Ventotene Manifesto, Europe, and Federalist Liberalism Today

EU flags in EU Council building during the EU Summit in Brussels, Belgium on June 28, 2018. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis.

The Ventotene Manifesto beautifully weaves together the aspirations for a united Europe with the principles of (federalist) liberalism. Its legacy should encourage European citizens to ponder the significance of European values and to defend them. How? By promoting a system both market-based and social; that rejects collectivism and embraces individualism; that prompts personal responsibility and denounces populism; that promotes transparent, efficient, and democratic governance; that acknowledges liberal democracy’s flaws but knows that the authoritarian pathway – fostered by populist forces – is ruinous. This is federalist liberalism.

By Amedeo Gasparini

The European Union (EU) has historically been seen as a beacon of peace, cooperation, and shared values. However, in recent years, there has been a noticeable rise in populist movements – from the right to the left – across several EU countries. The use of nationalist discourse, the unabashed use of demagogy and populism as a method of political offer, and the recourse to the “protection” of the state, are elements which demonstrate today’s crisis in the EU. These elements typically belong to the populist discourse and weaken the EU as a whole. In particular, the surge in right and far-right movements has led to increased polarization in the member states (Roberts, 2022), with political discourse becoming more confrontational. Alongside the rise of far-right ideologies, euroscepticism has also gained momentum. Eurosceptics often criticize the EU’s institutions for being bureaucratic, undemocratic, and infringing upon national sovereignty.

A general sense of dissatisfaction concerning the economic conditions in some EU countries, immigration, the post-Covid-19 pandemic, and the Russian war in Ukraine are among the conditions that enable right- and left-wing populism and anti-Europeanism to gain popularity. Growing eurosceptic sentiment fuels debates about the EU’s future, with traditional debates on supranationalism – that is, supranational actors promote integration through the spillover effect – and intergovernmentalism – that is, member states, following national interests, dictate control (Schmidt, 2016). Modern Europe has a decade-long legacy of fighting against totalitarian regimes and defending democratic values; and this should remind the EU about its determination to overcome internal divisions and continue to promote peace, prosperity, and solidarity.

The 80th anniversary of the Ventotene Manifesto, penned by Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi (2006 [1944]) is being celebrated this year and continues to stand as an inspirational cornerstone text of the EU and its values. However, it is also a useful guide for dealing with the multiple crises plaguing the EU. Conceived in 1941 while the two authors were confined on the island of Ventotene, the document was initially distributed covertly. Eugenio Colorni later published it, adding a preface. Secretly printed in Rome in January 1944, it was later complemented with two essays by Spinelli, “The United States of Europe and the Various Political Tendencies” (1942) and “Marxist Politics and Federalist Politics” (1942-1943). While Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi’s Pan-Europe (1997 [1923]) advocated for a European union steered by technocrats (thus more functionalist), the Manifesto proposed a European Federation with a parliament and a government wielding substantial powers in areas like economics and foreign policy.

While this article reviews Spinelli’s and Rossi’s work, it starts from the Manifesto and its legacy to outline some priorities for the EU to return to the federal spirit and the renewal of liberal ideas in a federalist key considering the EU’s current political context. The Manifesto proposed the creation of a “United States of Europe” as a solution to avoid future conflicts on the continent and to promote peace and prosperity through greater political and economic integration between European nations (D’Auria, 2011). The document, which has had a major impact on the federalist movement (Vayssière, 2005), is still a roadmap towards an unfinished project in today’s EU, threatened in its cohesion and unity by internal – populists – and external actors – autocrats. The Manifesto’s principles and ideals might serve as a guide to strengthen the European integration process and face the current challenges with determination and common vision.

