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European Union at the Crossroads

In this column, Massimo D'Alema, a former prime minister of Italy and former head of the Democratic Party of the Left, writes that the current economic crisis could provide an opportunity for a qualitative leap forward in Europe if there is a substantive change in EU policies.

ROME, Oct 7 2013 (IPS) - “One of the fundamental contradictions is this: that whereas economic life has internationalism, or better still cosmopolitanism, as a necessary premise, state life has developed ever more in the direction of ‘nationalism,’ of ‘self-sufficiency’ and so on.”

So wrote Antonio Gramsci (Prison Notebooks 17, 1933) and the scenario he was considering was that of the great transformations that followed the 1929 stock market crash.

We are now living in the age of globalisation and the processes that Gramsci intuitively foresaw have demonstrated their potential, far beyond the hegemony of Fordism and the U.S. model. At this time of global financial capitalism, the crisis of democracy linked to the loss of sovereignty by nation states seems to have reached breaking point.

Massimo D'Alema

Massimo D’Alema

It is not a coincidence that Europe should be the epicentre of this crisis, above all because it is this continent where the democratic experience of national states has reached its height and achieved a happy synthesis between individual freedoms and social inclusion, between democratic participation and solidarity.

It should therefore not be surprising that this part of the world, which has enjoyed a prolonged period of democracy and well-being, particularly in the second half of the 20th century, has most acutely felt the depth of the crisis and the dearth of hopeful prospects.

It has become clear that, without effective coordination of economic development policies and harmonisation of fiscal and social rules, and without a significant federal budget for the European Union, the single European currency – the euro – instead of being the basis for broader integration, has ended up accentuating the imbalances and inequalities between countries with different levels of productivity and competitiveness.

Politics has been absent from the EU in recent years, and a mistaken attempt has been made to replace it with “government by rules,” using percentages, criteria and sanctions. But as Romano Prodi says, rules are stupid without flexibility and the freedom of autonomous leadership legitimated by the capability to apply them intelligently.

In effect, government by rules and the dogma of monetary stability have led to control by the ideology of austerity, which is now blocking growth and job creation.

As a result, the technocratic nature of European governance has been accentuated, nurturing a growing perception in many countries of alienation and hostile public opinion. Technocracy and populism are today the two faces of the European democratic crisis.

In spite of the unprecedented gravity of the crisis, it could provide an opportunity for a qualitative leap forward, if there is a substantive change in EU policies.

This would mean orienting the EU’s action towards growth and employment, as several progressive governments, like that of France, are demanding. Italy’s, too, could contribute in this direction.

An effective solidarity mechanism needs to be applied to public debt to permit the introduction of lower interest rates and the containment of the forces of speculation that operate in the markets, and the fiscal pact should be interpreted flexibly and intelligently so that the necessary investments for relaunching growth and the recovery of competitiveness are not impeded.

And the EU budget must be reinforced in order for it to have the capability to reduce imbalances, harmonise growth and direct it towards innovative goals in the fields of research and the environment.

These changes are essential, yet they are hard to achieve within the EU’s present intergovernmental system. A profound change is needed, impelled by politics, which will have to involve a European “political battle” between different visions for the future of the continent.

The Party of European Socialists (PES) approved its fundamental programme in late June in Sofia, becoming the first political force in the bloc to adopt a platform of this type and scope.

This is an important step forward and it produced a manifesto containing a wealth of propositions on labour, social justice, citizen participation and transparency in government actions.

However, I believe support for a political project for Europe has not yet mustered enough strength.

Residual national resistances are obstructing the affirmation of the ideal of a Federal Europe, which is the only solution for democratic acceleration towards regional integration.

Obviously, the idea is not to create a fearsome European super-state, but to prevent decision-making power from being confined to the hands of a powerful “supertechnocracy” that ultimately depends almost exclusively on the governments of the strongest countries.

Europe must make a decisive shift towards putting politics at the centre of European institutions and, at the same time, bringing Europe into the politics and the debates of national parties.

The next European elections, in June 2014, may provide a suitable opportunity.

The PES’s decision that their candidate to the presidency of the European Commission, the EU’s executive organ, will be elected by vote, along with a programme of renewal, if it is adopted by other regional parties, may change the working of the institutions from the ground up and give a new significance to the role of the parties.

This would transform the elections into a pronouncement on the future government of Europe and its basic options, instead of a series of referendums on the present operation of the EU, the results of which could be disastrous for pro-Europeanists.

It would be fair – and not in contradiction with the current Treaty – for the European Council to accept its own role to be limited in relation to the leader that has the greatest consensus in the European Parliament, and therefore is backed by the will of the electorate.

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