Just as in a Roman arena where each ‘position’ was strongly and fiercely held, all vigorous debates require two opposing parties. But too often, in the midst of battle, the nuances of the debate — as well as some of the substance — are lost. Much the same has been true regarding debates over the origins (and merits) of the European Union.

A Trivial Debate in Italy?

References to the ongoing debate between pro-EU officials and anti-EU populists in Italy have been rather muted. But there have been several variations in the way the different entrenched positions in this debate have been portrayed, particularly during the European elections in late May: globalists versus nationalists, statists versus liberals, democrats versus republicans, pro-market versus pro-state, etc. These rudimentary and simplistic descriptions have at times made the debate, its quality and method publicly adopted for dealing with it seem trivial.

In the lead-up to the elections, the context of this debate was also remarkably affected by voters’ intentions. The apparent division between pro-EU ‘Persians’ (historically imperialist by vocation, pursuing a perspective of unity and peace) and pro-sovereignty ‘Spartans’ (as defenders of their independence, their own cultural and family heritage), so to speak, hid a more significant strategy — one carried out by the political parties (or what remains of them). It was a strategy that focused on advancing the most fitting arguments — those that would reach the most voters.

It was a crude strategy. But attention should be paid to one peculiar outcome to which such a strategy could give rise: it could inspire some clever people to turn into populists because of globalist positions — while others could turn into globalists because of populism! This would be not surprising at all given the current political turmoil  in Italy, particularly since the globalist/populist positions seem to be two opposites of the same coin: each refers to only part of a debate, a debate in which there has been a limited contribution to public discourse — because none of the various factions really has a solid, substantial, or even coherent idea.

It doesn’t matter whether this debate has created contradictions on both sides. What really counts in this debate is, first, getting consensus and, second, expanding this consensus. In such a context, the cries of people demanding an ‘exit’ from the Euro — the belief that the only way to ‘salvation’ is leaving the EU, without even distinguishing EU from the EMU (European Monetary Union)! — have the same weight as the more ‘flamboyant’ Europeanism as exemplified by those pro-EU activists waving flags on their Twitter profile. The funny thing these people have in common is possibly the same (lack of) background of knowledge regarding European Union and its structure and institutions.

However, a free and educated thinker still has the right to ‘cherry-pick’ among these positions. Out of this churning cauldron of different positions, he or she can still identify the best positions and arguments —provided that they are very clear about what they are reading and commenting on.

A Stronger Role for the European Parliament

The reform of the institutional architecture of the EU is, without a doubt, a thorny issue. And the public’s interest in and enthusiasm for the topic has clearly run out. Take the European Parliament. The Parliament has always been considered a secondary player in the steering of the European Union. Although the Parliament has legislative power, it does not formally possess the capacity for legislative initiative like most national parliaments of EU Member States. The Parliament, indeed, shares equal legislative and budgetary powers with the European Council (except in a few areas where special legislative procedures apply) and it keeps equal control over the EU budget.

From an institutional standpoint, therefore, there are several challenges which require specific adjustments in order to guarantee more participation and more representation of all EU citizens. These include increasing the powers of the Parliament and the European Commission, possibly overcoming the well-noted risk of conflict that exists between the legislative and executive powers (such as the function of ‘watchdog’ held by the European Commission vis-à-vis Member States and enterprises). Expanding the power of the Parliament would also shift the balance of power from outside the EU(the Council, which meets in 10 different configurations of 28 national ministers, one per state) to inside the Union. This would grant more weight to a body — the Parliament — that is composed of 751 members, all directly elected by the citizens of each Member State.

A ‘stronger’ European Parliament clearly constitutes an important tool of representation and unification. The elections this past May focused on many of the issues related to the idea of moving toward a Europe of stakeholder citizens, a Europe of citizens who own their continent. This idea, however, has been very much influenced by the macro-level issue of identity. But how much do citizens of the EU Member States feel they truly belong to the EU without any “mediation” of their own country? This question is the key to a better understanding of how Europe has changed over the years — and it requires that we take into consideration one of the goals of the European Union, set out under Article 3 of the EU Treaty: the Union “shall promote economic, social and territorial cohesion, and solidarity among Member States”.

The Principles of the Treaties of Rome

Such issues are related to a preliminary query which is: which Europe dominates current debates? The answers currently provided by the political milieu are quite limited. We thus need to clarify some relevant facts about the EU’s history past and the steps that its leaders have taken over the years.

The process of European integration has been rather progressive. It’s been marked by a surprising legal evolution since the original creation of the European Coal and Steel Community. It has developed as a platform equipped with a complex system of supranational institutions, all of which aim to act in accordance with the powers belonging to each Member State.

