Spinelli and Rossi: The Forefathers of European Federalism

Next in our series on historical federalism, James Bartholomeusz takes a look at the Ventotene Manifesto, one of the founding documents of European federalism.

A view from the island of Ventotene, where Spinelli was imprisoned during the Second World War

A view from the island of Ventotene, where Spinelli was imprisoned during the Second World War

The movement for European unification, in its modern form, grew out of the turmoil that consumed the continent in the early 20th Century. There was no greater intellectual midwife to this process than Altiero Spinelli, a man who suffered through his continent’s darkest years and was inspired to make a fundamental change to European governance to ensure that those events would never occur again.

Spinelli’s life was politics, alternately spending time as a political prisoner, a political theorist and an actual politician. Born in 1907 in Rome, he was imprisoned in 1927 by the fascist government for dissident journalistic activities and not fully released until 1943. In confinement on the Island of Ventotene in 1941, he began his famous manifesto Per un’Europa libera e unita with the economics professor and political activist Ernesto Rossi, calling for a federal unification of Europe. After the war and the fall of Mussolini, he became an important figure in continental government, joining the European Commission in 1970 and becoming an MEP in the first Parliament elections of 1979. His subsequent foundation of the ‘Crocodile Club’ bloc aimed to push the EEC towards democratic statehood, a goal partially achieved in the 1992 Maastricht Treaty.

Justified but nevertheless prescient in the 1940s, Spinelli recognised that the nation-state, formerly a great motor for democratic emancipation, had now outstayed its welcome: it had become “a divine entity, an organism that has to consider only its own existence, its own development, without the least regard for the damage this might cause to others”. The nationalistic fervour which had driven the reforms of the 19th Century had now become a form of reactionary ossification which, at a moment of crisis, had mutated into fascism. Yet rather than seeing this particularly as a problem of the German or Italian ‘temperament’ (as did some of the more backward anti-fascists of the time), Spinelli viewed the struggle as essentially one of European people against their darker inclinations, as manifested in popular support for the NSDAP and PNF. In this, he is startlingly modern.

Spinelli is at his best when drawing attention to the hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness of nationalism. He rightly sees the nation-state, so often held up as timeless and immutable expression of a single people’s will, as an entirely contingent (and comparatively recent) historical phenomenon. National self-determination had been one of the emblematic ideals of the French Revolution, but it was a construct, and one prone to particularly negative outworkings in those (almost all) regions without convenient ethnic divides along which to draw state lines. In fact, for all we hear today about European bureaucracy, this process worked very much in favour of state institutions which could use ethnic polarisation to divide groups which might otherwise have joined forces to fight for social justice. Spinelli’s warning that states will attempt “to grasp the most widespread of popular feelings, most deeply offended by recent events, most easily handled to reactionary purposes: the patriotic sentiment” is one that feels particularly relevant in the era of the Eurozone crisis and the new wave of hard-Right Euroscepticism.

The solution for him was not that of Woodrow Wilson, whose principles of national self-determination had been so influential on the post-World War I settlement, for the nation-state could not be an end in itself in an international age. Rather, the only way to enfranchise all European peoples, and to deliver scattered minorities from the whims of electoral majorities, was to form a unified democratic state. Similarly, the only way smaller states and regions could find genuine liberation was membership of a much broader unified state – only then could their welfare and interests be guaranteed against their larger neighbours. As he writes,

[t]he multiple problems which poison international life on the continent have proved to be insoluble: tracing boundaries through areas inhabited by mixed populations, defence of alien minorities, seaports for landlocked countries, the Balkan Question, the Irish problem, and so on. All these matters would find easy solutions in the European Federation, just as corresponding problems, suffered by the small States which became part of a vaster national unity, lost their harshness as they were transformed into problems regarding relationship between various provinces.

This process need not mean over-centralisation – on the contrary, a federal union could break the tyranny of the nation-state and enfranchise people on a regional level, that level being, in many ways, far more genuinely representative of organic identities than a constructed nation.

Though a committed Marxist, Spinelli’s earlier affiliation to the Italian Communist Party (and its lingering attachment to the Soviet Union) passed away as his main interest became the federal unification of Europe. He understood that such a democracy could only be built with a broad coalition of support, and so it is certainly significant that he elected to co-write the Manifesto with Rossi, a liberal. Indeed, he claims, the major divide of our time is not between Left and Right but between nationalists and those willing to transcend national boundaries – quite an open commitment for a Leftist of the day to make. It is this inclusive and anti-nationalistic spirit which Spinelli hands down to us, for his final rallying cry remains as relevant today as it did during Europe’s last crisis: “[i]t will be the moment of new action and it will also be the moment for new men: the moment for a free and united Europe”.

Image: ‘Ventotene_2005_28’ courtesy of Giammy via Flickr, released under Creative Commons.

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