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“Willy Brandt” Lecture by the President of the Italian Republic Giorgio Napolitano “Towards Political Union: the process of shaping a European Leadership”

Berlino, 01/03/2013


My warm thanks to Professor Olbertz for his words and the welcome extended to me in this historic University, which has become a cornerstone of the debate on Europe. I have already in the past been given a generous welcome here, and my words a warm reception.
I am grateful to President Thierse for the honour of being able to give this Willy Brandt Lecture. An honour granted on behalf of the Foundation named after the Chancellor of the German Federal Republic and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, whose name lives on in our memory. Yes, my dear friend Thierse, I had a bond of admiration and ever-increasing political affinity with Willy Brandt, an affinity that also encompassed ideals. With him, as President of the Socialist International, I enjoyed frank and fruitful personal discussions and formal meetings, during the Stockholm Conference and the sessions of the Socialist International Council, to which I was invited as observer for the Italian Communist Party.
One rather singular meeting has remained impressed more than any other in my memory, as it occurred, in an extraordinary coincidence, at the time of the historic fall of the “Berlin Wall”. Months earlier, we had agreed to meet for an in-depth discussion on strengthening the Italian Communist Party’s relations with the Socialist International, with a view to its actually joining. The time and date were set for 14.00, 9 November 1989 in Bonn, in Brandt’s office in the Bundestag. We talked at length about everything and anything, in a spirit of the utmost mutual openness and understanding, for a good 2 hours, never imagining that in a short while – just after I’d left Bonn for Italy – history would take an unexpected, exciting turn towards freedom and unity for all of Germany, and therefore for Europe.
And lastly, I was delighted here today to see Egon Bahr – Brandt’s close and valuable collaborator in his political and governmental work and in his commitment to Europe. As I greeted him, I experienced once again the emotion we felt when we met in Berlin to pay our ultimate homage to Willy. On that occasion, I attended as Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, representing Italy.
I wish to thank all of you: not least for your patience in following the address I shall now begin.
The financial crisis that erupted in the United States in 2008, its rapid spread – first of all to Europe – and its broader repercussions, which made it a global phenomenon, have deeply shaken the construction of Europe. They have changed its course, and driven it in unexpected directions. We should not be surprised, therefore, if the debate on Political Union, as the inevitable outcome of the integration process begun in 1950, has re-surfaced. That process has had a political dimension from the very outset. Our discussions and concerns may focus – as has happened in recent years – on currency, on finance, on the economy, but the project to which we are committed and which we want to push forward is, and remains, a political project. If political means multitudes of men and women acting in society according to rules based on freedom and solidarity; if political means building institutions and then governing them; if political means nurturing relations between peoples and between States, then how can we fail to see that the construction of Europe was and is – regardless of the technicalities – a political process resting on political ideals and requiring leadership and political guidance? Europe as a Political Union, therefore, has always been, and is more than ever, present on the agenda of our efforts as forces responsible for the European project.
So: Political Union. Allow me to retrace this path through the pages written by that great figure in the history of the 20th century, Jean Monnet. You see, in the face of so much misinformation and disaffection with respect to the pro-European option, we need to ponder how to fill what has been a very serious gap in our teaching. A gap for which we are paying the consequences today in our relationship with the younger generations. Well, that gap can only be filled by disseminating the historic knowledge that, luckily, we can draw from enthusiastic testimonies and masterly syntheses such as Jean Monnet’s Memoires. Why have we had such scant recourse to them?
The chapter on “Political Union” in that great book reconstructs the various stages and vicissitudes of the construction of Europe. Writing in 1976, Monnet had no hesitation in drawing up a frank balance sheet: “the history of Europe’s attempts at political union has been a long series of disappointments”. The first attempt was associated with the project to set up a European Defence Community, which was intended in some way to crown the reconciliation of France and Germany and provide a framework of guarantees with respect to the already decided re-arming of the latter. One feature of the creation of the Defence Community was to be – upon impetus and with the contribution of Italy, in the persons of Alcide De Gasperi and Altiero Spinelli – the election of a Common Assembly by universal suffrage and the creation of a federal organisation based on the principle of the separation of powers and outfitted with a two-Chamber Parliament. As we know, the whole project failed, and so the focus shifted to consolidating the Coal and Steel Community and, from 1957, to launching a more demanding project: the European Economic Community.
