Category Archives: Federalism

“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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Fighting for a federal Europe of the Regions, not for Regions in Europe

In this contribution from Sebastien Martin, reflecting on the current Catalonian crisis, he discusses the importance of granting more powers to regions and their role within the European Union to reinforce and defend the EU itself”.

As liberals, we cherish two values more than anything else: freedom and the rule of law – but not necessarily equally. As the Catalonian crisis unfolds, our community becomes deeply divided: some of us put freedom above the rule of law (arguing that the rule of law might become, in some cases, a constraint placed on the expression of the will of the people) while others put the rule of law above freedom (convinced that any freedom must derive from the law, and that any system developing outside the rule of law is inherently dangerous). The present article is an attempt at reconciling our community by refocusing on a common objective which respects both values equally, allowing the freedom of the people to flourish on clear legal grounds.

In the absence of a true European constitution, the law which continues to govern the distribution of power within a given Member State is its constitution. Under the Spanish and French constitutions, to take two examples, no administrative entity can legally secede from its Member State. Doing so would mean acting illegally, and raise complex issues as to the recognition of any independence declaration at both European and global levels. In the case of Catalonia, it is doubtful that France or Italy, for example, would recognize it as an independent State – simply because so doing would likely reinvigorate regional aspirations which have been rampant within their own territories. More pragmatically, if a region unilaterally decides to leave a legal agreement – in this case, a constitution – which it has originally adopted with a large majority, then what credit will it get when negotiating new treaties?

Overall, such a scenario would increase the risk of a dissolution of the European Union, as Europe is not solid enough in its current state to absorb further shocks and uncertainty. Furthermore, forcing Member States to concede to the independence aspirations of (some of) their regions – or, more correctly, putting Member States in front of the fait accompli – will simply not work, and probably end up in strong internal divisions, if not outright violence.

The solution to this dilemma is to go for what is, and has always been, our main objective:  a federal Europe. Transferring additional powers to the European Union as a first step, before redistributing part to regions, which would clearly have higher chances of success. The concept of Nation State would have been, by then, weakened enough –not by force – but with the implicit consent of the States themselves and, through them, by the collective will of all the European peoples.

Both parts could not be dealt with at the same time: it is highly unlikely that Member States would accept to ratify a European constitution which would immediately transfer part of their sovereignty to regions. But continuing to gradually transfer more power to Europe – in the way of making it progressively more federal – is clearly a step in the right direction.

We could go further and imagine a European constitution explicitly granting regions (however defined) the right to organize as they see fit; or even, a constitution which would recognize regions as official political entities of the Union. Such a solution would kill two birds with one stone: making Europe federal, making it a Europe of the regions. In such a scenario, there will be no need for regions to painfully renegotiate their accession to the Union – they will de facto be part of it. The political part could be led by the Assembly of European Regions, which has already successfully pushed for a more formal recognition of regions at the European level in the latest project of constitution, which wasfinally rejected in 2005. As for the institutional framework, it already exists: the abandoned constitution of 1953, as laid down by the founding fathers of the European Union.

In any case, we should have our priorities right. We should firmly abide by our values and not bend any of them to specific situations, however difficult or pressing they might be. Fighting for regional independence today will probably backfire tomorrow, and make our ultimate goal of a federal Europe more remote. We should go the other way around: we should make Europe the catalyst of this devolution, as the solution can only come from a higher political entity. I believe that refocusing on such a proposition would enable us to reconcile our views on an issue which is very divisive not only for Catalonia and Spain, but also for liberals.

Sebastien Martin