An interview with Lucio Levi - Alan Hick

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz accept the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the EU.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz accept the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the EU.

Lucio Levi is Professor of Political Science and Comparative Politics at the University of Torino, Italy.

Alan Hick, board member of New Europeans interviewed Professor Levi on behalf of New Europeans.

ALAN HICK:  The supranational European political ideal spawned by the anti-fascist and European Resistance years is not well known by the European public, who associate Europe more with “Brussels bureaucracy”. Why is this? And what can be done to restore the lost idealism of the almost forgotten generation of partisan pioneers for a federal Europe?

LUCIO LEVI:  The most significant achievement of European integration is peace. People are so accustomed to peace that is appears as a normal state of things. But it is not true. Peace is mainly the product of the European institutions. The European Federation is a goal that emerged from the experience of the tragedy of two World Wars. In fact, we are experiencing what has never been tried over the course of history: building institutions that assure solidarity between nations. The Schuman Declaration, which is the building bloc of the EU, asserts that the cornerstone of the institutional architecture of Europe is peace, conceived in its twofold sense: peace in Europe and peace in the world.



First of all, peace means to make pacification among the nations of the Old Continent a permanent achievement (Europe has never experienced 70 consecutive years of peace since the end of the Roman Empire). There is not doubt that the European institutions have been planned to pursue this goal. Secondly, peace means to use the international influence of Europe and the potential of its institutional model to modify the balance of power in the world states system in order to ease tensions between the great powers and to promote peace in the world. Owing to the fact that European foreign and security policy is a field of action where member states keep the veto power and decisions are taken on the basis of the unanimity principle, the EU has been so far unable to fully pursue this goal. In this area  majority voting is necessary in order to make EU action effective and democratic.

European unity for political parties and governments is more a necessity than a design, while for federalists it is above all a design. Political parties and governments choose to follow the way of  European unity when history presents problems which cannot be solved within the framework of the institutions in place and an institutional change is necessary. On the other hand, for federalists it is a design they pursue either in favourable or in adverse circumstances. What is happening these days shows that European fiscal union – based on a substantial increase of the EU's own resources –, pursued by federalists for 20 years, is now becoming possible as a response to the emergency of the coronavirus pandemic.

Last remark: it is a commonplace to depict the Brussels bureaucracy in dark colours as an expansive and inefficient administartion. It is a groundless charge, as the number of the EU officers is smaller than that of the officers of a big city like Milan or Hamburg. Moreover, when it is remarked that the European institutions regulate tiny and trifling matters, it is forgotten that frequently are national governments to impose these regulations for the purpose to protect typical national products.

ALAN HICK: The 1941 “Ventotene Manifesto” put the need for a democratic, post-war “solid International state”. The 1944 “European Resistance Manifesto” proposed a directly elected, European government and a European Federal Constitution.  Do these ideas still resonate today? 

LUCIO LEVI:   In the way that all the classics remain topical, the Ventotene Manifesto – three-quarters of a century have passed since it was written – makes it possible to illuminate the root cause of the crisis which afflicts 21st century Europe, although in a new and different social and international context.



The Ventotene Manifesto, authored by Spinelli and Rossi, and the European Resistance Manifesto, where Spinelli's and Rossi's contribution is clearly recognizable, send us this message: the European Federation is the fundamental problem of our time and federalism is the theory that allows a group of countries to unify, giving a constitution to their relations, establishing an order of peace founded on law, eliminating the use of force and bringing democracy to the federal union level. Today, the contradictions of the period of nationalism return because the achievement of the European federal project has not been brought to its conclusion.

History repeats ever more glaringly the contradictions it is unable to resolve. 

Governments choose the way leading to European Federation only in emergency circumstances. For instance, between 1951 and 1954, when, under the pressure of cold war, the United States and Great Britain proposed to give back to Western Germany a full economic and military sovereignty, and the French government, faced with the prospect of a revival of German nationalism, accepted Jean Monnet's suggestion to subject to a European authority the two pillars of Germany's power: the coal and steel industry and the army.

