In April 1951 – during an International Conference in Lugano – European federalists gave shape to a draft Treaty aimed at convening a European Constituent Assembly, making a call to all the pro-European organisations so that they would fight under this flag. As we know, the principle of a Constituent Assembly was accepted by only the six ECSC founders, which introduced in the Treaty for the European Defense Community (EDC) the idea of the Political Community statute and a mandate for ECSC’s Assembly (plus other members of national Parliaments: it was then called “ad hoc assembly” even if one delegate proposed, in the first session, to name it “Constituent Assembly”), as suggested by Alcide De Gasperi and inspired by a Memorandum of Altiero Spinelli.
With the failure of the EDC in August 1954, this embryonic constituent process also collapsed. Meanwhile, national diplomacies have succeeded in watering down the Political Statutes that the Assembly was able to obtain in six months of work.
After twenty-six years, the constituent strategy indicated by the UEF was again proposed at the European Parliament by Altiero Spinelli and its Club del Coccodrillo (“Crocodile Club”) but its elements were just partially close to the ones of the 50s’ version.
First, the necessity of a political foundation or re-foundation of European unity was not based anymore on the lack of relations among countries (most of them former enemies) which had just came out of two World Wars, but was rather based on the thirty years’ experience in integration, whose consequences - mainly positive but also negative - were examined by the European Parliament during the discussion over the Treaty of 1984.
Secondly, the constituent role was taken by another Assembly, who already obtained democratic legitimacy (and obviously political authority) derived by an election through universal and direct suffrage.
Thirdly, the Assembly elected in 1979 did not receive the mandate from Member States’ governments, but decided to base its initiative on its moral duty of presenting proposals for the benefit of European citizens and towards the fulfillment of the main finality of integration: the European Federation.
In conclusion, the Assembly decided to offer its project not to the Council of Ministers from national governments or to a diplomatic Conference but directly to national Parliaments, asking to ratify the Treaty through their constitutional procedures.
Spinelli’s initiative, however, was initially based not only on improved impetus from Federalist organisations, but also on the evident crisis of the project of communitarian integration, caused by political and economic issues, by the inadequacy of European Monetary System, by the breakdown of Communities’ decision-making process, by the increasingly difficulties in international relations, and – last but not least - by the innovative election through direct and universal suffrage of the Parliament, that Willy Brandt named “Permanent Constituent Assembly”.
Let us go back to the crisis due to the worsening of internal disequilibrium caused by EMS inadequacy. A few months after the European Council (July 1978) in which it was born, the first fight among governments and EP took place; it was about the Regional Fund whose amount was supposed to be inserted in the1979 budget. In the EP’s opinion, it was an attempt to develop a financial tool, in addition to national contribution, with the purpose to smooth over regional differences and to facilitate economic convergence among countries part of EMS.
The Council decided instead to rely on intergovernmental tools, such as granting repayments to Italy and Ireland aimed at designing project that neither Italy nor Ireland could finance on their own. The unelected Parliament won on the amount of Regional Fund, pointing out that were “not compulsory expenses” on which the Assembly had the final word, and sharpening its knifes for the major battle ever, the 1980 budget in the hands of an elected Parliament.
The facts of those months is well known by federalists: under the guide of Altiero Spinelli and Erwin Lange, the president from SPDI of the Commission for Budgets (in the long consultation’s nights among Ministers and Parliamentarians he even forbid to waiters to take coffee inside the room), the European members of the Parliament were able to reject the budget on the 13th of December 1979. Spinelli was perfectly aware that this was a pyrrhic victory because – with the accomplishment of the Luxemburgish Thorn, President of the Commission - six months later, governments approved a budget even worse than the one rejected in December 1979. From this defeat the Crocodile Club started an initiative, based on a belief of Spinelli and a group of innovators, aimed at convincing the EP to open a great debate on the institutional crisis of Community and to create an ad hoc commission in charge of designing a project, discuss it and vote on it, give it the shape of a Constitutional Treaty and then propose its formal adoption by national Parliaments.
At first, the Crocodile Club focused on three main points: the importance of the connection with public opinion (now better known as civil society), the parliamentary method to carry out such initiative and the main points of the project as to exclude both those who believed in using Treaties’ powers, and those who wanted to propose just few little modifications to the Treaty already in force. Both of these sides abandoned the Club’s meetings, choosing another intergroup (like the Kangaroo’s one) in order to focus on the internal market, or even building obstacles to Parliament’s decisions. Despite the oppositions, the majority in the European Parliament was then achieved; in July 1981 Spinelli obtained the approbation of a resolution containing the creation a Commission for “Institutional Affairs” that would be in charge of modify the actual Treaties. Such modifications would be ratified directly to competent organ of each Member States. During the debate it occurred that these reforms would have represented for the Parliament and the political forces the European Constitution, moving in the internal democracy of the Community.
