European Election: Defence and a European Constitution

By Guido Montani

Europe’s electoral contestants must address the pressing need for a defence union and a democratic constitution.

The debates in the run-up to the European election in all member states so far comprise more skirmishing among national parties than addressing the future of the European Union. Yet major media and some European leaders warn just how uncertain is that future, in a world where war has returned to Europe and the Middle East. The fall of the Berlin wall did not pave the way for the ‘end of history’. Rather, it provoked a growing world disorder, in which the great powers confronted each other for economic and military supremacy. These years could be compared to those that preceded the I World War, yet today what is at stake can no longer be the defence or conquest of an empire. But military spending is increasing everywhere. Will nuclear war be possible? What will be the future of European citizens and international relations? In her first ‘State of the Union’ address as European Commission president in 2020, Ursula von der Leyen said: ‘The world needs our leadership … We can be the shapers of a better global order … This is the geopolitical Commission that I have in mind.’ Yet at the end of the legislative term, reality belies these claims. The EU today is the passive object of international politics, having neither the means nor the political will to intervene on the global stage. And, without a European leadership determined to act, the union risks breaking up.

Constitutional Reform

There are two centres of political initiative in the EU: the European Parliament and the European Council. In the years leading up to the first direct elections to the parliament in 1979, the former German chancellor Willy Brandt declared that it would become Europe’s ‘permanent constituent assembly’. And that first elected parliament did indeed approve in 1984 a draft ‘Treaty establishing the European Union’, also known as the Spinelli project, after its parliamentary promoter, the Italian federalist Altiero Spinelli. Because of the stubborn opposition of the right-wing sovereigntist Margaret Thatcher, representing the United Kingdom, this initial draft of constitutional reform was not accepted by the member states. But in the years that followed, reforms were passed in an ever-expanding union (as it became known with the 1992 Maastricht treaty), thanks to which the parliament was able to increase its powers.

Last November, the parliament adopted in plenary a proposal from its Committee on Constitutional Affairs (AFCO) for reform of the 2007 Lisbon treaty—itself a response to the stymied draft European constitution rejected in referenda in France and the Netherlands—with the support of those political families (the European People’s Party, Renew Europe, the Party of European Socialists and the Greens) in favour of ‘more Europe’. Parliament demanded, on the basis of article 48 of the Treaty on European Union, that its proposals be submitted to a European convention for examination. Among the reform proposals were a demand for more ‘own resources’, through direct and indirect European taxation, and a European defence union. For the time being, however, the council has not taken a position on the request for a convention, thus postponing the decision until the next parliamentary term.

Defence Union

The second decision-making centre in the union is the council, composed of the heads of state and government. It is not democratically accountable to the citizens of Europe and is often paralysed by a decision-making procedure requiring unanimity in key areas. On the crucial issue of own resources—the union’s budget—and the proposal for a defence union, the council is blocked by the uncertainties of France and Germany, which seem to support intergovernmental defence arrangements but with different motivations. France, the only country now in the EU with nuclear weapons, could use the intergovernmental method to assert its military superiority. The German government intends to exploit a situation in which the country with the greatest industrial and economic capacity can determine foreign-policy decisions. If these minimalist orientations are not overcome, the EU will not be able to defend itself. A European defence requires decisions to be taken by a democratic European government—that is to say the commission, accountable to the two ‘chambers’ of the parliament and the council, the latter relying only on majority voting (simple or ‘qualified’ as the case may be). European defence is the subject of an intense debate among military experts and those from the European institutions. We do not start from scratch. Article 42 of the TEU says that if a member state suffers aggression the others shall be obliged to offer aid and assistance. In addition, there is agreement in principle on the creation of a 5,000-strong rapid-reaction force by 2030. Therefore, a group of states could move decisively in this direction.

Political Problem

Solving technical problems is not however enough to bring a European defence initiative to fruition. There is an upstream political problem which cannot be avoided. In the shadow of a devastating war in Europe, between 1951 and 1954 the six founding members of the European Coal and Steel Community—which went on to form the European Economic Community in 1957—also initiated the creation of a European Defence Community (EDC). In a speech in Strasbourg in 1952, the Italian prime minister, Alcide de Gasperi, said: ‘If we call on the armed forces of the different countries to merge together into a permanent and constitutional body and, if necessary, to defend a wider homeland, this homeland must be visible, solid and alive.’ Today no head of party or government dares to refer to Europe as the ‘homeland’ or to a European constitution. Yet it is inconceivable that European citizens should be asked to join a ‘mercenary’ army—and it is not possible to entrust a European government with the power to declare a state of war without a democratic constitution to legitimise its actions.

There is an alternative

Before the coming European election, pro-European parties should therefore make clear to the citizenry what role the EU, with its own defence, should play in a world rapidly sliding towards the abyss of international anarchy. The EU does not need to become a superpower, but needs a deterrence capacity (like the French force de frappe) and an international foreign policy for peaceful co-operation, the protection of Planet Earth from the climate crisis, a rebalancing of global wealth between rich and poor countries and controlled disarmament under the aegis of the United Nations. There is an alternative to the arms race for world primacy, which could occasion a devastating nuclear conflict. With its democratic parties and national governments, the EU has the duty to uphold the values on which it was born: pacification and integration among sovereign states. These are the guidelines of its foreign policy. If this prospect is not discussed in the election campaign, the parties of the sovereigntist right will have an open goal. After World War I, the United States presented itself on the world stage as the promoter of a ‘secure place for democracies’ in the international order. In the Soviet Union the ruling Bolshevik party initiated a Communist International to promote ‘proletarian revolution’ in all countries. Today, in a world in search of new values and methods of civil coexistence among peoples, the EU has the opportunity to present itself as the champion of a new world order, based on peace among nations and the defence of all forms of life on the planet. Such an alternative to war and environmental disaster is as feasible as it is imperative.

This is part of Social Europe’s series on a progressive ‘manifesto’ for the European elections.

Dr Guido Montani is professor of international political economy at the University of Pavia. He is a former president of the European Federalist Movement in Italy. His latest book is Antropocene, nazionalismo e cosmopolitismo: Prospettive per i cittadini del mondo (Mimesis, 2022).