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What Remains: On the European Union | The Nation

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What Remains: On the European Union

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This essay is adapted from Mark Mazower’s Governing the World: The History of an Idea, coming this month from the Penguin Press.


Spinelli’s Dream

Baked by the Mediterranean sun beating down on the Tyrrhenian Sea, the volcanic islets of Santo Stefano and Ventotene lie some sixty miles off the Italian coast. Each is a few square miles of parched, treeless and windswept rock, inhabited since Roman times chiefly by lizards, seagulls and political prisoners. Santo Stefano is the smaller of the two, dominated even now by the weed-infested ruins of the extraordinary Bourbon prison built on Benthamite principles at the end of the eighteenth century. The slightly larger island, Ventotene, was the administrative headquarters of the prison complex under fascism, and it was there, with nothing but the sinister rock of Santo Stefano to disrupt the monotony of the horizon, that a small group of Italian political prisoners came together in the early years of World War II to diagnose the source of Europe’s ills and propose a better future. What emerged in the summer of 1941 would become known as the Ventotene Manifesto. Its main author, a young activist named Altiero Spinelli, would become a legendary figure in the pantheon of postwar Europeanism, a leading federalist and advocate of integration who, until his death in 1986, played a prominent role in the drive toward European union.

About the Author

Mark Mazower
Mark Mazower teaches history at Columbia University. His new book, Hitler's Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe (Penguin...

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The starting point for the manifesto was naturally the failure of the League of Nations and the rise of fascism and Nazism. The text denounced both the league’s naïve confidence in international law and fascism’s idolatry of the state, and went on to argue that the national state itself was now a threat to the peace: Europe required not another League of Nations but full-blown federation. The Communists were criticized for preaching the virtues of class conflict, yet although Spinelli had recently broken with the party, what he offered was in many ways a kindred vision: “progressive forces” who believed in federation would act in the name of the “masses,” but they would be that minority of “serious internationalists” capable of acting decisively in a Leninist fashion to provide guidance in the critical moments when fascism and Nazism crumbled, moments “during which the popular masses are anxiously awaiting a new message.” The struggle was not going to be against this or that ideological current; rather, it would be against those “reactionary forces” that aimed to restore the power of the national state. The task was to make federation work, and if individual states wanted to go their own way, they would have to be compelled to see the truth. Only a European federation had the answers to the problems of mixed ethnicity and geography that had brought war to the continent, and twice, through Europe, to the world. Instead of spreading conflict, Europe should unify itself, even as humankind awaited “the more distant future when the political unity of the entire globe becomes a possibility.”

The Ventotene Manifesto lies more than seventy years in the past, yet what Spinelli would think about the present crisis in Europe is not unfathomable. Early on, he recognized that the Common Market was becoming a powerful force, and he opted to work through it rather than around it. He never really liked its dependence on intergovernmental cooperation, and he always sought to strengthen the more genuinely supranational institutions—the European Commission and the European Parliament—over the Council of Ministers. On the other hand, he certainly approved of the idea that economic union might lead to political union and complained only about the length of time this was taking. Nor would he have minded the elite character of the drive to further integration, because he was convinced that ultimately the continent’s peoples would come to appreciate its blessings.

Faithful to the means while envisaging quite different ends, today’s European Union exists in a deeply ambiguous relationship to the principles of Ventotene. Integration has been driven by a bureaucratic elite that continues to see national sovereignty as an obstacle to be overcome, but this elite has largely lost sight of the principles of social solidarity and human dignity that Spinelli wished to resurrect. From the perspective of Ventotene, federation was an instrument that would allow the struggle against inequality and poverty to be won. A form of managed capitalism would place limits on the market and property ownership without eradicating them completely; there would be nationalization of key industries, land reform and worker cooperatives. The result would be not communism but the realization of a simpler, more manageable and perhaps nobler dream: a world in which economic forces would be guided and controlled by human beings rather than dominating them.

This is the world we have lost, in a double sense. In the first place, the sublime confidence and optimism in political action and mobilization for a better future that existed on Ventotene in 1941 has vanished. In addition, the Ventotene ideals, which basically underpinned the managed capitalism of the postwar miracle in Western Europe from 1945 to 1975, were repudiated following the turn to neoliberalism in the late 1970s and abandoned at the European level with the embrace of global finance during the 1990s. From the perspective of early twentieth-century Europe, the sentiments of 1941 represent a regime every bit as ancien as the decaying and abandoned Bourbon panopticon on the island of Santo Stefano.