But while the attempt to create a European Defence Community in the early 1950s was both premature and badly managed, a new opportunity seemed to open up between 1960 and 1962: the creation of a political body consisting of the Heads of Government of the six Community countries. However, France’s ambiguity as to the role of the supra-national institutions and the rigidities of the Gaullist vision in a Europe of States were to prove fatal. At that time, Monnet viewed “cooperation as a necessary step, and a possible European confederation” as the only realistically feasible outcome.
And yet, he had both inspired and indeed drafted the Schuman Declaration, which had sanctioned the goal of “European federation”. And he had always looked kindly and respectfully on those who, from the outset, wanted to forge ahead on the road to political integration. These included the Italian Alcide De Gasperi, whom he defined as “a man of great distinction of spirit” working “in profound agreement with Adenauer and Schuman”.
But the failure of the European Defence Community had lent weight to Monnet’s realistic approach. In 1958 he reiterated his conviction that “it was not possible to force the pace” of progress towards political union since such progress was linked to the effective advance of economic union. And again, writing his Memoirs nearly 20 years later, he insisted on the need “first and foremost to bring economic union to completion and then seek to shape a more complete, more profound union – whether federal or confederal I could not have said”.

Thus, we might well wonder today if – with so much water under the bridge in the more than 30 years that have passed since then – Monnet’s words do not have a strong topical flavour. Are we not, perhaps, engaged precisely in first of all bringing Economic and Monetary Union to completion? Economic and Monetary Union, whose incompleteness and contradictions have come so dramatically to the fore in recent years with the sovereign debt and growth crisis in Europe? Monnet never thought that political union would arise mechanically from the slow progress of “de facto solidarity”; he felt that that would require “a specific creative act involving a new delegation of sovereignty”. So, has the time perhaps not come to prepare for political union, albeit while still focusing our efforts on completing Economic and Monetary Union?
Before returning to these burningly topical questions – questions of vital interest for the future -, I feel it might be useful to run through the changes introduced to the European institutional framework since Jean Monnet’s last “invention”. That idea, in 1973-74, was to establish a “supreme governing body for Europe” in what he defined as a “difficult transition period between national and shared sovereignty”.
The issue at stake was to move on, first of all, from the inconclusive and hardly productive nature of the summits of Heads of State and Government of the Community member states (which by then numbered nine, with the entry of the United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark) – summits that engaged in simple, general discussions. And second, to leave behind the sectorial short-cuts sought by the various groupings of the Council of Ministers, in which each acted to defend his or her national interests. The nine Heads of State and Government were meant to form a “provisional European government”. This, in turn, would define the European Union project and include among the Union’s institutions “a European government and a parliamentary assembly elected by universal suffrage”.
What was needed, essentially, was “a beginning of European authority”, which until then had been lacking. The place and time of the discussion were to correspond, in essence, to the place and time of the decision. “The existing European institutions” – was Monnet’s again realistic consideration – “do not, as things stand, have enough force”, acting alone, to place sufficient means at the service of the common interests of the countries of the Community. “But if upheld by the Community, the Heads of Government can succeed in that endeavour”. The idea gained ground, although Monnet’s formulations were watered down somewhat (for example, the name “provisional European government” did not survive), and won the consensus of the three main Heads of Government – the French, German and British (initially, Pompidou, Brandt and Heath, and then, from 1974, Giscard d’Estaing, Schmidt and Wilson). On 10 December 1974 the European Council was born.