As is well known, the European institutions that were created in the post-war period were set up with the purpose of providing economic answers to both economic and political issues, with – as time went on – the impact becoming increasingly politically profound, both within the European Union and outside the EU (i.e. in terms of international relations). Starting from the signing of the Treaties of Rome in 1957 (the Treaties then came into force on 1 January 1958), the legal evolution reflects the vision of the Europe’s ‘founding fathers’: De Gasperi, Schumann, Adenauer, and Monnet. These men really believed in the need to provide Europe with a structure capable not only of fulfilling its international role but also of serving as a guardian of the specific cultural, political, and national identities of each Member State.[1]

The progressive construction of the EU, through the European Economic Community and the European Community, took the most notable steps forward with the Treaty of Maastricht (1992) — although quite a relevance should be given to Milan Statement of 1985, which anticipated a general consensus over institutional reforms[2], followed by the “adjustment” achieved through the Treaty of Amsterdam (1999), and the modification and simplification sought by the Treaty of Lisbon (2007). Despite these phases in its development, the EU’s cultural and political roots continue to underlie any legal modifications or bureaucratic structures that may emerge.

The EU’s ‘founding fathers’ understood quite well that the political order of each Member State should be represented within the institutional structures and decision-making processes of the Union. But here’s the rub: history has taught us that every attempt to centralize control of any local cultural or social formulas has triggered, over time, tension, ultimately leading to threats to leave the EU. Brexit is an example.

It is with such considerations in mind that the principles of subsidiarity and equivalence begin to make sense. Following a transfer of sovereignty, the EU should work like a convergence of states, with each of them guarding their own historical, economic, and institutional peculiarities. At the same time, each state should be capable of working for the purposes and in the interests of Europe. According to this idea (strongly fostered by the Rome Treaties), any actions should be taken by the destinations themselves and with support at the national and European levels.

In fact, the acceptance and implementation of principles of subsidiarity and equivalence by all the entities involved — the EU, the Member States, and the local authorities — entails a re-positioning of powers at the level of each Member State. They should carry out the tasks of integration and mediation with respect to local problems, while at the same time, monitoring compliance and harmonization within the EU.

The original 1957 vision for the EU was focused on creating a “community of destiny” — one marked by an unambiguous bond with a system of common values. This required, in the first place, that European leaders acknowledge the Christian roots of Europe. In the second place, it also required that the wealth of each Member State be enhanced. But could the ‘founding fathers’ have predicted that such a community would turn into merely a “community of interests”? It is doubtful.

Rome versus Ventotene

Our attention should turn to the original principles that inspired the Rome Treaties. They no longer seem to be guiding the efforts of the EU. Rather, the current European project appears be guided by a self-selected elite. They lack any real popular mandate. Its agencies are governed by bureaucrats, special interests, and various lobbies. In such a context, facing such powerful interests, the European Parliament itself has very little power. The European Commission, in turn, is equally ineffective, as it is appointed through a co-opting method rather than through open and transparent public elections and is staffed by the same elite.

The truth is that the political establishment of today’s EU as well as a mainstream culture sympathizing with an apparently innocent message of peace and union, often remind us of the famous Ventotene Manifesto, which is mistakenly referred to as a “founding document” of the Union. This document has no link institutionally with the founding agreements of the European Communities, but due to the context and the historical moment in which it was written, has been called a “founding document” by the socialist and communist currents, and afterwards by a wider and more institutional milieu[3], especially due to its endorsement of the necessity of a European Constitution against the “dangers” of the states and nations that are deemed to be the cause of wars and a lack of freedom.

This is a crucial point of the debate. Nationalist ideology was a cultural trigger used by the signatories of the Manifesto to challenge and push for a revolutionary rupture of the structures of traditional society, starting from the nation, the church, the family and private property, all embodying the enemy that needed to be defeated, i.e. the reactionary forces. Such a cultural trigger found over the decades much consensus, until today where its symbolic value has been quite enhanced. But I sincerely wonder how many among those who praise the Manifesto, have actually really read it.

The Ventotene Manifesto was drafted and signed back in 1941 (16 years before the signing of the Treaties of Rome!) by three political prisoners (Altiero Spinelli, Ernesto Rossi, and Eugenio Colorni) interned on the island of Ventotene, a small island situated in the middle of Tyrrhenian Sea, along with some eight hundred other political opponents of the regime.

The Manifesto identifies the building up of a “new society and a new policy-making”. It identifies reactionary forces on one side: the “dynasties” who favor national political power and pose a “serious obstacle to the rational organization of the United States of Europe”, as well as ‘conservative’ forces represented by the leaders of various institutions, such as “monarchies, groups of monopolistic capitalism, landowners, high ecclesiastical hierarchies, and finally priests who keep calm the crowd”. On the other side, it identifies progressive forces: those who seek to make Europe into a solid and monolithic state marked by international unity. With the portrayal of today’s political and social movements and the labelling of them, one can see immediate parallels.

The core vision of the Manifesto supports a centralized structure guided by leading European countries. Although a few hints of ‘federalism’ are apparent in the document, it actually fails to propose the serious consideration of a federalist structure, nor does it reflect on the most suitable way to build up a European community on a progressive basis.

