Yanis Varoufakis: in the footsteps of Spinelli

During my research into the origins and history of the European Economic Monetary Union (EMU), I was struck by the similarity of two great, “true” Europeans, one past and one present.

There can be no doubt that, whether you agree with him or not, Yanis Varoufakis epitomises the ideal of a truly, great European. His stint as Finance Minister of Greece and the many articles, interviews, speeches and lectures in which he has featured, definitively underscores this fact.

However, not many people know that another politician with a similar vision, passion and idealism about a great, unified and democratic Europe was prominent in the affairs of Europe in the period from 1941 to 1986. The name of this other truly, great European is Altiero_Spinelli.

It is striking to note that Yanis is attempting to achieve today, exactly what Spinelli tried to do forty years ago.

Altiero Spinelli joined the Communists in Italy at the age of seventeen and he was active in opposing Mussolini’s Fascism. In 1927, he was arrested and spent ten years in prison and then 6 years interned on the Mediterranean island of Ventotene, thirty miles west of Naples. During this time, he spent many hours studying political history and he changed his political views from Communist to Socialist. Spinelli became intrigued with the idea of socialist federalism and he developed his ideas of a United Europe.

In 1941, Spinelli and a colleague, Ernesto Rossi, composed the “Ventotene Manifesto”, eventually titled Per un’Europa libera e unita (For a Free and United Europe). In 1943, Spinelli became one of the founders of the Movimento Federalista Europeo (MFE) and the implementation of the “Ventotene Manifesto” became their goal. The Manifesto put forward proposals for creating a European federation of states, the primary aim of which was to tie European countries so closely together that they would no longer be able to go to war with one another. As in many European left-wing political circles, this idea of federalism was put forward as a reaction to the destructive excesses of nationalism.

In December 1946, an association was established to bring together federalist movements from 16 European countries who were all campaigning for a federal Europe. The association was called the “European Union of Federalists” (EUF) and the Dutch socialist and pacifist, Dr. Henri Brugmans, was its first President. Spinelli’s MFE merged into this new group.

Then, in May 1948, the ICMEU organised a vast “Congress of Europe” in The Hague and which was chaired by Winston Churchill. The “Hague Congress”, as it was also known as, was attended by 740 delegates and observers, which included 18 official national delegations. Together with observers from other countries, 30 countries in total were represented. Among the many delegates that attended were Konrad Adenauer, Sir Arthur Salter and Altiero Spinelli. The Congress set itself three very ambitious objectives: to demonstrate the existence, in all free countries of Europe, of a body of public opinion in support of European unity, to discuss the challenges posed by European unity and propose practical solutions to governments and to give new impetus to the international publicity campaign.

During the 1960’s, Spinelli was an adviser to the Italian government and a researcher and he established the Institute of International Affairs in Rome.

In 1970, Spinelli was nominated by the Italian government to be a member of the EC Commission, a task he performed from 1970 to 1976, taking responsibility for industrial policy in order to develop European policies in this new field.

In 1979, Spinelli decided to run in the first direct elections to the European Parliament. He did so as an independent candidate on the list of the Italian Communist Party, which by then had become a Eurocommunist party and was keen to have prominent independent figures to stand on its list of candidates. He was elected and used the position to urge the first elected parliament to use its democratic legitimacy to propose a radical reform of the European Community, to transform it into a democratic European state.

Spinelli was elected to the European Parliament and immediately set to work gathering together like-minded Members of the European Parliament (MEP) to table a motion for the Parliament to set up a special committee to draft a proposal for a new treaty on European Union. In order to gain the widest possible consensus on the issue, he took care to involve MEPs from different political groupings. Spinelli and his colleagues formed the “Crocodile Club”, named after the Crocodile restaurant in Strasbourg, where they held their regular meetings. Once the group was of sufficient size, they tabled a motion for Parliament to set up a special committee to draft a proposal for a new treaty on union.

The motion was successful and the “Committee on Institutional Affairs” was set up in January 1982 with Spinelli as Co-Ordinator and Mauro Ferri as Chairman. The basic idea was that the European Parliament should become a constituent assembly, although Spinelli was prepared to make compromises on the way to secure broad majorities behind the process.

On 14 September 1983, the European Parliament gave the Committee on Institutional Affairs the task of drawing up a draft treaty after it had considered the Spinelli report on the substance of the preliminary draft.

Then on 14 February 1984, the European Parliament approved the “Draft Treaty Establishing the European Union“. The decision was taken with 237 votes for, 31 votes against and 43 abstentions.

