The fast pace of a possible Europe and Angela Merkel’s ambiguity

Angela Merkel’s statement on the need for a multi-speed European integration, during the informal European Council in Valletta, gave a push to a fruitful debate on what this really means for the EU, a few weeks away from the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Treaties of Rome.

The first thing to do is to understand the actual words. Mrs. Merkel said: "We have learned from the history of recent years that in the future there might be a “different-speed Europe”, and that not everyone will take part in the various steps of European integration. Some days after the meeting in Valletta, Merkel clarified slightly what she meant when she met with Mario Draghi (President of the ECB) and declared that there were not to be different "speeds" within the Eurozone.

Considering that, after the referendum on Brexit, the first priority of the German government and of much of the pro-EU opposition was to keep everyone together, and to prevent further defections, this may seem a remarkable change of line. But is it really so? And is this line really so positive as many seem to think?

In the Italian debate, we speak mostly of "two-speed" and not of "different" speeds, as we read in the German, English or French press. The difference is huge, and Merkel’s words favor, as often happens, various readings: there is even a new word in German, "merkeln", which is synonymous with the inability to make tough, clear decisions. And, in fact, we must be precise.

Firstly, a “different-speed” Europe may herald a further weakening of the EU: it can mean “Europe à la carte”, in which everyone can pick and choose what to collaborate on. This would mean voluntary cooperation between governments, the sidelining of the idea of a supranational democracy, and further delegitimisation of common institutions: Member States are already very much against Europe’s “yoke” on issues which are of European competence, often complaining about the same directives they had themselves signed.

Beside Schengen and the euro, the Treaty of Lisbon contemplates instances of "enhanced cooperation", but the procedure is complex and has rarely been used. Moreover, within the current logic of re-nationalising issues which are of EU competence, there is no doubt that this would risk going in the direction of an ad hoc cooperation, even outside of the common structures of the Treaty and, therefore, outside the control of the Court of Justice and of the European Parliament, in particular on issues such as defense or immigration. Let us not forget that even the Fiscal Compact was a treaty negotiated and approved outside of the community structures, and therefore far from the role and control of the Parliament.

Another interpretation of multi-level integration that we must oppose is that of Schäuble’s "Kern-Europe", which is a negative evolution of a more innovative text written with Lemmers in 1994. In the mind of the powerful and nefarious (for Europe) German Finance Minister, who is (in his own way) a real federalist, rests the idea of a EU founded on the dogma of budgetary discipline, the same dogma that today makes him prefer denying public investment (also needed in Germany) in order for public debt to be zero.

Schäuble does not rule out a fiscal union or solidarity mechanisms, nor a real banking union and a greater integration, but this can only happen if everyone is “morally” and financially healthy. The starting point is, of course, the Eurozone, but if not everyone can make it, then expulsions are acceptable; also, perhaps, the creation of two different euro categories, and then going off on one’s own merry austere way with only the most virtuous countries.

Although in theory they seem attractive options, I am convinced that, faced with reality, neither of these two versions of a Europe at different speeds would serve the purpose of re-launching the EU.

As for the first, Europe à la carte, the reason is that jumping from one policy (defense with French, German, Spanish; environment with the Nordics; taxation with whoever is in) is not that simple, and the history of these 60 years has clearly demonstrated that either there are common standards and rules, with common institutions and with a court that checks their legality, or we are stuck. Underlying the crisis of legitimacy of the EU is not so much the European Commission’s intrusiveness, or Brussels’ excessive grey powers: it is rather the lack of positive results in the economic and social spheres, scarcity and misuse of common tools, procedures that facilitate a mutual blocking between states rather than encouraging a common action, a devastating ideology supporting austerity against any public spending - no matter which one - and pushing towards deregulation, particularly in financial, social and environmental areas, which only made internal governance failures in some weaker countries much worse.

If we do not overcome these four obstacles at the same time, focusing on a radical change in the economic and fiscal policies of the EU and on institutional reforms aimed at eliminating the unanimity requirement and at rebalancing the powers of European Parliament and Commission against national governments, then there will be no way to come out of the current stalemate. In short, the illusion of an ad hoc cooperation on this or that issue will not hold the Union together; indeed, how would we manage the common heritage of rules, splintering it between those who want to keep it and those who do not? Going towards a Europe à la carte means accelerating the disintegration of the EU and returning to the logic of the League of Nations.

On the other hand, a Kern-Europe based on austerity certainly cannot be the basis of a EU relaunch, and there are signs of its failure even in its own homeland, Germany. This unsustainable approach is at the basis of the current, possible re-explosion of the Greek debt dispute, because of the persistent unwillingness to open the issue of the restructuring of the Greek debt, and the much delayed realization of the banking union, blocked by the denial of the German government to accept common banking deposit guarantees.

