Brexit’s trauma and Europe trapped between opposing conservatisms

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by Mauro Casarotto |

With the overwhelming victory, in the United Kingdom, of the Conservatives of Boris Johnson who made Brexit their programmatic flag, the realization of the greatest trauma in the history of the European Union is approaching. The first time a country decides to leave the Union, and what a country, given the demographic, economic, strategic, historical and cultural weight of the United Kingdom!
There was before, it is true, the precedent of Greenland which, by referendum, decided to leave Europe. However, it was a nation of a few tens of thousands of inhabitants and, although strategically relevant in the Cold War era, Greenland was (and still is) as a territory, part of the Kingdom of Denmark. Moreover, this occurred in 1982 when Europe was still the ‘European Economic Community’, before the launch of the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties. Other circumstances, other relevance and, above all, another era.

Returning to 2019, one wonders how we ended up in the midst of a crisis like that of Brexit which is the crisis not only of the United Kingdom but of an entire continent and an entire political project.

In his ‘Prison Notebooks’, the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci noted a phrase that has become famous: ‘The crisis consists in the fact that the old dies and the new cannot be born: in this interregnum the most varied morbid phenomena occur’. Difficult to find more fitting words to describe the current European situation … and perhaps not only European!

A morbid phenomenon that is consolidating across the continent is the emergence of two opposing forms of conservatism that are undermining the future of the new European generations. The first form of conservatism is that of the so-called ‘sovereignists‘. They would like to go back to a previous political, social and economic arrangement, deluding themselves that they could intercept an idyllic and heroic epoch of the European national states which (if it ever actually existed!) is anti-historical today, certainly not reproducible in current circumstances. In fact, the gap between past and present, generated by changes in strategic, economic, technological and demographic structures in the last two centuries, and in any case since the end of the last world war, is enormous.

Thinking about Brexit, in some ways some aspects of British nostalgia are humanly understandable as residues of a not so distant – and therefore not yet fully elaborated – past, especially in the case of the older generations. Just a century ago, in fact, the British Empire dominated 40% of the world territories and a quarter of the world population. Nostalgia for the imperial past does not only affect the United Kingdom. Other European countries, perhaps in different forms, are still affected by it.
In the United Kingdom and beyond, the sovereignty is a conservatism with nostalgic roots.
To understand how out-dated the dominance of Europeans in the world today is, it is sufficient to remember this banal fact: in 1965, Europeans were 14% of the world population, today only 7%. Europeans! Imagine the English only, the French only or the Italian only! What will the 60 or a little more millions of Italians, French or English count within a few decades when we will be ten billion and we don’t even know in what environmental conditions?

The most aggressive sovereignists hope for the dissolution of the European Union, or at least the exit of their country from the Union. The more moderate ones would be satisfied with the marginalization or weakening of the political role of the EU and the release of their country from the main forms of cooperation and agreements between the states aimed at a more deep social, economic and financial integration, primarily the Maastricht parameters and the Euro. We return to being more divided and less interdependent, as we once were. Every state on its own. This is the political agenda of the sovereignism.

The second form of conservatism is that of the so-called ‘Europeists‘. Unlike the sovereignists, the Europeists are persuaded that every state on its own is both an outdated and suicidal political agenda, given the increasingly less influential dimensions and weight of European states. The Europeists, for the most part, perceive the European Union as an unfinished structure and therefore ask for its reform, and they do it in different and uncoordinated forms. Different and uncoordinated given that there is no single Europeist movement, party or organization that is capable of sintering the various positions forming a common front.

Europeism is therefore, in this similar to sovereignism, a transversal feeling that belongs to different parts of society, different parties and movements.
Europeist parties and movements would like to maintain the status quo of the European Union in a substantially uncritical way. given that the requests for ‘reforms’ from the Europeist front never affect the real origin and cause of the serious structural problems that the European Union has amply demonstrated to have in itself. The proposed reforms, admitted and not granted their feasibility, given that 28 states must now agree according to the rules of the intergovernmental system, effectively prevent the Union from progressing, and perhaps even from surviving the new millennium.
This second conservatism, the Europeist one, has its roots in fear. Fear of losing that bland European unity hitherto acquired. So, in order not to lose the European Union, Europeists are willing to accept all the main system errors that have been included in its construction and reported in the Lisbon Treaty which defines its current form and functioning. But let’s go in order.