An insurgent and decidedly ‘leftist’ spirit is apparent in the Manifesto as a straight reaction to a regime disguised under the natural structures of the society. It invokes a European ‘revolution’ against the old conservative institutions (in part, through the establishment of a revolutionary party). It thus seeks, through socialist policies, to obtain the emancipation of the European working classes and the creation of more humane living conditions. The zenith of the document’s ideology is reached through its appeal — incredibly — to abolish private property, nationalize industries, limit the activities of the Catholic Church (through the abolition of the 1929 Concordato Lateranense between Italy and the Holy See, and the setting up of a “secular state”), and establish the permanent supremacy of the state over all aspects of civic life. It’s quite interesting to note that the opposition to said “regime” is pushed through the promotion of a precise plan of “sovietisation” of the society (no surprise about such a purpose, considering all the excitement of Mr Spinelli for Trotskyism and his belonging to masonry).  According to the signatories of the Manifesto, socialism had to represent the future of Europe, and therefore abstract ideas of justice and progress should have taken the place of a “Union of diversities” (or a community of destiny, as the real founding fathers conceived Europe).

In short, rather than renewing the noble intentions of the ‘founding fathers’, the Ventotene Manifesto is imbued with a rebellious and even revolutionary spirit which – this aspect shall be pointed out very clearly – was rejected by the effective ‘founding fathers’, whose vision was far different as noted above, but which came to light later.

A turning point was the Maastricht Treaty, signed in 1992. Since then the European Union has emphasized its rationalist and constructivist aspect (as well explained by Oakeshott in 1962), which follows the principles of the Manifesto to the extent of the purpose of a rationale, abstract, apparently perfect and bureaucratic super-entity beyond a union of different Member States. It has become a project built “from above” and polarized on the strongest countries. Since then, Europe has no longer been conceived as a whole of those values that we call “Western”, but as a set of abstract rules, established once and for all. All this, of course, goes against a pro-European sentiment, which – on the contrary – should take concrete form in political institutions created “from below”.

That same spirit surely inspired the decision of Renzi, Merkel, and Hollande to meet in Ventotene for a high-level summit in August 2016. Whether Renzi received his ‘marching orders’ on that occasion — and whether Italy was expected to behave within the framework of managerial centralism, as promoted by the Manifesto — remains unclear. But if we consider all the behind-the-scenes machinations of the last three years (culminating with the recent Treaty of Aquisgrana, an agreement among two Member States, Germany and France, whose relationship with the EU Treaties is not clear at all), it is difficult not to conclude that these were both certainly possible.

Considering the above, one is reminded of the warning originally expressed by the Brazilian intellectual, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, in that magnificent manual dealing with modernity titled Revolution and Counter-Revolution. In it he cautioned that after the Protestant, French, and October 1917 revolutions, the world would increasingly be pushed toward a “fourth revolution”, characterized by socialist self-governance and a descent into tribalism. The spirit of the Ventotene Manifesto is similar, if not identical, to that “fourth revolution” and it blows insofar as the centralized, bureaucratic and rationalistic approach will prevail within the European Union, stifling and repressing the specificities and diversities of each Member State.

Renewing the Spirit of the Founders

How to respond? First, the Ventotene Manifesto should be consigned to the ‘dustbin of history’, along with all the other failed and forgotten ideologies of the left. Secondly, we should try to engage in a real and constructive debate over the EU so that appropriate processes may be implemented that will lead to a radical modification of its current ‘architecture’ (mainly through the amendment of its original Treaties).

Indeed, the structures and governance of the EU has already deviated numerous times from its original idea (perhaps we should call these ‘distortions’). This is due, in part, to a political establishment that was wholly unprepared for democratic governance — and which has consistently proven itself to be dramatically distant from the original vision, spirit, and understanding of the ‘founding fathers’.

The elections this past May, however, seemed to demonstrate that European citizens are no longer willing to put up with further departures from the original intent of the European project. In fact, the electoral results suggest that the anti-establishment and populist tendencies seen emerging across Europe — from the UK to France, and from Italy up to Poland — are growing. These will certainly be a ‘thorn’ in the EU’s side. And while European authorities and other political elites have been quick to dismiss such tendencies, the truth is that being skeptical of the European project today does not necessarily mean one is against Europe. This gives the lie to the claim by political elites today that Eurosceptics and populists are somehow anti-democratic or even ‘fascist’.

More importantly, going forward, it is hoped that the results of the elections will serve as a stimulus for all Europeans to find a new way forward for the EU — one that includes, at a minimum, finding a new type of governance. As surprising as May’s electoral results were to many observers, all things considered they may turn out to be the right catalyst at the right time, one that may bring about important changes to the Continent. They even hold the promise that Europeans everywhere will engage in a deeper and more rigorous analysis of ‘the idea of Europe’ — one that perhaps may even lead to a return to its original vision. It is only in this way that the spirit that animated the ‘founding fathers’ may once again move across the Continent.