In his preface, anti-fascist Italian philosopher Eugenio Colorni cautioned against merely rearranging populations after the Second World War, advocating instead for a genuine European Federation, more advanced than the ineffective League of Nations. Mindful of the 1930s they experienced, Spinelli and Rossi argued that an integralist principle of non-intervention among European nations was absurd; and no country should freely opt for an authoritarian regime – as this would have, as it had, dramatic consequences for its neighbors. Thus, they emphasized the need to establish a new transnational political entity, a European Federation. Colorni called for the establishment of a unified federal army, a single currency, the elimination of customs barriers and migration restrictions between states, representation of citizens in federal institutions, and a cohesive foreign policy.

There is little point in listing the Manifesto’s achieved and unachieved policies, as the world today is significantly different from the mid-1940s’. It is rather useful instead to focus on the major insights set out by the authors and to understand how these can be adapted today and how they can benefit the European governance. At the Manifesto’s core lies the principle of freedom and the four liberties – free movement of goods, people, capitals, and services. For Spinelli and Rossi, a free and united Europe represented the path to rekindling the development of modern civilization oriented on liberal democracy. They envisioned a federal union enhanced by the close cooperation among member states, democratic representation for European citizens, and an unwavering respect for the continent’s cultural diversity.

The authors started by proposing to overcome territorial selfishness, both at the national and European levels, and to eliminate obstacles to the free movement of people and goods. They aspired to a reduction of state interference in citizens’ lives, openly criticizing authoritarian approaches (2006 [1944]). A significant section of the Manifesto addresses economic issues. The authors argued that given the global economic interconnectedness, the entire world has become the living space for people eager to maintain a modern way of life. In an age of economic interdependence, the authors argued, trade wars are counterproductive and unnecessary. Rossi and Spinelli highlighted how the total nationalization of the economy was seen as a liberating utopia by the working classes; however, once realized, it did not lead to the desired goal, but rather to a system in which the population is subservient to the bureaucratic managerial class.

A Europe that is truly free and ready to face future challenges is also one that values the free market and assigns the state an appropriate role, one that does not see it as a protagonist in the lives of citizens. On these notes, without mentioning it, the Manifesto was to designate federalist liberalism as the way forward for a future European construction – not by chance, both federalism and liberalism champion individual freedom, advocate for the autonomy of local communities, checks and balances. Federalist liberalism aims to strike a harmonious balance between the sovereignty of member states, and prioritizes safeguarding individual rights, while fostering economic growth and welfare. Within this framework, European federalism emerges as an indispensable system for securing peace, stability, and progress across the continent, harmonizing the individual nations’ autonomy with collaborative efforts at the European level.

The federalist vision of a united, free, and democratic Europe shines as a beacon of hope, and serves as both compass and inspiration. The Manifesto’s relevance endures today for several reasons, each aligning with five EU’s key priorities: an effective European Federation, the emphasis on peace and democracy, the spirit of solidarity, the quest for a shared European identity, and the promotion of democratic governance.

The vision of a European Federation has seen significant realization with the gradual formation of today’s EU. Given today’s global challenges, there’s an amplified need for increased integration and cooperation among EU member states. But most of all, there is still much to be done in terms of the EU’s efficiency and integration (Schimmelfennig et al.,2023) – for example fiscal union, cooperation in the energy sector, policies for high-tech companies. Today’s EU needs Spinelli’s and Rossi’ enthusiasm to reinvigorate, enhancing cohesion and cross-collaboration among its member states. It is in times of change that the concept of a European Federation might renew its significance. While deepening integration in key areas like defense, health, and foreign policy will pave the way for more effective EU as local and global actor. Just as in the early days of the European Community, when nations pooled coal and steel within the supranational organization European Coal and Steel Community (Glockner-Rittberger, 2012).