What do European citizens think? Eurobarometer data tell us that consensus within the EU is generally growing if it is true that, by calculating the average of all 28 countries, 68% of respondents – even 59% of UK citizens! – declare that their country has benefited from membership of the Union. An emblematic case is that of Italy, a founding country and historically at the forefront of the creation process of the European Union (the Italians Altiero Spinelli and Alcide De Gasperi are officially considered founding fathers of the EU). In 2009, the Eurobarometer painted a situation in which 69% of Italians said they were convinced that belonging to the EU was an advantage for their country, compared to only 42% of this year’s survey. A net bleeding of 27 percentage points of consent in 10 years! Italy as a founder and propeller of European unity has become a rearguard in terms of consensus and is becoming a forge, together with the United Kingdom, the Le Pen party in France and the blocks referred to as the Visegrad group, of the strongest pockets of discontent and resentment towards the Union.

Coming back to the United Kingdom, it is good to remember how, in the referendum for accession to the European Community in 1975, the subjects of Her Majesty voted for 67% in favor of the Union, with the lowest favorable percentages in Scotland and North Ireland. In the Brexit referendum, the ‘Remain’ front collected 48% with the highest percentages in Scotland and Northern Ireland, in addition to some particular areas such as central London and the university cities of Oxford and Cambridge. A radically changed, in some aspects reversed. situation.

What happened in these years? The consolidation of a sovereignist political front with parties and movements very active in propaganda and antagonism to the EU quickly accentuated the polarization around the European question which has become every day more central in the public debate and every day less obvious than in the past, when mass Europeism was almost taken for granted.
The sovereignist politician has understood that he or she can acquire consensus within an important portion of electorate by exacerbating this antagonism and leveraging people’s dissatisfaction. The most striking example is precisely Brexit with the gradual shift of the British Conservative Party from the Remain field (the former Prime Minister Theresa May was originally notoriously in favor of staying in the EU) to the Leave field. Then Johnson managed to replace May at the helm of the party and the government and imposed an even more aggressive polarization around the entire debate on the EU.

It is too easy for sovereignists to list the European Union’s inadequacies and failures. And it is an illusion of many Europeists to believe that the sovereignist propaganda is nourished only with fake news. Some failures are indisputable, such as the inability to manage in a coordinated manner the migrant crisis and the absence of a European foreign policy that can affect global arrangements and crises, the famous question of Europe as a ‘political dwarf’.

Climate change, pollution, overpopulation, social and economic inequalities, consequent migration crises, regional conflicts, including those very close to the Middle East and North Africa … raise your hand if you seriously think that the European Union, as it is today, dominated by national interests and by blackmail and cross vetoes between individual states and between individual political parties and leaders, may be the protagonist of the solution to these overwhelming and urgent questions!

Now, and I am also writing to many European friends, it is not that the European Union is in crisis, stuck at the stake for decades in its inability to adapt and face the current global challenges, simply because it is going through a consensus crisis in important countries such as Italy and the United Kingdom, but rather the crisis of consensus is the alarm bell, the symptom that something is not working, that a rapid detachment is underway with large sections of public opinion. If public opinion has gone from indifference to hostility, this has not happened in one night, but has been the result of a process generated by the true system error that feeds and will continue to increasingly fuel the loss of confidence and consensus, if not open hostility, towards European unity. This system error is the intergovernmental system. Of course, fake news play a heavy role in the the overall situation, but for Europeists, blaming for this crisis of the idea of European unity only the propaganda of sovereignists, risks being a very bad self-consoling and self-absolutory analytical exercise, when compared with the real contradictions of the Union.

