A United States of Europe

A free and unified Europe was first imagined by Italian radicals in the 19th century. Could we yet see their dream made real?

Fernanda Gallo at Aeon: By 1941, as most European states were under the yoke of authoritarian or fascist regimes, and Nazi troops had just occupied France and were moving towards the Soviet Union, Altiero Spinelli (1907-86) and Ernesto Rossi (1897-1967), two Italian antifascists, were envisioning plans for a federalist and democratic Europe based on a European constitution. Spinelli and Rossi wrote a tract calling for a federal European union while they were political prisoners of the Fascist Mussolini government, held on the small penitentiary island of Ventotene in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Their Ventotene Manifesto, actually entitled ‘For a Free and United Europe’, called for instituting a European federation with a democratic government and parliament with real sovereign powers regarding economic and foreign policies.

Spinelli attempted twice to achieve a European constitution based on a federal union. His first effort came in 1954, when the French National Assembly refused to accept a treaty, and then in 1984, when the European Parliament approved – but then the United Kingdom rejected – the Draft Treaty establishing the European Union. Instead of a European constitution, in 2007, member states signed the Lisbon Treaty: an inter-governmental treaty regulating the process of European integration. The Lisbon Treaty and Spinelli and Rossi’s plan show us two different models of European integration: a technocratic and a democratic approach. Spinelli’s democratic project was elaborated and approved by the European Parliament, which acted as a constitutional assembly. The Lisbon Treaty’s technocratic one is an agreement between European governments, characterised by long and secret negotiations and compromises.

The 1993 establishment of the European Union (EU) did not resolve the tension between a technocratic and a democratic Europe, and the advent of a European constitution is still more a dream than a concrete political project. In reality, the EU remains at the crossroads between the ‘Europe of the people’ and the ‘Europe of the governments’. Since the 1957 Treaty of Rome instituting the European Economic Community (EEC), subsequent agreements including that of Maastricht (1992) and Lisbon (2007) have further separated the economic and political aspects of European integration. Remembering how the idea of the ‘United States of Europe’ emerged can help in conceiving of its future prospects and finding answers on where we should go. In the mid-20th century, when Spinelli began calling for a European federation, he was carrying on a legacy of a circle of radical 19th-century Italian political activists who were the first to think seriously about a political project of a ‘United States of Europe’. These Italian radicals envisioned a democratic political project aiming at the freedom and solidarity of all European peoples.

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