Memories of founding the Spinelli Institute

Politics and culture in the MFE

By Guido Montani

This blog post is part of the New World Federalist Paper series

The Altiero Spinelli Institute for Federalist Studies was founded in 1987 and, since then it has carried out an extraordinary amount of political/cultural work with the aim of spreading the message and developing federalism in Europe and around the world. Now is a good time to look back at its origins, as this institution is grounded on principles that can help young people face the challenges of the new century. As Machiavelli asserted, “all states have some reverence in the beginning”.

The political climate in which the Spinelli Institute came into being was shaped by political-cultural change that the Bari Congress (1980) introduced in federalist strategy. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Movimento Federalista Europeo (MFE) was engaged in two very demanding campaigns: the campaign for the election by universal suffrage of the European Parliament, and that for the creation of the European currency, following the collapse of the Bretton Woods system. Completely neglecting the recruitment side, the MFE poured all of its energies into these campaigns, and its efforts produced visible results: in 1979, European citizens went to the polls for the first time to elect the European Parliament, and the same year also saw the creation of the EMS – the European monetary system – viewed by governments as a first step towards a European currency. The process of European integration was entering a new phase: it was time for the MFE to look to new political horizons and recruit new forces.

The “Letter to the Activist”, of January 1980, stated that after the European election, in a Parliament now legitimized by the popular vote, the parties would be engaged in developing European proposals and policies. In view of this, “The Movement has to be part of the process and interface with political and cultural forces. … And in this respect we must acknowledge that the MFE’s capacity for action remains insufficient… without a recruitment policy. Young people are the force capable of preparing the future”.

A response to this came in the “Theses” proposed by Mario Albertini at the 10th Congress of the MFE, entitled “Uniting Europe to unite the world” (Bari, February 24, 1980). The first ‘thesis’ reads: “A new age has dawned and new thought must take shape. The course of history that was driven by the formation of the global market, and sustained by the scientific, political, economic and social revolutions, has now reached its climax with the end of the hegemony of the European system of states, the rise of the world system of states, the re-awakening of all the peoples of the earth, the growing participation of religious spirit in modern life, and the enormous development of technological capability (the latter still uncontrolled by the collective will). For this reason, it is now necessary — and indeed possible, providing we direct our thought and will towards this supreme task — to plan, at world level, the solution to some of the problems fundamental to the survival and future of mankind”.

Although globalization was not yet being discussed in national politics, Albertini’s  Theses clearly anticipated the issues and problems that would ensue. Naturally, the resolutions approved clearly stated that, in order to face global challenges, Europe had to complete the two processes it had just started: a federal reform of the Community and the transformation of the EMS into an economic and monetary union, so that the European Union could play a central role in the reform of the international monetary system. European unity was the first indispensable step towards a united world, disarmament, and combatting world poverty and environmental degradation.

1981 was the year when the new political platform was put to the test and the foundations were laid for a quantum leap in recruiting policy. The two superpowers, the USA and the USSR, were planning new nuclear weapons to be used “only” in European territory and also against conventional weapons. It was a threat that soon triggered pacifist protests,  involving young people in particular. The MFE approved a resolution, drafted by Mario Albertini, entitled “Peace as the supreme objective of the political struggle”, which argued: “This situation is absolutely unacceptable not only because of the risk it entails, but also because it is in contradiction with the very foundation of morality. The time has come to understand that if the deliberate and intentional risk of nuclear war is accepted as a permanent fact of political life, barbarism is inevitable. In this case education, the sentiment of social solidarity and every civic and cultural value are meanigless”. In September 1981, after working hard to connect with numerous pacifist, secular and religious organizations, the MFE and the GFE (Gioventù Federalista Europea) organized a major demonstration against “Atomic Death” in Milan. Also thanks to the good relations between the GFE and the JEF, many Europeans took part. Thousands of people marched to Piazza del Duomo, under the slogan: “No to atomic death. A united and independent Europe against the rearmament of the superpowers”.

