The forthcoming European Parliament (EP) election is destined to be make-or-break for the EU, determining whether Europe will continue on the path towards “an ever-closer union”, or be taken over by sovereigntist forces seeking to reduce it to a “League of Nations”. The growing support for nationalist parties in crucial countries such as Germany, France and Italy shows that a fierce, contrarian minority – or even potential majority – in the EP could seriously undermine the European project.
By postponing crucial reforms for decades, pro-European politicians have generated serious divisions between member countries, facilitating the rise of forces inspired by the nationalist ideology of the 1930s. Italy is a case in point: its government foments hate towards foreigners. “Fascism is contempt (mépris). Inversely, any form of contempt, if it intervenes in politics, prepares or introduces fascism” (A. Camus).
If pro-European forces base their electoral campaign on little steps, half-measures and national grudges, they will have to resign themselves to a resounding defeat. The confrontation between opposing line-ups will undoubtedly be won by those who show they are determined to wield power. This is why unity among progressive parties is crucial. Albeit maintaining their own separate identities, the various political families inspired by liberalism, democracy and socialism – the ideologies that forged and have buttressed the European project since its outset, now joined by the Greens and their environmental agenda – have to come up with shared proposals.
The European project is poorly understood because it is unprecedented in the history of humankind: it represents a new model of civilization. In 2012, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the EU for this very reason: “The Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to focus on what it sees as the EU’s most important result: the successful struggle for peace and reconciliation and for democracy and human rights. The stabilizing part played by the EU has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace”.
The glue that bound the political forces, which worked together to build the Union in the past, was a common idea of progress: the EU enabled the values of liberalism, democracy, socialism and environmentalism to thrive thanks to European integration. The European treaties are imbued with values like human dignity, liberty, justice, peace, the rule of law, the separation of powers, supranational European citizenship, the protection of human rights, the compatibility of national democracy and European democracy, respect for minorities, gender equality, the social market economy, the welfare state, social justice, economic convergence, sustainable development and environmental protection.
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What is now needed is a new beginning: we need to view the European project as a common good – a new model of civilization – that belongs not only to Europeans, but the whole world. Voters need to be made aware that their European citizenship has value in terms of rights (e.g. the free movement of persons) and powers (e.g. in world trade negotiations), that the Union is a federal state in the making, and that we need a democratic European government with an independent budget, to speak to the world with a single voice, and to implement policies for social and economic cohesion, full employment and sustainable development. There are two challenges facing every nation that wants to guarantee its citizens a future of peace and well-being. The first is the governance of globalization, a process that is a source of wealth but also generates grave inequalities and an unsustainable level of pollution of the biosphere. The second challenge is the break-down of the post-WW2 international order: without an alternative project we are likely to see the resurgence of the international conflicts that bloodied the last century.
A new beginning is possible if the traditional European parties go back to their cultural roots: the doctrines of liberalism, democracy, and socialism that were developed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and laid the ideological and cultural foundations of contemporary politics. The political ideas of the classical theorists were not directed at any specific country but rather upheld the values of liberty and political, social and economic equality for all the world’s citizens. They are part of the philosophical, artistic and scientific revolution of humanism and the Renaissance. It was only in the nineteenth century that nationalist ideology gradually emerged, initially as a way of securing national unity, which was viewed as the first step towards a peaceful world (see Mazzini). As the century wore on, however, nationalism became increasingly aggressive, and power politics pushed Europe into two devastating world wars. The nation state is a steel cage that has imprisoned and mutilated cosmopolitanism, which is the cornerstone of modern political thought. Putting “our nation first” means betraying the cultural roots of liberalism, democracy, socialism and environmentalism. In the 21st Century, the idea of progress must have a cosmopolitan horizon.
The steps ahead
European parties share responsibility for the crisis in the EU as they are merely a coalition of national parties in the EP. The Spitzenkandidat process is only a step towards the creation of real European parties, the necessary link between citizens and the European institutions. European democracy is impossible without European parties. To this end, the programme of the chosen Spitzenkandidat, representing all progressive parties, should include:
- A reform of the Lisbon Treaty in line with the proposal in The Manifesto for the future of Europe, drafted by the Spinelli Group, which drastically curtails the right of veto, as this is what gives nationalist and illiberal parties the power to block the Union;
- An EU budget (or for the eurozone’s member states) representing 3-4 percent of EU GDP, financed with own resources, i.e. with European taxation; the EU budget should finance a policy for social and economic convergence, public investments for sustainable development and a European foreign policy;
- Finally, the programme should include proposals for global governance as an alternative to the break-up of the old international order, a European Defence Union and a plan for equal partnership with African and Mediterranean countries, allowing legal emigration towards Europe; the final goal of European foreign policy is to build a common home for the world’s citizens.
Democracy is in crisis when political parties do not tell citizens how to plan their future, giving the politics of contempt (mépris) the opportunity to play on people’s fears. Citizens need to be told that the EU is a new project of civilization, of progress and peace in Europe and the world.
Guido Montani is professor of international political economy at the University of Pavia. He is a former president of the European Federalist Movement in Italy. In 1987 he founded in Ventotene the Altiero Spinelli Institute for Federalist Studies. His latest book is Antropocene, nazionalismo e cosmopolitismo: Prospettive per i cittadini del mondo (Mimesis, 2022).