Thus the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was created and the European Defense Community (EDC) was started up. Spinelli denounced the contradiction of an army without a government.

With the help of De Gasperi from whom he won agreement, he succeeded in getting the decision that to the ECSC Parliamentary Assembly (which was given the name of ad hoc Assembly) the mandate be assigned to draft a Constitution of the European Political Community, the political body with a democratic basis to which the task had to be awarded to exercise the control of the European army.

The ratification process of the draft treaty was suddenly stopped on August 30th, 1954, when the French National Assembly rejected it after four out of six members of the European Community had already approved it. After Stalin's death, the international situation had changed: the need for a European defensive system appeared less stringent. So, the first attempts to establish a European State failed.

Today, Europe is facing another crisis which endangers the very survival of the EU, i.e. the coronavirus pandemic, which has marked an awakening of European solidarity. The European Council, paralysed by vetoes and unable to decide, has entrusted the European Commission with the task of elaborating a plan for a Recovery Fund. This means that the coronavirus crisis has triggered two potentially revolutionary facts:

*  a shift of the EU decision-making power from the European Council to the European Commission, which is evolving into a true European government;

*  the launch by the Commission of an investment plan, called Next Generation EU, which can enable Europe to drive the green and digital transition through a common European debt for an amount of EUR 750 billion so that the total amount of the recovery effort will be brought to EUR 2400 billion.

It is an increase of the European budget own resources never seen before (practically a doubling of the investment capacity of the EU budget) and the creation of a EU fiscal power, a significant step on the way to European Federation, like the creation of the euro. The resources to reimburse the debt will be raised through the introduction of European taxes on the giants of the web, polluting industries and financial speculators.

The EU is an unaccomplished project. It has a Parliament elected by universal suffrage, but it does not have a government; it has a single currency but it only has a system for coordinating the economic policies of Member States; it does not have a European treasury ministry and it has a budget that is less than 1% of European GDP; and lastly it does not have a common foreign and security policy. In other words, it has neither the economic resources nor the security forces to respond to the crises afflicting it: the growing migratory flows, pandemics, the global economic crisis and climate change, Islamic terrorism.

This is the reason why distrust in the European project is growing. Alarmed citizens are rediscovering nationalism, walls and frontiers in the illusion of being able to escape the challenges of terrorism, pandemics, migration and the economic crisis. They are wrong because, in the age of globalisation, only Europe is of sufficient size to address global issues and compete with the protagonists of world politics and economy.

Thus, a federal union, understood as the vehicle for overcoming Europe’s division and to defeat nationalism, is confirmed as the only answer to the new problems that history presents to Europe. In one of the darkest moments in its history, after France rejected the European Defence Community Treaty for establishing a European army, Spinelli wrote:

“Thinking that we can, within the framework of the nation States, still have any guarantee of freedom, wellbeing and peace, this is truly utopia, it is the search for an absurd and unattainable end”

    A. Spinelli, Europa terza forza. Scritti 1947-1954, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2000, p. 351.

ALAN HICK:  Will the next Conference on the Future of Europe be able to address what is seen as a “democratic deficit” in the EU structure? Do the EU, in particular the European Parliament, need a new Altiero Spinelli and a new Draft Treaty Project?

LUCIO LEVI:  Last 9 May, Europe Day, the EU was planning launching its Conference on the Future of Europe and reopening the construction site of the EU institutions. In spite of the postponement of the Conference due to the coronavirus pandemic, in some way, it has already started, as the emergency provisions adopted by the EU have paved the way to doubling the amount of the European budget and therefore to fiscal union, a goal comparable with the monetary union. It is a substantial progress on the way of European Federation.

The construction site of the European Union is still unaccomplished. The European institutions suffer at the same time from a democratic deficit and a constitutional deficit. On the one hand, the contradiction between the dimension of the economic and social problems and the dimension of the democratic powers which should solve them shows the limits of the governing capacity of the EU well-known as democratic deficit.