The Draft Treaty, which had been drawn up without any consultation of EC member state governments, could have been ratified immediately by national parliaments in order to circumvent the national governments and the Council of Ministers, since the European Parliament, as such, had no constitutional powers. However, this creative initiative was not followed through. Except for the Italian parliament, which welcomed Spinelli’s initiative, no other national parliament debated the Draft Treaty. It was not even at the centre of the debates surrounding the second direct elections to the European Parliament on 14 and 17 June 1984, as Spinelli had hoped.

Spinelli’s project was soon buried by the governments of the EC member states. However, it provided an impetus for the negotiations which led to Single European Act of 1986 and the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. This happened with the help of several National parliaments, which adopted resolutions approving the Draft Treaty, and of French President François Mitterrand who, following a meeting with Spinelli, came to the European Parliament to speak in favour of its approach, thereby reversing France’s policy (since Charles De Gaulle) of hostility to anything but an intergovernmental approach to Europe. This momentum was enough to obtain the support of a majority of national governments to trigger the treaty revision procedure.

As the European Community was taking shape, Spinelli came to believe that the concept of the European Parliament should form the political and democratic backbone of the new unified Europe. It was this belief had led him to become a MEP so that he could be able to influence the system from within to try to achieve those goals. Some changes and improvements did come about, but in the end, even Spinelli’s passion and tireless efforts were not sufficient to enable his dream to be realised.

Spinelli died in Rome on 23rd May 1986.

Spinelli’s Work and European Federalism

Spinelli’s attitude differed from that of federalists before him, who limited themselves to denouncing the historical crisis of the nation-state and setting the achievement of the European federation at some indeterminate future time. Such federalists, unlike Spinelli, had not set themselves the objective of drawing up a precise plan of action and had not renounced being involved first and foremost in liberal, socialist or democratic struggles.

Spinelli, on the other hand, convinced that after the Second World War the European federation would become the concrete objective of political struggle, realised that an opportunity had also opened up for the federalist struggle. Spinelli therefore unhesitatingly denounced the limits of the functionalist approach to European unification, and the Europeanists’ illusion of being able to achieve federation without the states renouncing their national sovereignty. From the outset he aimed to exploit the contradictions which emerged when the various national policies were pooled at the international level.

In contrast to the community method followed by Jean Monnet, Spinelli proposed the constituent method, conscious of the fact that, if on the one hand it was necessary to make the states accept a treaty according to which they declared themselves ready to cede a part of their sovereignty in favour of a supranational government, on the other hand it was necessary for the European people to participate in defining a constitution that established the form and responsibilities of this new union between the states. In 1984, Spinelli succeeded in bringing the entire European Parliament round to this position, which he had maintained and defended throughout his life.

On the Constituent Power of the European Parliament

“This exclusive political right of the European Parliament, unwritten but valid because it is  founded on solid democratic custom, must be resolutely claimed by Parliament against every attempt to transfer the drafting to wise men, to diplomats, to ministers or others. If the European Parliament gives way on this point, if it accepts that its work has only been preparatory, destined to be re-manipulated by others, it reduces itself to the level of little more than a talking shop, and spontaneously renounces its status as representative of the citizens of the Community, i.e. it denies the very aim for which the elections have taken place. Many voices will be raised against this claim of the European Parliament – of that we may be certain – but let it be understood that this position cannot be abandoned without the entire front-line of its battle for the Union collapsing.”

[Speech given to the European University Institute of Florence, 13th June 1983]

On the Work to Be Completed

“You have all read the novel by Hemingway about an old fisherman who, after catching the largest fish of his life, tries to bring it ashore. But sharks devour it little by little, and when he arrives back in port, all that remains is the fish-bone.

When it votes in a few minutes, Parliament will have captured the biggest fish of its life, but it will have to bring it ashore, because there will always be sharks trying to devour it. Let us try not to come back to port with only a fish-bone.”

[Address to European Parliament, 14th September 1983]

“Having reached the end of one chapter and at the beginning of a new chapter which will probably be completed by others, and reflecting on the work which I have tried to do here, I must say that, if the ideas contained in this text and in the resolution had not existed in the minds of the great majority of this Parliament, I would never have succeeded in putting them there. Like Socrates, I have limited myself to practicing the maieutic art [the Socratic method of eliciting knowledge by a series of questions and answers]. I have been the obstetrician who helped Parliament give birth to this child. Now we must make it live.”

[Address to European Parliament, 14th February 1984]

The following article featured on Le Monde diplomatique last year.