The cornerstones that marked the significance of that innovation clearly and unambiguously were: the commitment to respect and enhance the role of the Commission; the undertaking to prepare for the election of the European Parliament by universal suffrage; the synergy between the new body and the common supra-national institutions; and the confirmation of the Community method. The extent to which this subsequently changed, especially as regards the nature and relative weight of the European Council – which had become a fixed and dominant star of the Union’s decision-making process – is another question, which I will naturally address later.
But there is no question that, starting from 1979, the parliamentary assembly elected directly by the citizens of all the member states became a lynchpin of democracy and a guarantee against intergovernmental distortions in the construction of Europe. For over a decade, from the 1980s to the 1990s, the European Commission in turn experienced a clear growth in authority and capacity for initiative under the leadership of Jacques Delors.
Lastly, with the Maastricht Treaty, the birth of the single currency and the creation of the European Central Bank, a real step forward occurred on the road to integration. This saw a “deepening” of the European process that preceded and accompanied the “expansion” and transformation of the Community of 15 member states to a Union of first 25 and then, very soon, 27 members. The key of the European project, as conceived by Monnet and the other pioneers – “delegation of sovereignty and common exercise of this delegated sovereignty” – had opened the gates to a crucial area, jealously guarded by the national states as their historic prerogative: the area of monetary sovereignty. It was only later – after 2008 – that we would learn, to our cost, that other, adjacent areas should also have been opened up to the exercise of shared sovereignty.
The innovations and developments of the 1970s and ’80s were possible because political personalities of high standing were on the same wave-length. I have already cited the names mentioned by Monnet: names that include Willy Brandt. And I like to remember the words that the great French author of a united Europe, who was equally extraordinary in judging – and persuading – people, dedicated to Brandt: “Brandt is one of the most generous statesmen I know, one of those rare statesmen who are capable of giving. He has amply demonstrated that, and his courage has received its deserved reward in the profound esteem in which he is held by his contemporaries. His human, too human, temperament made political action more difficult for him than for others. I have always seen him as being open to change and I did not doubt that he would espouse a project destined to spark a new dynamic”. And Brandt did indeed fully espouse the project establishing the European Council, considering it “an essential step on the road”, precisely, “of political union”.
I wanted to pay homage to Willy Brandt, to whom this Lecture is dedicated, with the distinguished and eloquent words of someone he accompanied as a key figure in the European endeavour. But at the same time I wanted to underscore the common feeling and shared vision of Europe that bound national and Community leaders in decades that were amongst the most fruitful in the integration process. And in an overview that also takes in the Maastricht Treaty, I could hardly fail to mention François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, and the Italians Craxi and Andreotti.
As a European parliamentarian, Brandt was also one of the most influential advocates of political union, upholding, inter alia, the commitment of Altiero Spinelli. He gave his own unique contribution to the broader vision of Europe’s role in building a world of peace, a world more united and more just.
In short, in certain periods we have seen what we might call a European leadership emerge and take shape, just as in the first part of the new millennium we have seen the decline of that process. We have seen the image of Europe wither just as it was becoming more unified and being called to take on a more influential role at the global level. And it is this withering that, to a large extent, has led to the new generations’ growing disenchantment with the idea of Europe and the institutions into which it has evolved over time.
Let us avoid trite misunderstandings. We are not talking here – especially not myself – about evaluating the suitability and quality of those who in recent times have been called upon to assume the highest leadership positions in national governments and in the European institutions, especially if that call reflects the democratically expressed will of the people. We do not have the capacity, and know that it would not make sense, to do so.
The question we must ponder concerns the web of relationships between those leaders, the reasons for them being and operating together in the name of Europe and the way in which they do so. To what extent has that unified web been weakened? To what extent has the sense of the broader horizon of Europe’s responsibilities and the challenges it must grasp been lost?
This means that our reflection on Europe, the adjustments needed, and to some extent a new beginning, must involve the content of and direction taken by European policy and action, unresolved institutional problems, and the map to be drawn up for the road ahead and, indeed, for the future of the Union. And through this reflection, we need to forge a renewed common political determination. That is what is desperately needed.