That same year saw a ceremony in Ventotene to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the drafting of the Manifesto for a Free, United Europe. After an introduction by Gabriele Panizzi, representing the Lazio Region, Altiero Spinelli took the floor to recall the journey from his years of imprisonment to the direct election of the European Parliament. With regard to the contents of the Manifesto, Spinelli acknowledged that it included an erroneous assessment of postwar Europe as the centre of world politics. Yet he recognized that the Manifesto contained two valid points: a) the acknowledgement that the battle for Europe is a long one, to be fought by this generation, being the crucial battle of our age; b) the idea that, from the post-war period onwards, the only dividing line to adopt in politics is that between those who view this struggle as a priority and those who pursue the aim of national recovery as a priority. The crucial battle was that for a European government, and the federalists were to concentrate their efforts on supporting the Crocodile Club in the European Parliament. In his speech, Mario Albertini, as President of the UEF, affirmed that thanks to the work of Spinelli and the European Parliament, the path had now been traced. It was a question of finding the strength and the will to continue the endeavour.

In September one year earlier, the first federalist training seminar had been held in Cala Corvino near Monopoli, thanks to the launch of a youth recruitment policy in some important local chapters of the MFE. This resumed a tradition dating back to the 1950s that had been put on hold. By staging a national seminar, the MFE’s leadership could exchange its ideas and initiatives with the ideas, projects and hopes of the young participants. This was the road map for creating new leaders: interpersonal dialogue and debate  to communicate ideas, values and responsibilities, which for some would become a “second” job.

1981 was not yet over when, on the occasion of a federalist meeting in Rome, Gabriele Panizzi told me about Spinelli’s desire to organize courses for young federalists on the island of Ventotene. The Lazio Regional Council was willing to support the initiative, in collaboration with the Municipality of Ventotene. Naturally I was very enthusiastic about this idea, especially as I was planning seminars for teachers in collaboration with AEDE, given that it would be easier to organize meetings and conferences in schools with their help. Since then, I have enjoyed an ongoing, continuous, valued relationship with Gabriele Panizzi, and we have shared the work on different but complementary fronts. His involvement meant that the MFE’s recruitment policy could count on significant institutional help.

In 1982, the first seminar for young federalists took place in Ventotene. It was not a straightforward start. Nowadays, Ventotene is a tourist destination with numerous hotels. Back then it was a remote island in the Mediterranean with poor transport connections and practically no facilities for visitors: it took us a week of leg work to find the necessary accommodation in the houses available. Yet once these issues had been resolved, the seminar went ahead successfully. 70 young people took part, selected from the 130 who had applied. Altiero Spinelli sent a message which, after recalling the ongoing battle of the Crocodile Club in the European Parliament, concluded: “More than forty years ago we began the battle for the United States of Europe in Ventotene. Today I am confident that we can complete it with you”. In his message to the young participants, Mario Albertini wrote: “We need to remember that we all live in one world, and that all peoples must democratically participate in its government while maintaining their own identity. … The world needs federalism. Federalism needs the success of the European revolution. The European revolution needs a strong federalist organization”. 

Following that, from 1982 to 1986, the Ventotene seminars were regularly held at the beginning of September, and were attended by a growing number of young people not only from Italy, but also from other European countries, thanks to the participation of JEF executives and the UEF. Among those who took part in the seminars regularly were Gabriele Panizzi and the Mayor of Ventotene, Beniamino Verde, who has always ensured the maximum cooperation from town council and enthusiastically supported the ideals of the federalists; Luciano Bolis who, after his traumatic experience in the anti-fascist Resistance, joined Spinelli during the early years of the MFE, and Pier Virgilio Dastoli, then Spinelli’s aide in the European Parliament. In those years, our youth recruitment efforts were paying off, and the older participants were gradually co-opted as organizers or speakers at the seminars. The Ventotene seminar also generated a number of important spin-offs, with the meetings of ”Il Dibattito federalista” (The Federalist debate) held in the months following the seminar. After a few years these meetings began to be held around Europe, in France, Germany and Belgium, thanks to the initiative of the “Ventotene group”. The publications “Il Dibattito federalista” and “The Federalist Debate” (and for a few years also “Le Débat Fédéraliste”) offered an outlet for young people to express their views on topical political and cultural issues.

This helped strengthen the international reach of the seminar. In 1981 I convinced the Rector of the University of Pavia to twin our university with that of Lomé (Togo), where the Lomé Convention between the European Community and the ACP countries (Africa, Caribbean, Pacific) was signed. Lomé, that I have visited on several occasions, was home to the Club d’Afrique, set up to pursue “l’autonomie créatrice des peuples d’Afrique”. I had the opportunity to give a lecture at the University, attended by hundreds of students, recalling the efforts made by L. S. Senghor, K. Nkrumah and J. Nyerere towards establishing a United States of Africa, and the need to continue in this direction.  The response was very positive. The first young Africans came to take part in the Ventotene seminars and in 1983 Yaouvi Randolph, the secretary of the Club d’Afrique, gave a lecture on the post-war history of the relationship between European unity and African unity. This initiative resulted in a conference, held in Milan in 1990, in which a “Declaration of African federalists and European federalists with a view to common action for international democracy” was approved. The seeds sown in Bari were beginning to bear some fruit.