Altiero Spinelli and his European dream

by Peter Fieldman (October 2015)

“The European Union faces its gravest crisis since the common market came into existence at the Treaty of Rome in 1957. Individual states dissatisfied with the technocrats in Brussels are reasserting their right to determine their own policies and laws while many of Europe’s regions are seeking more autonomy or even independence. Concern over the influence of Islam and its radical factions, and massive immigration caused by poverty and military conflicts in Africa and Asia, has led to the rise of populist political parties across the continent, bringing the fear of a return to right wing extremism.

Instead of a European utopia, we face the break-up of the EU and the end of the dream, which began on a tiny island off the Italian coast in 1941.

Ventotene is a small volcanic island part of the Pontine archipelago off the west coast of Italy in the Tyrrhenian sea between Rome and Naples. First used as a prison during the Roman Empire, Mussolini chose the island to incarcerate Italian antifascists, many of who were communist intellectuals. Among the inmates were Sandro Pertini, Eugenio Colorni, Ursula Hirschmann, Ernesto Rossi and Altiero Spinelli.

It was here in 1941 that the dream of a united Europe began. Having grown up under fascism, these people believed that while the existence of the nation state signified great progress, giving people an identity, culture and language, sovereignty invariably resulted in political and economic power of the elite over the people. They had witnessed how totalitarian regimes had transformed nation states into military powers whose aim was to dominate others seen as a threat. The loss of civil liberties enabled nations to become machines of war and peacetime was simply an opportunity to prepare for future armed conflicts.

Rossi and Spinelli began to work on a political manifesto, which laid down their ideas for a federation of European states, which would, in their view, prevent future military conflicts and the rise of totalitarian states. The statement set out a number of ideals, which they believed were fundamental in establishing political and social reforms across the continent. Their paper was called “For a Free and United Europe — a draft manifesto”. The Ventotene Manifesto, as it became known, was initially circulated secretly among the Italian Partigiani resistance movement until 1943, when the island was liberated by the US. Colorni and Hirschmann were married, but Colorni was killed in 1944 just before the liberation of Rome. Pertini, Rossi and Spinelli all survived the war and continued their political careers. Pertini went on to become president of Italy, while Rossi and Spinelli remained outspoken advocates for the European Federalist Movement. Hirschmann had met Spinelli in Ventotene and drawn together after the war, they spent the rest of their lives together.

Many of their proposals were implemented in the years that followed the war, which saw democracy and peace as well as major political and social reforms spread across the European continent. Spinelli’s greatest satisfaction was seeing the creation of the common market and then the EU. However as communists, the writers believed in pure socialist principles and the manifesto followed that doctrine. The struggle was against social inequality and privileges; those who owned nothing had the same rights as wealthy landowners; capitalistic economic forces should not control the people but be subject to control by the people so that the majority of the population would not become victims of the system.

They were against monopolies being in private ownership and believed that sectors for the common good (electricity, water etc) or required subsidies to survive should all be nationalized. Agriculture would be organized around cooperative farms and mass-produced goods of necessity – food, housing, clothing and a minimum of comfort – must be available to all.

Today in Europe many of the Manifesto’s ideals are taken for granted — free education, the end of totalitarianism, freedom of speech, access to housing and the right to participate in the process of government. There have been unprecedented social and economic advances, and more than 70 years of peace since the end of the second world war has enabled Europeans to live and work together.

But the beginning of the 21st century has also seen many of the original objectives discarded by a society that has become corrupt and greedy in the quest for political power and monetary gain. Instead of looking after the well-being of the people, governments have pandered to the demands of the elite to preserve their privileges. The financial crisis has brought to the surface a growing disparity of wealth and inequality, with the expansion of the global economy and advent of new technology. The significance of unions, once staunch protectors of the working class, has been radically weakened. Lack of regulation has allowed the financial and corporate sectors to help themselves to the nation’s wealth through massive earnings, privatization of national assets and the use of tax havens. Instead of a fairer society, private property and inheritance laws are aimed at maintaining the wealth and privileges of the elite: the wealthiest 85 people own more than the three billion poorest people on the planet. And while in the richest nations the privileged elite has seen its wealth and power increase, austerity measures have caused severe hardship to a substantial percentage of the population.

Altiero Spinelli who became a European commissioner and then a Euro MP until his death in 1986 at 79 — the main European Parliament building in Brussels is named after him — would be disappointed at seeing the Europe he helped create in such turmoil and confusion. Just like another European visionary, Victor Hugo, who had himself once dreamed of a united Europe.

If the EU is to survive the present crisis, political leaders should take another look at the Manifesto and its objectives, to revive the dream of one of its founding fathers.”


About Peter Smith

A "foot-soldier" in the wider Post Capitalism Movement. First task - keep spreading the words of change, hope & inspiration.
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