Secondly, the Manifesto underscored the pivotal role of peace and democracy in averting conflicts and ensuring the citizens’ welfare. Peace in Europe is not a given; and it is indispensable for forging a united and prosperous Europe. However, geopolitical tensions, regional crises, and autocratic and terrorist threats still test the continent’s security. Thus, upholding democratic values and fostering unity among European nations remain crucial for peace and stability. There cannot be peace without rule of law. European-style democracy is not merely a political system; it embodies a set of values, principles, and rights safeguarding well-being and freedom. But again: without the rule of law, democracy is also vacuous. It is from freedom that peace and democracy are achieved, not the other way around. See, for example, the accession of some former Warsaw Pact countries to the European Community in 2004: only under conditions of freedom they were able to develop a modern economy and liberal democracy, thus true peace, and welfare.

Solidarity is emphasized in the Manifesto as a vital principle binding the peoples of Europe together and it continues to resonate in today’s European political discourse. Solidarity – an ethical guideline and element of integration – is a hidden principle of federalist liberalism: the better-off helps the weaker – not only out of a spirit of charity, but because it may be in its interest to deal with partners in the best conditions to cooperate. Effective solidarity transcends national divisions. A unified response from EU member states, solidarity is also sharing responsibility in the current challenges. It encompasses respecting human rights, but it is also pivotal in the economic sphere as well, fostering also growth, dignity, and prosperity.

The Ventotene Manifesto advocated for a European identity rooted in shared values, cultures, and a common historical legacy. Federalist liberalism would preach that fostering European identity might be an answer to rising nationalism. The concept of European identity is not necessarily at odds with the idea of nationhood and national identity. It offers a pathway to a united yet open and uncertain future, complementing – and not substituting – national identities. It offers a shared platform where diverse European cultures and traditions coexist, fostering mutual enrichment and collaboration. While the European identity has been and still is object of debate (Wallace-Strømsnes, 2008), the European identity is an identity among other global identities. It is on this common ground that European states came together and federated; and today it needs further integration via a new European governance model (Kaplan, 2018).

A fifth element is a governance system grounded in democratic principles and transparency. Amid ongoing critiques of EU bureaucracy, the Manifesto – again – offers valuable perspectives on this. The transparency of European institutions cannot only be a matter of fact but must also be perceived by the population (Brandsma, 2019, Font-Pérez-Durán, 2022). Such a governance framework would prioritize European citizens’ democratic representation and their interests, ensuring that European-level decisions resonate with people’s interests and values. Transparency empowers citizens with access to information and involve them in decision-making processes, expanding their rights, bolstering the legitimacy and efficacy of European institutions to get the new European governance more efficient and accountable.

Today the Manifesto underscores the significance of a free and open society, a fundamental framework cherishing individual freedom, market economy, and the rule of law. The Ventotene Manifesto beautifully weaves together the aspirations for a united Europe with the principles of (federalist) liberalism. Its legacy should encourage European citizens to ponder the significance of European values and to defend them. How? By promoting a system both market-based and social; that rejects collectivism and embraces individualism; that prompts personal responsibility and denounces populism; that promotes transparent, efficient, and democratic governance; that acknowledges liberal democracy’s flaws but knows that the authoritarian pathway – fostered by populist forces – is ruinous. This is federalist liberalism. Spinelli and Rossi could not have imagined today’s EU, which has made huge strides from post-World War Two Europe, but they wanted a transnational and social, open, and transparent European federalist movement.

The Manifesto stands as a symbol of the quest for a European identity anchored in cooperation, unity, and solidarity. Federalist liberalism not only represents a perfect synthesis between supranationalism and intergovernmentalism, but it might reinvigorate the current EU. Spinelli and Rossi envisioned a federation as the output of a new governance. However, the realization of this project has been gradual, and the journey remains unfinished. The Ventotene Manifesto is not only a historical reference point, but also a source of inspiration and a call to action for who believe in the European project. It is a reminder of the need to overcome national divisions and to work together to enhance a united, free, and prosperous Europe. It offers both a history lesson and a roadmap for the future. Its federalist viewpoint, rooted in liberal and democratic principles, is still valid today for us to recognize the compatibility of cooperation and freedom.


 

References

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