During the golden age of the idea of the European Union more and more states had been attracted to the Union (6 countries founded the Union in 1957, becoming 9 in 1973, 12 in 1986, 15 in 1995, up to the current 28) with evident acceleration from the dissolution of the USSR which led many Eastern European countries to turn west. Thus the illusion was created that the process of unity of the countries of the continent was only a matter of time (sooner or later everyone will enter!) and not a matter of system (how should a continental union be designed to be stable, efficient and democratic?). Today it must be clear to everyone that the European Union system is no longer functional and will generate more and more contradictions and crises between the contracting states, up to a far from improbable dissolution.

Europeists generally react to this situation by requiring more ‘European sovereignty‘ but, when it comes to applying this concept, they make the tragic mistake of referring to European sovereignty as applying more integration in the area of individual policies: i.e. more integration in defense policy, more integration in agricultural policy, in foreign policy, and so on. In practice, the Europeists do not ask for the evolution with respect to the current intergovernmental matrix of the EU, but think (hope?) that this intergovernmental matrix, with the introduction of more and more areas of collaboration around individual specific policies, will one day transform itself into something different. Maybe an intergovernmental European republic generated by some Lisbon Treaty reforms? Or even a federal state?
Unfortunately, the intergovernmental system has nothing to do with the standards of authentic federal states such as Switzerland or the United States of America, in which a constitution approved by citizens or in any case by their representatives guarantees the sovereignty of individual member states, placing firm limits on the powers of the federal government.

The intergovernmental system is a typical result of treaties between states. These treaties are always negotiated by national heads of government and states can, at any time, withdraw from them, exactly as the United Kingdom is doing today. This is because the logic of intergovernmental treaties is radically different from a constitution that must always apply ‘erga omnes’ (validity for all) and which is the only way of producing the transition between an intergovernmental and a federal system, as happened in the United States of America in 1789 and in Switzerland in 1848 .

In 2003, a clumsy attempt was made to endow the EU with a constitution, through an intergovernmental convention. This attempt was already born, as its own name ‘Treaty establishing a constitution for Europe’ demonstrates, under the sign of the oxymoron. In fact, a treaty can never be a constitution (and vice versa) since you cannot withdraw, as it can be done with a treaty, from a Constitution, except by passing a new constitution or with the agreement of all the parties or in a violent way through conflict, as happened in the United States of America during the attempt of Secession of the southern states in 1861-65.
As my friend Leo Klinkers, co-author of the European Federalist Papers, likes to repeat, a woman is either pregnant or not pregnant. A state of semi-pregnancy does not occur naturally. Likewise a document is either a Constitution or it is not. And if it is not, maybe it is just another intergovernmental treaty that does not solve the system errors affecting the EU.

In the intergovernmental system of the EU, assembled within the Council, the heads of government of the individual states act as final decision makers. Decisions are made on the basis of the relationships of force existing between individual national governments, often under the threat of blackmail and cross vetoes, in the name of the sovereignty of each state. Sovereignty of the states, not of the citizens!
Indeed, the European Parliament represents citizens of individual states but does not have the power of legislative initiative which belongs only to the Commission. The Commission in turn is made up of individuals appointed, once again, by national governments, not on the basis of the experience and competence of the individual commissioners (which should be the equivalent of the ministers) but according to the logic of the division of the powers between all 28 countries; where obviously the most important roles are the prerogative of the strongest states.
In short, the European Parliament cannot decide except with the consent of the Commission and the Council, and therefore of the national governments.

The Europeist friends should compare the difference of powers between the European Parliament and the Congress of the United States of America, and they will easily be able to realize how far the European Union is from representing a federal structure and how the true bosses remain the leaders of the individual national governments which, as the treaties establish, do not allow the European Parliament to act as a true legislator, or the Commission to act as a federal government.
That’s why when the sovereignists, faced with any unsolved problem such as the migrant crisis, ask ‘but what Europe is doing’, they create a mystification. Indeed, it is not the European institutions, the Parliament and the Commission that decide (or better not decide in the case of the migrant crisis!) but always the individual governments, gathered in the Council. When this question is asked, the Europeists take on the sovereign game by rushing quickly to provide the inevitable list of positive things done by the European Union in that or that other field and trying to convince people that the EU is the best thing that we have. Meanwhile, between the action of the two conservatisms, Brexit arrives and opens the way to other possible -exits.