And it is a collective leadership, endowed with a much stronger common political will and therefore qualified to speak and act truly in Europe’s name, that other key players on the international stage are calling for. Especially, I must say, the most sensitive American leaders and opinion-makers, starting with President Obama and the Administration he leads.
We have left well behind us the question – uttered only half in jest – of exactly which phone number to call to speak to Europe. What is expected of us, as Europeans, is the strength of a common political line and capacity for action. And the strength of a credible leadership that operates through efficient institutions and with a higher degree of consensus and participation by citizens.
Now, there is no doubt that in the last two years the Heads of State and Government have agreed on innovative and courageous decisions to better safeguard that great success, the single currency. Agreement has been reached, too, on completing that endeavour with vital, and thus far lacking, components: effective financial integration and fiscal capacity, the integrated management of budgetary policies and economic policies, and banking union. Subject to timely amendments to address the persistent weakness of some of these elements, we have taken steps in the right direction – but not without significant tensions and contradictions. A question remains: to what extent was the decision-making in the European Council overshadowed by forced agreement, ambiguity and qualms, perhaps unexpressed? How much doubt and uncertainty was felt as to which outcomes to aim for, especially at the institutional level and with a view to bridging gaps and correcting imbalances in the decision-making process? In short, the limits to a common and consistent political will are still evident.
I am convinced that all those currently holding positions of institutional responsibility in the major member states of the Union or its more advanced core, the Eurozone, are in earnest agreement as to the essential conditions for the revitalisation and consequently the development of the integration process. And the foremost condition I refer to is the absolute conviction that the choice for Europe has been the redemption of our countries. “The West Germans’ resounding “yes” to Europe is another treasure of German post-war history”, said President Gauck in his swearing-in speech as Head of State. And for that he expressed gratitude for the work of Konrad Adenauer.
I would like to note here that for all the founding fathers of the Community of Europe, that choice enhanced their standing in their own countries. Later, and sadly, in more trying and critical times for our continent, some national leaders have found it convenient not to plead the European cause too loudly. Rather, they have chosen to make the European institutions the scapegoat for their lack of courage, and offloaded onto those institutions the responsibility for any and all unpopular decisions. All of the national political leaders need to regain their pride in having chosen Europe, not just as the only far-sighted response to the catastrophe of war and the troubles and risks of the post-war period, but as the only valid response to the new, and so very different, challenges facing us today.
And while – let me once again quote President Gauck – in times of crisis “the tendency to seek refuge at nation-state level is particularly marked […] especially during this time of crisis, our motto must be: we want to dare more Europe”.
This explicit and clear renewal of pro-European convictions, by the highest institutional expressions of the Federal Republic of Germany, is utterly decisive, in light of all that this country has represented since the construction of a united Europe began. And the more objective and frank the reasoning behind such an affirmation, the more seriously we must take it. This applies, most notably, to the statements and arguments voiced by the Chancellor, Mrs. Merkel. They deserve the utmost respect, irrespective of any political dispute that may involve her, including outside Germany. And they are of the utmost interest because they clearly reflect the common sentiment of all of Germany’s key political and social forces.
Recently, addressing the World Economic Forum, Chancellor Merkel reiterated the bald facts and figures: the drastic shrinkage of the relative weight of Europe’s population and gross product with respect to the global total. She added that Germany itself, i.e. Europe’s biggest economy, accounts for barely 1% of the world’s population. And she drew the irrefutable conclusion – which I had already heard her express off the record – that only if we work together as Europeans will we be able to express our common interests and exert our influence in the world – as it is and as it will increasingly become. Only by working together, and well, I would add, and addressing our shortcomings and problems in all their complexity, and testing and exploiting our potential to the full.
On this we agree, and I do not see how it could be otherwise, if we consider the global reality within which, like it or not, we have to move and act. No national European Union member state, no individual European country, not even the strongest and most dynamic, can, by its own efforts alone, successfully meet today’s and tomorrow’s challenges and count in the world. Not even, if my friends in the United Kingdom allow me to say so, by focusing on earning power deriving from a past of great multi-continental power.