On 23 May 1986 Altiero Spinelli died. A few days earlier in his diary he had commented bitterly on the demise of his plan for the Draft Treaty for a European Union. “In the European Parliament, I am unable to rein in my irritation at the fact no consensus has formed or gathered around the central idea, which is that of giving a constituent mandate to the EP that will be elected in 1989. … As I see it, my attempts have come to nothing, and this initiative has failed before it even began. Out of basic duty towards others and myself, I will arrange things so that everyone knows why I am throwing in the towel”. This harsh appraisal of his political action in the European Parliament can be tempered by the fact that, while a constituent initiative might founder, the thinking behind it remains. History returns continuously to the nodes that hinder the progress of humanity, and the struggle for the European federation spans several generations.

At his funeral, held in Rome a few days after his death, in front of the Parliament building, the whole of Italian political world was in attendance – the Prime Minister, the Speakers of the Chamber and Senate, and numerous party leaders – as well as European leaders: Jacques Delors, President of the European Commission, and Pierre Pfimlin, President of the European Parliament. Spinelli had asked for his ashes to be “taken to Ventotene and scattered over the island and the sea by the wind”. In Ventotene he was not accompanied by illustrious figures, but a crowd of friends and the entire population of Ventotene. Seeing that procession, I sensed that Ventotene and Spinelli were acquiring mythic status in European and world politics. It was up to us to do our utmost to keep the legend of Ventotene alive, and keep spreading the word: the mythical journey from the Resistance to Nazi-Fascism to the unity of Europe and the world. Myths contain profound truths that everyone can grasp.

After discussing it with Panizzi, Verde and friends in the MFE, it was decided – with some hesitation as is always the case in group discussions – to set up an Institute for Federalist Studies named after Spinelli. The MFE resolved to make the Presidency of the MFE coincide with the Presidency of the Institute, thus guaranteeing the protection of the political-cultural heritage of Ventotene, while the Lazio Region and the Municipality of Ventotene agreed to provide organizational support, working with those responsible for recruiting young people. On 3 July 1987 the ceremony marking the foundation of the Spinelli Institute, organized by Gabriele Panizzi, was held at the headquarters of the Lazio Regional Council. Those present included Ursula Hirschmann, also appearing as President of the Institute’s Honorary Committee, together with Giovanni Spadolini, Speaker of the Senate, Nilde Jotti, Speaker of the Chamber, Giulio Andreotti, Foreign Minister, Carlo Ripa di Meana, European Commissioner, Werner Maihofer, President of the University Institute of Europe, and John Pinder, President of the UEF.

The attached prospectus (in Italian and English) describes the main activities that the Institute intended to pursue: an annual seminar for young Italian federalists; a parallel seminar for young federalists from Europe and possibly other continents; seminars for federalist teachers, organized in collaboration with the AEDE; publishing the Quaderni di Ventotene (the Ventotene Papers/Cahiers de Ventotene) to circulate writings in various languages that offered a political analysis of major contemporary issues, and publishing the quarterly magazine The Federalist Debate/Le Débat Fédéraliste in order to keep the debate alive among the activists.  Lastly, the Institute also aimed to organize conferences, conventions, studies and research on issues concerning European unity and federalism. In short, all the initiatives connected to recruiting young people in the MFE were transferred to the Spinelli Institute.

The Institute enabled us to considerably boost the scope of the recruitment and training work, thanks also to a small amount of funding from the European Commission, which unfortunately ceased after Jacques Delors retired. In spite of this, the Institute’s work continued apace. Indeed, in that period European federalists regained contact with the world federalists of the World Federalist Movement, after many years of independent, uncoordinated activity, and federalists from the United States, Canada, Latin America, India and Africa all came to Ventotene. After taking part in multiple seminars, the then president of the WFM, Keith Best, stated that “Ventotene is the Mecca of federalism”. Lastly, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, young people began to flock there from the Eastern European countries and the Russian Federation in particular, with an interest in understanding how a federal system could work (in Russia and the neighbouring countries) and what role Russia could play in the European policy of integrating the continent.

