“Today’s leaders? Many of them are stuck in the present moment. They are unable to extend their gaze beyond the current horizon, as the founding fathers had done.” Piero Graglia teaches the History of European Integration and History of International Relations at the University of Milan. Biographer of Altiero Spinelli, staunch Europeanist, processes leading to the creation of the “common home” are his area of expertise. In his view, at the present stage the European Union “needs greater commitment and imagination” on the part of Member State leaders. “But the States have become part and parcel of the EU problem”: resolute, determined remarks followed by an overarching gaze which – luckily – is open to renewed hope.
Professor Graglia, for years black shadows have been hovering over Community Europe. London decided to go its own way, the Visegrad Countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia) are pacing up and down, while in many Countries, Italy included, anti-EU nationalism and populism grow stronger. Has the EU reached its final stop? Difficulties are under everyone’s eyes to see: the challenges of the past years – economy, migration, terrorism – have brought to the fore critical aspects and weaknesses of the European Union. But I firmly believe that we are not facing an irreversible crisis of the European project, rather we are faced with the ageing of procedures characterizing national governments’ approach to integration. Far too many Heads of Government and State view the EU as if it were only about the single market. It’s an old way of thinking. In order to overcome the present standstill there is need for imagination, i.e., to find new answers to unprecedented problems. Exactly what the EEC founders did seventy years ago.
There sure are some good examples of positive political decisions … Progress has been made in the integrated defence project. There is also talk of energy union. But veritable common policies are missing in other sectors, from foreign affairs to migration. The absence of a migration policy was felt strongly in the past years, leaving Italy to handle the situation alone and indirectly fuelling populism and fake news on refugees. The lack of a jointly-agreed repartition of refugees is disgraceful. We are faced with the selfish attitude of many States.
Thus what is needed to make steps forward? There is need for strategic planning, namely, analyses on the situation, political debate, quest for optimal solutions that benefit all involved parties. Without focusing on the next round of elections: it’s short-sightedness! While it’s normal that the horizon of a national leader doesn’t extend beyond the national elections, I wonder how these leaders can present themselves as “future lawmakers” and propose new supra-national challenges. If the national dimension is chosen as the exclusive and pre-eminent option, the European dimension should not be used to gain consensus (and viceversa.)
Which Countries are “pulling the brakes” of European integration? One tends to think of central and eastern Europe… In my view it’s Germany above all. It’s the largest and economically stronger Country that is failing to act as the driving force of the Union. In fact, Germany is prioritizing its own self-interests. The German governments of the past few years – notably those led by Angela Merkel – failed to make proposals aimed at strengthening European unity. Berlin, to give an example, said NO to Eurobonds, No to increasing the Community budget. It did not promote reforms that would have given greater powers to Parliament and Commission- the two “Community” institutions par excellence. Indeed, also Eastern Europe contributes to the slowdown. On the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall former Communist Countries were primarily concerned with security (i.e. NATO) and economic wellbeing (linked to EU funding). Having obtained what they wanted several governments are now thwarting all forms of political cooperation on a continental scale.
Whence should the EU make a fresh start? There are various options. But first of all – also in the light of the public attention devoted to this issue – it is necessary to belie all clichés, truisms, and widespread inaccuracies on EU policy. “Europe is useless”, is commonly heard, “it’s just bureaucracy of prohibitions.” This is fertile ground for populism. In point of fact the EU delivers – as enshrined in the Treaties signed by Member Countries – regulations and rules for coexistence, to protect citizens’ rights, for consumer protection, to support enterprises. Those who claim that it would be best “to return to the nation-States”, as if they had suddenly vanished in the post-war years, should ask themselves: what can small and large EU Countries do at national level to address the new global challenges? It would lead to the acknowledgement that today more than ever “united we stand, divided we fail.” Instead simplistic, false slogans abound, which ultimately influence electoral outcomes. It’s precisely what happened in Great Britain, which now doesn’t know how to manage the Brexit.
What else? It would be necessary to face and resolve the various critical aspects in the EU, which nobody can deny. The European Union is a “cold-blooded animal.” It’s unable to warm up people’s hearts. Strasbourg’s and Brussels’ institutions have failed to carry out an in-depth debate on this issue. Europe needs reforms, and in this respect Brexit is a helpful wake-up call. But the European Parliament seems to be unable to act as a driving force. It lacks the courage to undertake major reforms – that had characterised its first two legislatures, in 1979 and 1984 -. And despite a number of good proposals (contained in Juncker’s State of the Union speeches), Commission bends over backwards to handle the present circumstances.
Let us return to talk of migration. I think it’s necessary to realize that notwithstanding the massive inflow of migrants – from Africa and from the Middle East – we are far from facing an “invasion”, as some try to make us believe. At internal level, in Africa and Asia, also in poor regions, migration waves are of much larger, worrying proportions. Nonetheless it’s perceived as a burdensome issue because ours are “frightened” societies, inasmuch as we are also rich societies. We fare afraid of being stripped of our certainties. However, a veritable European response would have immediately eased the management of this phenomenon. Moreover, the migration issue is yet another “symptom” signalling that the EU is lacking a shared foreign policy that would turn the EU into a major player on the international scenario. It could be said that today the European Union, with its demographic and economic impact, has a unitary trade policy but by paradox the same is not true for its foreign policy. It’s absurd. By comparison it were as if one owned a Ferrari, paid its gas and insurance, without being able to drive it.
On Brexit and Catalonia? It’s a complex situation. As I said, the divorce decided by London can be described as a form of short-sighted nationalism. But I believe that this rupture could lead Europe to undertake a reflection at internal level; as had occurred in the past with Euro-sceptic Margaret Thatcher. In a negative way she was the “patroness” of the Single Act and the Maastricht Treaty that reformed Europe in the 1980s and the 1990s. The same questions that the British raised with the Referendum should be asked also by EU27: why are we in the EU? What does European citizenship entail and which advantages or disadvantages does it bring? What do we intend to do and how far do we intend to go together? On Catalonia all I will say is that the Catalan legitimate request of independence,- which, by the way, is enshrined in the Constitution – can be guaranteed in the framework of national unity. There is no need to create a new, small State.
One final question: what is your message to the young? Many of my students are successful Erasmus students. It’s a form of “direct experience” of Europe. It’s not necessary to fall in love with it to understand the value of such a major political project. In fact, it’s enough to experience its daily advantages. By comparison it could be said that the EU is like air: if you have it you don’t realize it but when it’s missing you gasp for it. I think that from this angle young people are the best chance for the future of integration. The EU belongs to the Millennials, they are the “European natives” who live and will continue living as Europeans.