The substance of the EU's power belongs to the Council of Ministers and European Council of Heads of State and Government, the intergovernmental bodies which on the most relevant issues (foreign and security policy, increase of budget resources, treaties revision) make decisions in secret and by unanimity, points out the order magnitude of the democratic deficit of the European institutions. The centrality of these bodies in the EU's power system, which depends on the need to defend anachronistic national interests, represents the most serious distorsion of the democratic principle.



At the same time, the fact that the Council combines legislative and executive powers, entailes that it exerts powers which, on the one hand, should belong to the European Parliament – which exerts in many sectors, but not all, co-decision powers with the Council, and, on the other hand, to the European Commission, which has limited government powers. This is a significant departure from the principle of the division of powers, which we can define as a constitutional deficit. On matters of greatest relevance such as foreign, security and fiscal policy and treaties revision, the Council exercises exclusive decision-making powers and the European Parliament has only consultative powers. On the other hand, the European Commission shares with the Council the executive power.

In conclusion, the problems the EU is facing do not require a big bang such as the opening of a constituent assembly. The EU has been built slowly, using the method of constitutional gradualism, we like it or not. As a metter of fact, a significant a part of Spinelli's political design has already been achieved. A considerable part of a European Constitution already exists. The European Parliament, the Council, the European Commission and the European Court of Justice, the European Central Bank foreshadow the five main bodies of a European Federation. What is needed is simply the strengthening and full democratization of the existing European institutions.

In order to constitutionalize the EU, not many reforms are necessary: first, the assignmment to the European Parliament of the role of lower Chamber in the bicameral legislative system and the extension of the co-decision on equal footing of the European Parliament with the Council; second, generalisation of the decisions by majority vote within the Council and the evolution of the latter into a Chamber of States; third, the assignment of the role of collegial Presidency of the Union to the European Council tasked with the responsibility of appointing the European Commission's President and setting the key lines of the Union's policy; fourth, according to the principles of parliamentary regimes, the European Commission should become the first branch of the European executive, whose President is potentially the expression of the citizens' will, being the reflection of the political majority produced by European elections. The Commission must receive the confidence vote of the European Parliament, which may revoke it.

Do we need a new Spinelli? Since he is the founder of the movement for European unity, his figure is unrepeatable. He is an everlasting reference point which cannot be undermined either by death or by the defeats. What we need today that are facing an unfinished architecture, are political leaders able to follow his wake. They emerge when history presents turning points, which require institutional changes, like the challenge of the creation of a European Defense Communty as an alternative to the German rearmament. That challenge produced political leaders like Monnet, De Gasperi, Spaak, Adenauer and Schuman. The need for the monetary union produced leaders like Delors and Prodi. The current challenge of the Next Generation EU will produce new leaders. Ursula von der Leyen?

ALAN HICK: What is the danger, in a post Covid-19 economic crisis, of Europe falling back into new forms of nationalistic populism and reactionary politics? 

LUCIO LEVI:  The callenge of pandemic can revive the EU or destroy it. There are great opportunities and great risks. But there are good reasons to believe that the EU will get out of the crisis strengthened. First of all, the strength I am talking about is a consequence of the catastrophic nature of the recipes proposed by sovereignists, e.g. the exit from the single market and the euro.

The impressive speed of the dissemination of the virus from China to the rest of the world has shown how interdependent is the world we live in. No country, no great region of the world can win the battle against the virus alone. In the globalized world the destiny of humankind is indivisible. Governments have been caught surprised, unaware and unprepared and reacted late and divided to the attack of the virus. No prevention plan was in place. Hospital structures have been found insufficient to face the challenge of pandemic whose costs are no doubt astronomical in terms of loss of human lives. But the unprecedented severity of the current crisis lies in the combination of the health crisis with the economic one.