However, from thoughtful and well-reasoned statements like those I have quoted and appreciated, we really do need to understand how to grasp all the consequences. It is true that as Europeans we must work in concert and unity, feeling that we are “all in the same boat”. It is true that even the most robust and competitive European economy, Germany’s, is exposed to the repercussions of the heavy wave of recession that has crashed down on important European countries such as Italy. Yet it would be legitimate to expect – and I say this without intending to simplify the attendant problems – an expansionary stimulus from Germany, as a contribution to a real, and not merely proclaimed, recovery of growth and employment in Europe.
Moreover – let us say it frankly – too wide a gap exists between the convictions we express regarding Europe’s present needs and missions, and certain conduct that reflects obstinately persistent national pettiness and self-interest. Thinking of the recent negotiations in the European Council for an agreement on the financial outlook, i.e. on the budget, of the European Union, the following passage from Jean Monnet’s Memoirs came to mind, as did the desire to read them again. Listen:
“Pursuing the common interest does not prevent us – on the contrary! – from each taking the position of the other into account, but we must never take the road of haggling. Let us stick to our method, which is first of all to decide what is worthwhile for all of the countries united within the Community, and then to measure the effort that one or the other will need to make, without seeking futile, meticulous equivalence”.
The time has come to shake off these outworn practices in which the limits and flaws of inter-governmental compromises are encapsulated. The time has come to regain and cultivate a sense of common European interest, with which national interests can be harmonised rather than clash, if understood correctly and without any misleading demands or forcing of the issues.
The first, concrete field of application of this higher shared vision of our responsibilities and the decisions we must address concerns the action to be taken on the basis of last December’s document “Towards a Genuine Economic and Monetary Union”. A document that bears the signatures – together with that of President Van Rompuy – of the Presidents of the other three institutions: the Commission, the Eurogroup and the ECB. There is no doubt that all the individual steps taken thus far to tackle the crisis must find their natural place in that framework. And it is true that to rebuild a climate of trust and confidence in the European project, it will be vitally important to give citizens, families and enterprises solace from the grave concerns of financial instability, into which so many of our countries have fallen. And it will be vitally important to highlight the institutions’ renewed capability and the Community’s initiatives to generate growth, prosperity and equity.
In this respect, the projections in these early months of 2013 are still not encouraging. Kick-starting development and bringing it up to a satisfactory pace seems much harder than the declarations of intent – laudable as they are – lead us to believe. Only towards the end of the year is a recovery expected to begin, thanks to certain factors indicated recently by President Draghi. These include the support to internal demand provided by the accommodating line of monetary policy adopted by the ECB itself.
It is right, of course, to stress the effect that reducing public deficits, opening up the markets to greater competition and implementing reforms like those in the labour market could have in fostering economic growth and job opportunities.
We should, however, do our utmost to carve out more space for European investment and employment policies that are compatible with on-going rigour and continuity to overcome the euro-zone’s sovereign debt crisis. And we can expect the European Parliament to also raise the question – when it examines the draft agreement on the Union’s budget – of whether and when the various intervention plans in strategic sectors, drawn up and announced some time ago by the Commission, will actually be implemented.
To restore a climate of trust and confidence in Europe, we will also need to pay closer attention to the worsening, in these years of crisis, of situations of inequality and social disadvantage, the risk of poverty, and the exclusion of large swathes of young people from the labour market. In a European Union that has embraced the strategies and values of a social market economy, we cannot fail to raise the alarm over the serious social question that has taken shape in Europe. A question that seems mainly to be expressed through the tendency for our economies, or a part of them, to generate – even when they return to growth – fewer jobs, scarce jobs, and bad jobs.
The priority, therefore, must be to take action to provide effective answers to the questions arising from the social, financial and economic crises that still overshadow and dominate life in this Europe of ours. I feel, however, that we must also be aware of, and engage with, other needs in the short and medium term.