We should now take a look at the programme of seminars that became a fixture over the years. Some of the conferences were of course devoted to specific political issues, but there were also key reports dedicated to crucial aspects of federalist culture. Topics that were viewed as fundamental back then included: the position of federalism as a political thought in the context of the various traditional political ideologies – liberalism, democracy, socialism and nationalism – because politics is based on global conceptions of human relations, known as ideologies, and federalism, which has the aim of building a supranational state, is a political ideology that is opposed to nationalism; secondly, the institutional understanding of the federal state, the fundamental principles of which were clearly identified by Alexander Hamilton; thirdly, the process of European integration, discussed in the light of the Manifesto‘s “dividing line between progress and reaction”, according to which the European federation could be construed as a decisive step towards a world federation and peace, an institutional perspective outlined in the political writings of Immanuel Kant, and lastly, a report on the federalist strategy for the United States of Europe, based on Spinelli’s proposal for a European constituent, the only democratic method for building a citizens’ Europe.

In addition to the reports on structural political aspects, in those years we felt that there was the need to explore the nature of federalist conduct in politics, because it is difficult for a young person to commit to an endeavour that requires personal sacrifice, in terms of time and money, without a strong moral motivation. Being involved in national and European parties is different: in those cases people put in an effort with a view to gaining a position of power – becoming a national or European member of parliament. The MFE had opted not to stand in national elections (or European elections, which remained the arena of national parties), and to reject violence as a form of action, something that characterizes terrorism. There was intense debate on this new way of doing politics, as we needed to reject the accusations of those who argued that the federalists were not an effective political force, capable of achieving the aims they had set, asserting that they were merely an organization of volunteers, like other NGOs. Based on this debate, we drew up some rules of conduct: relations between activists had to be based on a political culture that condemned violence between states and citizens, and also verbal violence, including denigrating and insulting opponents. Values and a shared culture are the growth medium for fair cooperation. It was a  debate that had important institutional consequences for the MFE, which in 1989 approved a new Statute that established a debate office, a division that coordinates with the Central Committee “for the full circulation in the movement of the ideas of all its adherents, without the discrimination, widespread in political parties, between leaders and activists, and with no watertight divisions”.

Many years have passed since this debate on the new way of doing politics. I have  recently begun thinking about this issue again – in the current context of the anthropocene, a threat to the future of humanity. The relationship between politics and morality is the core of the “reason of state” doctrine, while the MFE is based solely on the work of volunteers; for the MFE the relationship with morality is a matter of life or death. As Norberto Bobbio put it in a 1986 essay on democracy: “John Stuart Mill wrote that while autocracy needs passive citizens, democracy survives if it can count on an increasing number of active citizens”. Well, federalists are active citizens, like NGO volunteers, but they differ from NGO volunteers because they see themselves as citizens of a state that does not yet exist: a cosmopolitan democratic community. Federalists are active citizens who think and act like citizens of the world.

I would like to conclude these memories by highlighting an evident limitation of the programme announced for the future of the Spinelli Institute. I am referring to its role in the development of federalist theory. While the seminars immediately attracted the curiosity and interest of young people, the idea of making the Spinelli Institute into a centre for federalist studies has never taken root, despite my repeated efforts. Clearly the Institute did not have the resources to fund structured academic studies, as happens in universities, with permanent staff. The organizational work and recruitment has always been done by unpaid volunteers. Yet I felt that a middle way might be possible, given that many European universities and research centres already had scholars concerned professionally with the issues regarding European integration. Indeed alongside the traditional seminars I also managed to organize a number of brief seminars (lasting a couple of days) featuring experts from various European centres and universities. This formula was successful for some years and a record of the conferences is the collection of essays on “European Democracy and Cosmopolitan Democracy” edited by Daniele Archibugi and myself, published in the Ventotene Papers (n. 7). However I came to see that these meetings between experts and academics did not attract a great deal of interest among the activists. Their focus was on what they should be doing when they returned to their home towns. Now, many years later, I admit that the Institute’s initial programme may have been over-ambitious: the myth of Ventotene called for action, to accomplish what Altiero Spinelli had begun and that the MFE was now trying to bring about. After all, there were other organs, such as the magazine Il Federalista and the Centro di Studi sul Federalismo in Turin, which were engaged in the study of federalism. This division of labour should be preserved and if possible strengthened, and the Spinelli Institute should duly be left to focus on its main mission: that of recruiting and training young federalists.