What Hope of a Federalist Group in the European Parliament?

Article published on May 12, 2004
community published
Article published on May 12, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

As far as federalism is concerned, the European Parliament is showing a distinct lack of faith – to the disappointment of Romano Prodi, the new federalist messiah.

Is the word ‘federalism’ omnipresent in Europe’s political programmes? No. Quite the reverse in fact. A quick look on the web sites of the main European political parties reveals minimal use of this term in the context of European integration. Why?

No news of Federalism

The deceptive but classic left-right label is insufficient to understand greater or lesser attachment to the concept of federalism in European politics. Thus, the European Popular Party (EPP) does not at any time refer to this term on its web site, even though the part of its manifesto called ‘political position’ is full of references to the Christian-Democrat tradition of European integration. But this is not the same as tacit support for federalism. One interesting exercise is to visit the sites of two of the countries within the EPP structure, the German CDU Christian Democrats and the British Tory party. The EU and the European integration project have a prominent position on the CDU’s web site. A similar amount of space is dedicated to this subject on the British Conservatives’ site but…there it is to warn people about the unhappiness the European constitution project will bring.

As for the Party of European Socialists (PES), it does not demonstrate particular faith in federalism either, although references to ‘Europeanism’ are continuous. The word federalism is only found once in the PES manifesto for the European elections. It is therefore difficult to conclude that European socialists are more federalist than the EPP Conservatives. This maxim is confirmed by southern social democrats but not those of the north.

The Greens and the Radicals expressly support a federal Europe, as well as a few groups situated to the left of the PES.

Prodi’s federalist initiative

Let’s take a moment to look at the issue of a reformist or federalist group supported by the current President of the European Commission, Romano Prodi. According to surveys carried out on this subject, Italy has traditionally been the most ‘European’ country in the Union, and the big players in European integration such as Spinelli and De Gasperi, or more recently Bonino and Amato, are Italians. Prodi has presented his own European project, known as Penelope, to the Convention. But Prodi’s European initiative is irredeemably marked by the internal dynamics of Italian politics.

Opposition to Berlusconi’s Government is general expressed through two big parties, the Social Democrats (DS, left wing democrats, formerly the Communists) and Margherita’s progressive Catholics (previously the Christian Democrats). The crisis of the former Christian Democrats led to the creation of a left wing Christian Democrat group around the Italian Popular Party (PPI), the Margherita hard core, and another right wing party, the Central Democratic Union (UDC), today allied to Berlusconi and his party, Forza Italia.

Paradoxically, the PPI, like the UDC and Forza Italia (FI) are part of the EPP. Prodi, himself a progressive Catholic, through his own party, the Democrats, has worked towards the creation of a single list for the Italian centre-left in the next European elections. This list will contain left wing Democrats, Margherita and two other minor parties.

Paradox in the European Parliament

But the problem will present itself after the European elections. Theoretically, the left wing Catholics of the PPI will sit on the benches of the EPP next to Berlusconi, and the Socialists (DS and other components of Margherita) on those of the PSE. Consequently, Prodi is planning the formation of a new political group within the European Parliament, with an acceptable name for the two parties (DS and PPI) such as for example ‘federalist’ or ‘reformist’. That would allow the Italian left to maintain political coherency on a European level. However, the viability of this project is doubtful. The Italian peculiarity – the existence of a strong left wing Christian Democrat tradition (which is unknown in the history of European Socialism) – cannot be transferred to the rest of the European Union. The PSE will obviously not fall in with a group calling itself federalist or reformist.

But Prodi’s initiative does mean that another alternative can be explored – the creation of a centrist or liberal group, generally federalist political formations. Different sources attest to conversations between Prodi’s supporters, the Union for French Democracy (UDF, pro-European) and the British Liberal Democrats with the aim of creating a federalist group. The problem is that it is doubtful that this group would manage to make progressive Catholic Italians agree with central French liberals on certain economic and social issues. On the other hand, the members of the European list supported by Prodi in Italy will in any case be condemned to be located in different groups after June 13th.

Finally, the fact that federalists can be found in the rest of the European political groups while central liberals are appropriating the federalist label, is equally problematic. Being federalist does not necessarily mean defending positions determined by neo-liberal economic and social policy.

In short, European federalism will continue to be the sickness of ‘Europeanism’ – as long as the two do not merge.