If you’ve come to the final lines of this article, I invite you to think about the concept of sovereignty. Used as a divisive leverage by sovereigns – who speak of sovereignty of states and governments – and misunderstood by many pro-Europeans who oppose the concept of European sovereignty as an extension of the intergovernmental system (and therefore of its vices and once again of the sovereignty of states, the real decision-makers gathered in the Council) to an increasing number of areas. Sovereignty should instead be thought of first as the sovereignty of citizens.
The sovereignty of states must instead be compared, in the global scenario, with the reality of the economic system (multinationals, large corporations, centers of interest, etc.) and of technology (with which interconnection and global communication are associated) which day by day make the individual states, whose power of action is surpassed by the effectiveness and speed of de facto superior powers, more impotent and with respect to which the only effective containment can be that of large federal structures which, by settling on larger scale dimensions, create sufficient political capacity to deal with major global issues, and the environmental issues above all.

Before it’s too late, European citizens will have to be made aware of the true historical option they face and on which they have a responsibility to decide for future generations. This historical option is certainly not that between sovereignty and the current intergovernmental European Union (this dualism between conservativisms was the one actually proposed in the case of Brexit) but that between the return to smaller, weaker and insignificant European states and the creation of a Federal Europe based on a real Constitution. Only the the nature of the latter structure is capable of maintaining both the social and economic peculiarities of individual states, whose citizens do not want to be homologated or assimilated, and the common interests of all states and all European citizens.
As the Brexit affair has amply demonstrated, this transition to federal Europe will only be possible if supported by a broad consensus of the grassroots. To do this, it is necessary to present to the public in a simple, clean and orderly way, the true nature of the federal systems and to explain once and for all that to make Europe a federation and reap all the advantages of the federal system, there is no other way but to overcome the current intergovernmental structure of the EU. This political agenda alone is capable of dismantling the arguments and propaganda of the sovereignists. Are Europeists ready to take this route?


Mauro Casarotto

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Leo Klinkers

    Excellent article. Should be read by many people throughout Europe.

  2. Anne Mona Nedergaard

    Very good article.

  3. Fernanda Neutel

    Very good article. Very good indeed! It should be publicized.

  4. Peter Matyas

    Good article which should probably even more emphasize that the alleged problems of the European Union come from nation states actually, not from EU level. National leaders, insisting on their obsolete nation ideas (which, however, still supply their legitimacy) intentionally block and obstacle EU decisions, because these would override national sovereignty and that would be their relative death knell.
    I personally would support going even further towards a united (“homologized”) Europe – I do not care as much about my “peculiarities” as the thing that are the same in me and in other Europeans.

  5. Stuart Clark

    An excellent article, but one, for me at least, quite hard to understand in parts. Well done for trying to tackle the difficult issue of sovereignty. There is so much here to be discussed further. The last paragraph is so important,

  6. Alex Gunter

    Very good read. I found your breakdown of the new Conservative trends very interesting. Something to add to the new dangerous Conservative front is that one of the old branches of conservatism has been pushed away. The moderate, pro-european and generally progressive Conservative faction has lost almost all of its followers to the centre progressive Liberal movements and as such the politicians have followed. Many UK conservatives joined the Liberal Democrats for example. This has done so much to strengthen the rising strands of conservatism by allowing them to set the Conservative agenda.
    Your comments about the need for grassroots federalism are absolutely correct but I fear that there isn’t het the grassroots movements to carry it. What can we do to energise the grassroots realistically?

  7. Tiago de Matos Gomes

    Great, great, great article. I will share it with my friends at Volt Portugal.

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