One year later the EP approved –with a large majority- a resolution on the feelings about a reform of the Treaties and an European Union based on principles of subsidiarity, separation of powers, legitimacy, democratic control, Member States’ involvement and on an improvement in Communities’ decision making process. Following these principles, the Parliament and the Council should have to share legislative powers, and budget and ratification ones, leaving to the Commission all the executive and initiative powers. The political contents of this Treaty were divided in six sections (institutional structure, fundamental rights, economic policy, society’s policy, international relations, budgetary and fiscal policy, and institutions)
It is worth recalling the most controversial points of the debate that have a strong meaning also today.
Regarding the institutional structure the main discussion was on the direct attribution of the European citizenship (Some would have preferred it to be autonomous from the national one) and on citizens’ rights, given that secular democrats were struggling for an expansion also of moral and ethical ones, such as euthanasia. Generally speaking, jurists and Spinelli had the idea of not inserting in the Treaty a new catalogue of rights, and such idea was followed by the commission, in fact it was later decided that Union’s institutions should have to write down a Charter of Rights, autonomous from other international instruments such as the Convention of the Council of Europe.
Regarding economic policy the argument among “neoclassical” and “Keynesians” ended up with the win of the latters, since the Treaty turned upside down the free-exchange essence of the Rome Treaties.
Regarding social policy the most controversial topic was regional politics, and the conclusion overturned its role from complement to major goal for the Union’s economic action.
Regarding instead international relations, the final writing was very disappointing for federalists: it ended up as a hard compromise among competences directly in the hands of the Union, and competences (such as safety and defence) still relying on States’ cooperation.
The debate on Union’s fiscal policy focused on own resources and financial equalisation. First, the idea of a budget made by entries was abandoned for a budget made by Union’s duties, maintaining the same tax burden on citizens. On the topic of equalization, it was decided that States, Regions and citizens should have to contribute at financing common activities.
Finally, the debate on institution has a strong meaning also today, in particular regarding the nomination of the Commission. Having excluded the hypothesis of a direct election of the President (conceived as a primus inter pares, taking into account the collegial feature of the executive), the discussion went from a Swiss model, where the executive is designated by the Parliament and the Council in a common session, to a model where the executive is designated just by the Parliament, to a model of appointment only by governments. The final solution was really close to the Lisbon Treaty’s system (designation of the President of the Commission by the Council, entitlement in choosing his Ministers and vote of the Parliament on the whole executive) with the only exception of 2014 European elections when parties choose their candidate for the presidency.
The final debate on the Treaty’s approbation went on smoothly, except for its coming into force when the principle of “Europe of will” prevailed on the unanimity method and on the choice of considering that document not a working paper that should be accepted by an inter- parliamentary assembly (as The European Movement wished) but a democratic compromise that should be ratified directly by Member States.
Spinelli wrote to federalists: “It is manifest that agreeing with the European Movement would mean building the European Parliament on the sand and sentence it to failure”.
While the consensus of public opinion towards the unification of the continent is vanishing and movements that draw Spinelli’s dream into a nightmare to escape from are growing, it is worth remembering the innovations of the project of European Parliament.
It was defeated only on the surface by the intergovernmental method because many of those innovations have found, one after the other, their place during the revision of the Treaties. Let us recall them briefly: political union as fundamental requirement for shared sovereignty in areas monetary and foreign policies, European citizenship and fundamental rights, subsidiarity e shared competences among Union and Member States, the legislative role of European Parliament, the growing role of the Union in the society’s policy (as so called by Willy Brandt), simpler acts, the reinforcement of Commission role and the institutionalization of European Council, the own-financed budget, an European monetary fund and a central control authority for banking system, a real foreign and security policy, aimed to defense and to contribute at global disarmament. We have to remind us what of the European Parliament project is still undone. Let us think about some vital competences that guarantee the importance of Union in the development of politics and society, such as culture, education and instruction, but also other competence left behind by the Lisbon Treaty in which the Union has only a role of support and should instead be shared by Union and Member States (we are talking mainly about the social dimension) Let us think about the potential real executive role of the Commission. Let us pretend that the types of acts were only three: (….), which could even modify the Treaty on Functioning of European Union and the budget law, with a stronger application of the subsidiarity and proportional principles and the extension of initiative right even to a Chamber of States and to the European Parliament in the case of a Commission’s refusal. Let us think about a Chamber of States without the actual nine councils as proposed by Giuliano Amato in the European Convention. Let us think about the abolition of the power of veto in sectors that are crucial for Union’s development, such us foreign policy, fiscal policy, penal justice, own resources, reinforcing, in the meantime, the Parliament’s democratic powers. Let us think about an equalization system based on the German model and loans’ instruments aimed at guarantee European solidarity. Finally, let us think about the co-decision with enhanced majority among the Chamber of States and the European Parliament. Some could say, as Spinelli was told in 1980, “you are just chasing after butterflies” but the influence of this 1984 European Parliament project show us that Spinelli was right.
(taken from the speech of Pier Virgilio Dastoli at Ventotene Seminar, titled “Federalism in Europe and in the World”, August 2015, in Italian.)