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