First, the need to reinstate – in our relationship with citizens, with public opinion, with our countries’ representative assemblies – the image and an awareness of the project and process of European integration in all their richness. I will never tire of repeating that in sixty and more years we have designed and built not just the Europe of the common market, free from borders and barriers. The Europe of what has become the internal market, now nearing completion. And not just the Europe of the single currency, for all that today it is looking to the broader horizon of Economic and Monetary Union.
We have designed and built a Europe of peace, by repudiating aggressive and destructive nationalism. A Europe founded on values of freedom and democracy that are inseparable from all the other values that have come to be associated with them in the historic experience of Western civilisation. The Europe of Community law, an unprecedented and unique legal edifice. The Europe of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Europe of the space of freedom, security and justice.
We have striven – Monnet’s words once again – not to unite states but to unite men and women, through the great flows engendered by the free movement of people and encounters and exchanges between young people.
And we have conceived a united Europe as a protagonist of international life through its foreign and security policy.
An awareness of this whole inalienable heritage of successes and potential must be constantly nurtured at all times, especially in the minds of the new generations. At all times, even when we are assailed by financial and economic emergencies.
The second vital need – not least in pursuing the priority goals of an authentic Economic and Monetary Union – is the legitimisation, consensus and participation on which the Union must be founded if it is to express and guarantee democracy. And here must be set the debate – today more than ever unavoidable – on the institutions, rules, and channels for the representation and expression of the people’s will and of citizens’ ideas and aspirations. In this field, gaps and distortions have come into being and feed into the positions of disenchantment and mistrust towards Europe.
Years ago, as Chair of the European Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee, I engaged in a debate on the issue – as it was defined at that time – of the “democratic deficit” and I was confronted with the concept of “output legitimacy”. In other words, the theory that the European Union would be legitimised by the concrete results and tangible gains it produced. If it produces, or so the theory goes, and thus acquires consensus, then in effect it resolves the problem of its legitimisation. A theory that I find unacceptable, although in the “golden decades” of the economic and civil growth of the Europe of the Community, it was very widely espoused.
No, we need a new, far more recognisable and satisfactory framework and modus operandi for the European institutions; a substantial Europeanisation of politics and parties; an open and vibrant European public space; and a political and social dialectic that extends beyond half-hearted national spheres to become truly European.
A decisive factor in developing along these lines will be to strengthen the parliamentary dimension of the Union. This should be in addition to the progress already made in recognising the role and powers of the European Parliament and the still imperfect linkage between it and the national parliaments. But even this is insufficient.
The question of reviewing the institutional architecture of the Union, of imprinting a more coherent character upon it, of the “constitutionalisation” that we attempted, imperfectly, in 2002-03, and which therefore failed, is becoming pressing. There is no escaping this. And it is an issue that overlaps almost entirely with the one I began with – Political Union.
“My vision”, said Chancellor Merkel some months ago, “is Political Union”: and she went on to sketch out what “could be the future shape of the European political union, in the short run, and after many intermediate steps.” Important statements, not least because the framework described – including an increasing transfer of competencies to the Commission as European Government – seems close to that of a federal Europe.
The question, then, is the following one: with which of the many “intermediate steps” do we intend to begin, and when? One alternative to this hypothesis of gradual transformation, albeit while clarifying the stages and timescale of that transformation, would be to initiate the debate on a new constitutional treaty, a true “Founding Law” for the Union, by convening an ad hoc conference. Do we feel that we can achieve the necessary consensus to do so, from now until the European elections in 2014? The answer to that question, the choice between those two roads, requires the most serious and unprejudiced meditation, along with a painstaking and responsible political reconnaissance. For the time being, all I feel I can say is that we need to begin that reflection, and not view it as a luxury that can wait until more tranquil times. Because it represents the most meaningful test bench for the manifestation and consolidation of a new European leadership. Of which – as I have said in this perhaps over-long Lecture – we have the utmost need.