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The turning point can be charted fairly precisely. The 1960s and ’70s were a time of prosperity in Western Europe, with trade and growth outstripping that of the United States. The European Community carapace overlaid powerful and largely autonomous nation-states buffered both from the outside world and from one another but gradually brought together through the horizontal integration of economic complementarities. For the European Community’s bureaucracy, however, always dreaming of driving forward to more perfect union, the 1960s and ’70s were a period of institutional stagnation. Then in the early 1980s, France’s finance minister, Jacques Delors, witnessed at first hand—through the travails of the Mitterrand government—the impossibility of building socialism in one country; as president of the European Commission from 1985 to 1995, he resolved to shore up social solidarity at the continental level while accelerating market integration. With another senior French civil servant, the economist Michel Camdessus, moving to run the IMF in 1987, there was a close interconnection between Delors’s integration drive in Europe and the emergence of a rules-bound liberalization of international capital flows. Equally instrumental in this process was a third French mandarin, Henri Chavranski, who oversaw the drafting of the Code of Liberalization for the discreetly influential Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). What one scholar has dubbed “the Paris consensus”—in contrast to the much more loudly self-advertised Washington version—opened up capital markets across the European Union and the world, a move that was perhaps the key economic shift in the globalization of the 1990s. Delors gambled that Europe could enjoy both capital liberalization and enhanced welfare. He would turn out to be wrong.

The high points of the Delors years were the Single European Act of 1986 and the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. With the ending of the cold war in particular, the membership of the European Union doubled in a little over a decade, and indeed the peaceful incorporation of much of Eastern Europe was a historic achievement. But the success was a Pyrrhic one, replete with unintended consequences as expansion—so desirable politically—complicated things. Redistribution was built in through help for poor regions, but the EU did not function as any kind of welfare guarantor for the poor and disadvantaged in general: constrained by a very small tax-raising capacity, “social Europe” always took second place to the higher goal of fiscal convergence and monetary union. Integration thus brought a shift away from redistribution toward the control of inflation as well as capital and labor mobility. Signed in February 1992, the Maastricht Treaty gestured decisively not toward a Europe of welfare and regulated capital, but toward an intensification of the single European market and an acceleration of trade and financial flows through the creation of a common currency.

At the same time, the idea of a citizens’ Europe with strong representative institutions failed to materialize as both the European Parliament and its national equivalents were marginalized. This was not simply because of the general mistrust of parliaments that became evident everywhere from the 1970s onward; it was also because enlargement necessitated increased majority voting, which meant that member states often signed up—were obliged to sign up—for policies they had not wanted and had no intention of implementing. For this very reason, monetary unification was made conditional upon national governments handing over much of their discretionary fiscal power. The so-called Stability and Growth Pact, with its strict limits on deficit spending and debt, locked in national legislatures, at least in theory. Electorates registered some disquiet when they were consulted, but in most cases they were not. Even so, before 2010 the rules of the pact were not properly enforced; by then, almost every country in the EU, with the exception of Luxembourg and the Scandinavians, had been in breach at some point, and this level of defiance cushioned the impact of what was an unnecessarily rigid system. And because the penalties were mild, monetary and fiscal policy was looser than it would otherwise have been and so encountered little popular opposition.

However, if legislators were not driving integration, who was? Here is where the European Union really has pioneered a new kind of internationalism. One key agent has been the European Court of Justice, an oddly neglected body and far more powerful than any world equivalent precisely because the national courts of member states (with the important exception of the Germans, who have preferred their own supreme constitutional court as the ultimate arbiter) have generally been willing to defer to its judgments. The court started out by establishing that European law could not be overridden by national law, and then went on to make a series of far-reaching interventions in the realm of social policy and industrial relations that mostly went unnoticed by the broader public. Supported by the legal profession, the court came as close as any body to establishing “a new legal order of international law”—binding, pervasive, beyond political discretion—in a world that had otherwise given up on the possibility of such a forum.

Even more powerful and pervasive than the court, but more nebulous and still less visible, have been the regulators. According to a process known to the cognoscenti as “comitology”—“an indispensable tool for interest groups and a nightmare for European studies students” is how one Belgian politician describes it—Brussels lawmakers passed general administrative laws whose details were then fleshed out by small committees of regulators and national experts. Opaque and unrepresentative, hundreds of such committees have operated in the shadows, outside the formal oversight of the European Parliament or even the Council of Ministers. The Treaty of Lisbon in 2009 was intended to rebut increasingly loud criticisms of the undemocratic character of this system. But although the treaty pledged explicitly to revitalize “the democratic life of the Union,” it has failed to do so. Today comitology flourishes, its procedures more arcane than ever, generating administrative laws that remain virtually impossible to revise or scrap. In short, Europe empowered regulators and rule-makers over citizens and their legislators, blurring the boundaries between the public good and private interest—and in the process, as the legal scholar Joseph Weiler puts it, rendering “the nation and state hollow and its institutions meaningless.”

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