It is interesting to see how the ideological discourse on budgetary rigor evolves in two ways: on the one hand, there is a talk of “austerity for others but for not us” and an increasing discontent with the Commission’s role as the keeper of common rules. The Dutch Prime Minister, for instance, wants to fight back the far right that is undermining him for the next March elections by rejecting all forms of European solidarity, yet, at the same time, he increases public spending for the Dutch people.

On the other hand, as professed by Mélenchon’s nationalist left, the failures of austerity policy are exploited to justify the idea of leaving the euro by accusing the currency of being "inherently" liberal (without even taking into consideration that by throwing away the euro we will throw away the EU, as Le Pen and Salvini know very well). Moreover, the insistence on the cuts and the looming presence of die-hard austerity supporters complicates any discussion on reforms, even when they should be carried out. The recent Italian controversy over the 0.2% correction of the budget is part of an anti-EU campaign which is very popular, but which is not entirely justified: I, myself, abhor the Stability Pact, but it is a fact that the Renzi-Padoan government wasted billions in tips and various gifts in order to win the referendum on the constitutional reform last December, and it is normal that, given the nil effect on growth and debt, the Commission is now asking for the bill.

The fact is that, almost ten years since the crisis, the EU has not been allowed to play the role that Padoa-Schioppa wished for when he said, "Austerity to Member States, growth to Europe". If Member States have the obligation to consolidate public finances, the EU must follow with expansive productive common policies, must push for future economic activities, from a green economy to health and education, and must ensure the protection of the most vulnerable parts of the population. It is insane to make such efforts even more difficult through an indiscriminate cut of the EU budget and by applying the Maastricht criteria in a “stupid” way, using one of Prodi’s expressions from his time as President of the Commission.

That is why I prefer to speak of a “two-speed” Europe. Merkel seemed to be of the same idea back in 2012, when she said: "And, most of all, we need a political union - which means we need to gradually cede powers to Europe and give Europe control." The definition of the "speed" of integration should not be established on the basis of the whims of governments or on the basis of themes. Instead, they should be the result of a federative pact, carrying the same value as the one signed in Rome in 1957, but more decisively aiming at sharing a common sovereignty and common democratic structures.

The leading group must be defined not on the basis of mathematical calculations, but on the will to pursue a political union: this group should have the ambition to revive a Union with no longer the power to veto just everything; a Union that requires mandatory solidarity, like the USA. A Union in which those who violate freedoms and the rule of law, or any of the noble objectives set out in Article 3, are warmly invited to change direction through precise and enforceable rules, or even through mandatory sanctions (such as those that are imposed, for the wrong reasons, on Greek pensioners).

An EU with a serious budget, funded through common taxes, such as a tax on financial transactions or a carbon tax, therefore no longer depending on national contributions, agreed upon after laborious negotiations, which aim at giving as little as possible and at announcing to the public how much a government managed to “win back” from Brussels, is needed

An EU that has a parliament elected in part on the basis of trans-European lists, in order not to depend, as is often the case today, on the mood of the national parties and governments. A Parliament for which Le Pen and Salvini can also run, of course, all united towards the abyss where we hope to get them soon to fall.

Let's be clear: the political union is not a panacea for all ills. But it is the adequate space to exercise real sovereignty, a space capable of responding to the threats of Putin or Trump or terrorism, to organize the integration and support of those who have the right to request it, to fight climate change, and to foster a new economic model. But if the progressive, environmentalist, libertarian forces do not begin to step up the efforts to convince that half of the electorate which usually stays at home instead of voting in the European elections, we will again be in the hands of Juncker and Tusk, Merkel and Rajoy. Because, whatever people may say, even in Europe, the easy little rule of political majorities does win. Even if it were faster, more united, governed by institutions which are the expression of the people, this Union could go on implementing inadequate policies.

We have to reset the EU. Contrarily to left sovereignists, I do not consider myself already defeated. I consider that it is much more feasible and possible to conquer the Union politically, rather than undoing it through a revolutionary, re-founding catharsis, which would favor only xenophobic and nationalist forces, and which would reinforce the illusion that it is possible for small states, irrelevant in terms of size and economy, to regain their own lost sovereignty.

In the words of Altiero Spinelli, “The illness that leads to totalitarianism is never one of the incurable ones, against which the body is powerless. It is an illness that kills only that body which truly wants to die, and which therefore no longer defends itself.”

Angela Merkel, German Federal Chancellor, at the informal European Council in Valletta. Photo via the European Council.

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