, what I would linger on is the red thread that connected the contributions of Guy Verhofstadt, Benedetto Della Vedova (founder, in 2016, of the liberal movement Forza Europa) and former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta: that is, the motivation and pre-condition for the making of the United States of Europe. The former consists of the inevitable transition of the European Union toward a smaller, older, and ‘slower’ geopolitical entity squeezed among the American, African and Asian giants; the latter, consists of fighting the anti-Europe narratives that, by feeding nationalistic and populistic movements from Italy and France up to The Netherlands and Great Britain, contribute to weaken that entity further by persuading European voters to leave the Union with the false expectation of “taking the control back”.

What the convention United States of Europe: A Radical challenge conveyed with force is that changing that narrative and establishing a transnational political culture orientated toward reforming rather than leaving the Union, demands to all European Liberals – regardless of our individual positioning on the liberal spectrum – of becoming ‘masters of the European future’. This requires us to respond to irrational fears and ideological preconceptions with facts and figures; to embody progressive optimism against conservative pessimism; simply, to remember to our fellow citizens what it means being able to move, without crossing neither physical nor psychological barriers, from one country to another, from this to that European University, and from one to a better job; and what this will mean for future European generations. In the end, changing the narrative according to which the European Union is our problem rather than our solution calls us to embody the same forward-looking attitude of Altiero Spinelli, whose famous statement was recalled by Emma Bonino in her conclusive remarks: “a European federation is not something that will occur by destiny. It is something that only the will and effort of the European people will achieve.”

We can’t say no to Emma, remember.

Claudia Basta

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