Dear friends, dear colleagues,
Let me be honest. What we are going through nowadays in Europe is the most severe political crisis the European project has ever experienced in its sixty-year history. The economic and financial crisis, that has devastated our continent’s economies in the last five years, has expanded into the political, social and cultural spheres. And we are now facing a sharp decline of the pro-European feelings in the public opinions of the EU member states.
This is the result of two main flaws of the European construction: on the one hand, Europe does not seem able to ensure the economic recovery and the creation of jobs that we badly need, to provide answers to the widespread social unease that hit Europe and that, by contrast, requires urgent responses.
On the other hand, the European Union is increasingly perceived by the European citizens as a distant, bureaucratic, technocratic power, detached from the hard reality of the common people, who feel impotent and incapable of exerting their influence or control on the decision-making processes taking place in Brussels.
If a US citizen wishes the American administration to pass and implement expansive policies, he or she will simply vote for a Democratic president; if, by contrast, the goal is the cut of social spending and lowering taxes for the wealthiest taxpayers, the US citizen will give his or her vote to a Republican candidate.
In Europe things look quite different. The main decisions on the economic policies are made in Brussels, not in the European capitals, and they undergo a large series of treaties, rules, restrictions, obligations and sanctions. The consequence is that the European citizens have increasingly the perception that their capability to be involved in or supervise the decision-making mechanism, to affect choices and decisions involving their lives and future, is progressively dying away.
Hence, it is not surprising that the outcome of such developments is the spread, in many European countries, of anti-political feelings, which consider politics increasingly unable or even unwilling to deliver solutions, of an increasingly anti-European mood, and in particular of Eurosceptical populist forces.
Categorising populist movements or parties according to traditional political science criteria is somehow difficult, because such political forces do not place clearly themselves on one side or the other of the usual left-right cleavage. Rather they embrace ideals, goals, reasons taken from both the tradition of the left and that of the right, while they tend to perceive the entire body of institutions and political parties as a costly and useless superstructure, burdening society instead of solving problems. What these movements across Europe have in common are: firstly the call to the demos against the elites – political elites, in particular, but also economic and financial ones – identified as those responsible for the crisis and for the lack of prospects suffered by a vast number of citizens; secondly, the call to the etnos against a Europe perceived as distant, hostile and undemocratic.
I believe that the main answers to this dangerous political drift are: first of all, changing the content of the policies, aiming at growth and development and getting out of the oppressive austerity atmosphere that has characterized Europe in the last couple of years, and, above all, bringing politics to Europe. This means, in particular, reinforcing the relationship between the citizens, the European Parliament and the Commission; relationship that is – or should be – the core of European democracy, but which has been largely neglected.
The transfer of power to the Council, which has occurred in the last few years, has meant de facto the transfer of power to the strongest EU member states and has been understood as the impoverishment of the European democracy. Decisions are the results of bargaining among governments, giving only the illusion of neutrality and of legitimacy, while they veil the fact that economically stronger countries play from a position of advantage over the weaker ones.
A Greek citizen, who is making every single day hard sacrifices to eke out a bare living, thinks that these sacrifices are being imposed upon his fellow citizens and upon himself by Germany. Not so much by the European Union, but rather by the government of another member state. Within such a framework, divisions and nationalistic resentments between strong and weak countries are intensifying.
Thus, there is a sort of paradoxical mismatch between a decision-making process which takes place in Brussels and the lack of a Europe-wide political debate, of a European political dimension and a common public sphere. A mismatch that needs to be corrected if we really want to recover from the crises. Both the economic and the political ones. The reduction of the intergovernmental aspects and the increase of Europe’s democratic strength and legitimacy, its capability to produce a truly political dimension are the essential preconditions to ensure Europe’s recovery.
It is not so much a question of introducing overnight radical and wide-ranging institutional reforms, or maybe directly electing the President of the Commission or of the EU. Although, let me tell you this incidentally, I believe that institutional reforms will have to be negotiated in the next future. But we must first of all unfold the full potential offered by the current institutional framework and, through a courageous political initiative, we must give larger democratic legitimacy to the European political parties and to the President of the Commission. This could be done by the largest political party families on the occasion of the next European Parliament election, if each party family presents during the electoral campaign a political programme shared by the national parties and a common candidate to the position of President of the Commission. This would surely help reduce the gap between citizens and European institutions. Moreover, for the first time we would have truly European elections, and no longer the mere sum of national elections.
We must overcome that separation between policies and politics which is producing devastating effects. Without politics – which means debate, confrontation between different options, exchange of opinions, compromise – policies become a technocratic fact. Without policies, politics at national level risk to be more and more reduced to simple narration, to propaganda. Therefore, away from people’s real life.
If in a country such as Italy, which has traditionally been a most pro-European member state, the feelings against Europe have become so strong to force the formation of an odd coalition between left and right, we can grasp the extent to which in Europe the pro-European areas are progressively shrinking. Without a bold action, the risk we run is to waste the remarkable achievements of the last decades. Achievements such as the Single Market or the common currency. At the end of the day, this would be a damage for the strongest countries as well, including Germany itself.
German sociologist Ulrich Beck recently expressed his concern that the European Union might increasingly become a German Europe. This would be a risk not just for Europe, but for Germany itself. German democratic forces have always thought that Germany’s destiny was that of a strong country, firmly linked to the European integration project. That is, a European Germany and not a German Europe.
This is, therefore, the time for strong and bold actions. I think that, if we do not want the pro-European forces and parties to become the minority in our continent, what we do need is a new social pact among states together with the great pro-European cultural forces. A new social pact and a new political pact between the progressive forces on the one side and the conservative ones on the other side.
To say that we need more Europe is correct. Yet, it is not enough. We need to make the European integration project a more democratic and more efficient one on questions such as inequalities and employment. We need to put in place an effective solidarity mechanism to support the countries with the highest debt: of course, not because one should pay for someone else’s debts, but in order to bring down interest rates and spread indicators by creating a mechanism of European guarantees. In this sense, the idea of a debt redemption fund that was proposed by German economists seemed interesting, and should have received greater attention. We need European investment programmes, and in this respect the incapacity to decide on project bonds and the cuts to the Union budget, that will result in fewer resources for research and innovation, are highly disappointing signals.
To re-launch growth, we must also intervene on the demand side. To this aim the completion of the Single Market, the promotion of competitiveness and the removal of obstacles such as monopoly positions, are key measures. But, without a wide investment policy in areas such as innovation, green economy, youth employment, such as the Obama administration has been doing in the United State, everything else risks to be made in vain.
For those, like myself, who strongly and unfailingly have faith in the European project, it is time for a strong political action. We shall address the European public opinions, making clear that the question does not lie so much in the option between “Europe, yes. Or Europe, no”. Because there is no alternative whatsoever to the European project. The problem is what political choices we shall make in order to give back credibility to European integration and to reconcile European citizens and European project.