Who invented the European Union?
The Italians, no strangers to the notion of grand geo-political projects over the last two millennia, can take a lot of the credit. Their vision, conceived by a political-activist prisoner in the Second World War who equated nationalism with eternal conflict, could lie in tatters if Britain votes to leave the EU in the June 23 in-out referendum.
The question is whether the new generations of Italians have lost their country’s old passion for European integration. It appears many have.
One prominent honorary Italian, Pope Francis, certainly dreads the idea of a British exit – Brexit – and the general erosion of unity as the EU is battered by the refugee, terrorist and economic crises. In a speech delivered last month, when he accepted the Charlemagne Prize in Rome for his promotion of European solidarity, he praised the last generation of Europeans for bringing Europe together. “Their new and exciting desire to create unity seems to be fading,” he said. “We, the heirs of their dream, are tempted to yield to our own selfish interests and to consider putting up fences here and there.”
The rest of Italy has decidedly mixed views about the benefits of EU membership, even though they are well aware that the EU was greatly inspired by Italians 75 years ago. Many of them no longer consider the EU the panacea for their historic and ever-present national problems and are not appalled by the notion of Brexit. “The Italians are amused by the Brexit vote,” said Andrea Barzini, the Italian film director who is the son of Luigi Barzini, whose 1983 book The Europeans centred on the tribulations of trying to unite so many diverse peoples. “If Britain goes, at least those jerks in Brussels will learn a lesson about democracy in Europe.”
Britain’s exit from the EU could trigger me-too referendums in some EU countries. An Ipsos MORI poll published in early May revealed that fully 48 per cent of Italians would vote to leave the EU if a Brexit-style referendum were held in Italy. (Sixty per cent of Italians think the British will opt for Brexit.)
It’s an open question whether the EU could survive the exodus of Britain. If both Britain and Italy were to leave, there is no doubt it would be game over for the union. Italy, one of the EU’s six founding countries, is the EU’s fourth-largest economy – its gross domestic product is about a quarter bigger than Canada’s – and the euro zone’s third-largest economy.
Even if Italy were to stay in the EU but shed the euro, both the EU and euro zone could be fatally wounded. Italy would reprint the lira, devalue it by perhaps 50 per cent against the euro, and export everything from cars to factory robots like mad, putting huge pressure on the German and French economies.
Somewhere in Italy, Altiero Spinelli is rolling in his grave.
Mr. Spinelli, who died in 1986, is considered the godfather of the EU. He promoted European unification for his entire post-Second World War career and, in his honour, the main European Union building in Brussels is named after him.
An anti-fascist activist, journalist and political theorist, Mr. Spinelli was arrested by the fascist regime of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in 1926 and spent 16 years in prison or in confinement. In the early part of the war, he was shipped off to the prison island of Ventotene, which lies in the Tyrrhenian Sea between Rome and Naples.
On this small rock, he and fellow prisoner Ernesto Rossi wrote the Manifesto for a Free and United Europe, known simply as the Ventotene Manifesto. Scribbled on cigarette papers that were smuggled off the island, the manifesto would have enormous impact on the shape of post-war Europe. It argued that, assuming the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini, it would be folly to recreate Europe’s sovereign states as they were – they eventually would go to war again. Mr. Spinelli instead called for a “free and united Europe,” one that would be “freed from the militarism or nightmares of national bureaucracy.”
In a second essay, called the United States of Europe, Mr. Spinelli urged the creation of European institutions, even if he thought that individual states should retain some autonomy. Remarkably, he suggested the formation of a “European armed service instead of national armies.” The creation of a European army has been an elusive goal; European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has been calling for the creation of an EU army as Russia taunts the West.
Inspired by Mr. Spinelli and like-minded federalists, the European project took shape. In 1957, the Treaty of Rome begat the European Economic Community. Various treaties since then have created supranational institutions such as the European Parliament; a common currency now used in 19 of the EU’s 28 countries; the European Central Bank to oversee that currency; free labour mobility and common environmental standards. Diplomats say the EU is the one region in the world where war is unthinkable.
The goal of forming a federalist EU never went nearly as far as Mr. Spinelli had hoped, even though his work inspired major increases in the power of the European Parliament. Still, most power remains with the member states. Europe is only partly integrated.
Now even the halting progress toward integration is under threat. The financial and debt crises that began in 2008 and have yet to vanish led to the bailout of four countries and threats to eject one – Greece – from the euro zone and perhaps the EU, too.
The refugee crisis helped to trigger the rise of populist, right-wing and strongly anti-EU parties such as France’s Front National and the UK Independence Party. Resentment of German-inspired austerity plans swept EU’s Mediterranean flank, and support for the euro as a one-size-fits-all currency is fading. In Italy, the main opposition party, the Five Star Movement, is in favour of the EU but is calling for a referendum on the euro.
The upshot is that Euroskepticism is on the rise and not confined to Britain. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that just 51 per cent of respondents in the 10 EU countries surveyed had a favourable view of the EU, and 42 per cent want more power returned to their national capitals. In France, 61 per cent of respondents had an unfavourable view of the EU. In Italy, only 55 per cent of young adults had favourable views – a surprisingly low figure given that youth support for the EU has traditionally been far higher than among older adults.
In Rome, Walter Angelini, an official at an Italian state agency that controls EU aid for agriculture, said, “The Italians, like the French, are becoming ambivalent about the EU. … This is not the Europe we want.”
He said he would support an in-out referendum in Italy and, like Mr. Barzini, thinks a British exit would deliver a clear message to Brussels that the EU needs to be reformed, even reinvented. “If Britain leaves, it will deliver questions to the EU that it has to answer,” he said. “But even if Britain stays by a narrow margin, the EU’s problems won’t go away and can’t be swept under the carpet.”
It’s premature to say that Mr. Spinelli’s vision is doomed, but integration certainly seems to be going in reverse. When support is dropping for the EU even in Italy, the country that inspired its creation, you know that the whole integration project is in trouble even if Britain does not leave.