The crisis has shown not only the powerlessness of national reactions, but also the weakness of the responses entrusted to market mechanisms

My approach to coronavirus crisis exit is based on the hypothesis that a global response will be sought within the framework of international organizations and more specifically of the World Health Organiazation (WHO). The WHO should become the coordinating and propulsion core of an effective global response to the challenge of coronavirus in terms of capacity to alert member states on the threats to public health and to disseminate reliable information, of coordination and promotion of research for discovery of vaccines and drugs and distribution of healthcare equipments. The vaccine should be distributed for free, according to principles of international justice. To carry out these tasks, the WHO should receive more financial resources and its powers should be strengthened and democratized. Moreover, in order to enhance its freedom of initiative from national governments, it should be endowed with the same degree of autonomy enjoyed by Central Banks.

The neo-liberal principles which have inspired the first phase of globalization have been a resumption of the ideology of the minimal state, which dates back to the origin of the liberal-democratic thinking and confined itself to protect life, liberty and property (Locke) or life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (Jefferson). The historical experience of XIX and XX centuries has thaught us that healthcare is a sector of social life where market fails to provide the public goods that only public powers can ensure, such as the protection of the environment, prevention of abuse of dominant position in the market, regional and social imbalances, public works and so forth. Therefore, the trend to cut healthcare budgets should be stopped and inverted.

In conclusion the lesson we have learnt from the crisis is that only public powers and more specifically their international dimension can protect our health.

AH: How can European federalists work with the mainstream democratic parties in Europe, to forge a new, more fraternal, European Union?

LUCIO LEVI: There is an affinity between federalist theory and the tradition of democratic thought. The great revolutionary movements – liberal, democratic, socialist, and national – started from the French Revolution. They have affirmed new forms of participation in political life and were characterized by a strong internationalist component. 

The principles of freedom, equality, social justice, and national independence were not thought of in terms of how they could be adapted to individual countries or limited to the national sphere. Universality is intrinsic to the nature of these values. Even national values, as they were first formulated, were suffused by cosmopolitan ideas.

The achievement of those values at the national level was always seen as a step towards their Europe- and world-wide extension.  It is the strong attachment to these values that distinguishes the mainstream democratic parties and federalists from the nationalists and sovereigntist parties.

The important turning points which marked the evolutionary stages in the history of European unification, were always upheld by a coalition of progressive parties, and opposed by the nationalists.

I want to underline the important, initiative role played by federalist movements.

It is generally forgotten that it is thanks to federalist campaigns, with subsequent support from political parties and governments, that the direct election of the European Parliament and the monetary union were included in the European political agenda. 

AH: How can we secure the inalienable rights of European citizenship for current and future generations of Europeans?

LUCIO LEVI: The European Charter of Fundamental Rights, proclaimed at Nice in 2000, became legally binding in 2009 with the Lisbon Treaty. This was a milestone on the way to the construction of the international institutions of Europe. 

The EU leads the way for the world in this respect, as it is the region where the protection of human rights is most developed.

The Charter regulates not only civil liberties, but also European citizenship. Citizenship is an expression of the European integration process on the constitutional level. It means that the EU is not simply an economic union.

We have not completed the process of restructuring the EU, however, as it merges federal with confederal, inter-governmental elements. In my third answer I outlined what I believe we need to do, to give the EU a firm constitution.

Finally, looking into the future, we must consider how the new information and communication technology (ICT) increases the risk of invasion of people's private sphere. We need to plan new forms of protection.

In my view, the web should be constitutionalized. In other words, an Internet Bill of Rights is needed.


About Lucio Levi

Lucio Levi is Professor of Political Science and Comparative Politics at the University of Torino, Italy. He is also Scientific Director of the International Democracy Watch promoted by the Centre for Studies on Federalism, and Member of the Federal Committee of the Union of European Federalists. He is a Former President of the European Federalist Movement in Italy (2009-2015)."

Alan Hick is a board member of New Europeans (Europe).  He holds a PhD from the European University Institute on “The European Movement and the campaign for a European Assembly 1947 to 1950".



Subscribe to email updates from New Europeans

Join our newsletter to receive the latest news and events from New Europeans.

* indicates required

Or be a part of it!

Join today Donate Volunteer