A new Messina Conference for a political Europe - Pier Virgilio Dastoli, Sergio Fabbrini, Fiorella Kostoris, Stefano Micossi and Valeria Termini

The following is a translation of an article that appeared in Il Sole 24 Ore on May 4, 2022

Macron's victory in France is good news for the advancement of Europe's institutions and political sovereignty. All the more so if the pro-European majority is confirmed in France’s legislative elections next June. Consequently, an important window will open to promote a political Union with an autonomous capacity for action. It is an opportunity that Prime Minister Draghi, speaking yesterday in Strasbourg at the plenary of the European Parliament, showed he wanted to seize when he argued that, "the institutions our predecessors built over the past decades have served European citizens well, but they are inadequate for the reality that manifests itself today.”

Why a political union?

First, because the common challenges of the return of power politics to the European level (highlighted by Russia’s aggression in Ukraine) and of selective re-globalization more generally require political cohesion. Second, because individual countries are unable to manage the social costs of the energy and raw materials crisis, a crisis that is further raising the level of poverty and hardship in our societies, one from which the sovereigntist leaders are drawing their electoral consent. Third, because Russia’s aggression has shown the weakness of national solutions to energy problems. Without a European energy policy, it will not be possible to free ourselves from dependence on the Putin regime. Four, because without the Union's financial autonomy common challenges cannot be tackled. As was the case during the pandemic crisis, a common budget is needed to acquire resources that individual countries would not be able to mobilize on their own. This budget must not be temporary, but must support the production of the necessary European public goods on a permanent basis.

What are the obstacles?

The current European Union (EU) of twenty-seven countries, destined to grow with new enlargements, is unable to face the challenges in front of us. The project of a political Europe, based on new institutions suitable for the purpose, would not even take a step forward with the current configuration of member states and decision-making rules. Many of the countries that entered the Union with the latest enlargements have shown that they are pursuing a different purpose from that celebrated by the Preamble to the Treaties of Rome of 1957 (and confirmed in subsequent Treaties). Instead of using integration to create "an ever closer union of the peoples of Europe," those countries have used it to strengthen their national state, in some cases even to create it. After all, the Copenhagen criteria require the existence of a functioning state in order to participate in the single market. However, this positive state-building process has sometimes been accompanied by the revival of nationalism, a nationalism favored by the operating logic of intergovernmental bodies (the European Council, first of all) that has become predominant in the EU during the multiple crises of the last decade. It is a nationalism that has claimed political values ​​and legal traditions that are hardly compatible with the principles of liberal democracy that are the basis of European  integration. The project of an ever closer union is also not shared by most of the countries of northern Europe, which are mainly interested in the benefits of the internal market. It is necessary to find innovative answers to the legitimate requests of the new countries that want to join the EU, as well as to the equally legitimate needs of those countries that want to remain in a common market but not proceed towards an ever closer union.

How to get out of the stalemate

The project of a political Europe can only come into being by the will of the six founding countries, in particular the big three. It is up to them to take the initiative by agreeing on some significant steps that will mark a leap of ambition in the construction of a political union - in particular in the three fields of foreign and defense policy, energy policy and budgetary policy. A political initiative of this kind would surely have the support of Spain and Portugal, while Greece would certainly ask to participate and the Baltic countries could also be attracted to it. Participation in this initiative should remain open, but on condition that the participating countries accept the purpose of the project and not only one or the other of the policies in which it is substantiated. It is necessary to start from a Preliminary Declaration of Intent - following the example of the Schuman Declaration of 1950 – which defines the constitutive values, institutions and competences of the political Union, together with the fundamental principle that every decision will no longer be bound by unanimity. Prime Minister Draghi could use the few months before the elections next spring to put his pro-European reputation in support of this initiative by proposing a new "Messina Conference" (1955) to launch this political Europe.

Strategic autonomy

The Conference should define the priorities of the project (the aim of the Political Compact), without getting lost in the myriad of details and problems. In matters of security, the relationship with the United States and NATO – a relationship that must be of loyal complementarity, and not of opportunistic acquiescence – needs to be clarified, and consequently the relations to be developed with other global players, from China to India, to Africa, to the Mediterranean countries. Security policy will have to reflect a European vision, and not be the lowest common denominator of individual national interests (as has been the case up to now). In the field of energy, the commitments already taken but still unfulfilled for the creation of a European gas and electricity market must be carried out, starting with the completion of the interconnections between the national markets of the countries involved and a common system of supply and storage. Relations with oil exporting countries will have to become part of the common foreign policy. In terms of budgetary policies, Macron's idea of ​​a common fund to manage the economic and social impact of the energy crisis must urgently be relaunched, because the problem risks destabilizing our societies, which are already severely tested by the Covid pandemic crisis. That common fund must become the core of the future fiscal capacity without which a political Europe could not respond to the historical challenges it faces. If Italy wants to be the protagonist of this initiative, it is crucial that the Italian government come to the discussion with a stabilization program for Italy’s public debt, with monitoring and enforcement systems that overcome the credibility defects of the current Stability and Growth Pact.

The path that should be taken

The initiative for a political Europe is not aimed at excluding, but at differentiating. It cannot remain a prisoner of the veto policy fostered by the current treaties. The formulas for promoting it can be different. For example, it could be based on a political agreement, a sort of treaty between the promoter countries that provides for an institutional framework capable of deciding by majority, with a crucial role for the European Parliament. Relations with other EU countries not interested in the initiative could continue to be based on the current treaties, just as one could think of associating the candidate countries for accession in a wider area of ​​economic and security cooperation. Italy can play a decisive role in relaunching the project of a political Europe. After all, it is the country where Europe was ideally born. As Prime Minister Draghi said yesterday in Strasbourg, “The geopolitical situation is undergoing rapid and profound transformation. We must move, move with utmost speed.”

This article came out of the debate held within the EuropEos association.