by Emanuel Rota
At the end of World War Two, the fact that another European war would have led to the destruction of Europe could not escape any reasonable observer. Millions of lives destroyed in two successive conflicts required even the most callous politician to imagine a solution to the problem of war in Europe. The conflict between France and Germany for hegemony over the continent had been responsible for the end of European hegemony in the world, and two new players, the United States and the Soviet Union, had replaced Europe as dominant powers. The problem of peace in Europe had to be solved permanently in order to avoid repetition of the events that had led from World War One to World War Two, when peace had proven to be nothing more than a temporary truce.
Robert Schumann, in his famous May 9, 1950 declaration, explicitly insisted on the problem of peace as the foundation of the project of a European community. “By pooling basic production and by instituting a new High Authority,” he said, “this proposal will lead to the realization of the first concrete foundation of a European federation indispensable to the preservation of peace.” The intellectual who wrote the declaration pronounced by Schumann, Jean Monnet, had imagined the process of unification as a progressive transferring of functions from the State level to the European level. The goal was to reduce the absolute sovereignty of the single Nation States, which he considered responsible for the two World Wars.
This same conceptual framework, the creation of a federation or of a confederation of States to subtract the power to wage war from the States and achieve a stable peace, marked the creation of a new and different European Community, and remained its main justification in the eyes of public opinion. As the preamble to Statute of the European Community (March 10, 1953) stated, peace could only be obtained “by creating institutions capable of giving guidance to our future common destiny.”
In their efforts to eliminate the possibility of war and achieve stable peace in Europe, the founders and the visionaries of a European unification could count on a long European tradition. Since the 17th century, the question of peace had been at the center of modernity, brought to the forefront of modern political philosophy by the wars of religion that had almost destroyed European civilization at the rise of modernity. How to prevent the permanent state of war that characterized the state of nature had been the problem of Thomas Hobbes and, through Hobbes, of any European thinker who wanted to reflect on the role of the state in modern society.
Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace (1795) most famously formulated the problem of peace not only within the state, but also at the international level, by imagining a confederation of Republics that would have extended the juridical space to the international level, forever eliminating the “state of nature” from the world. The European solution to the problem of peace had been, since the Enlightenment, a confederation of democratic states united by a legal framework.
However, this tradition that the founders of the European community inherited was universalist in nature and in no way limited, at least conceptually, to a European community. If the need for peace was rooted in human rationality, as these thinkers assumed, then it was not limited to European rationality. If the problem of peace needed to be solved “perpetually,” then a European community could only be a contingent step to the creation of a World confederation. What good could result from creating multiple confederations if the state of nature—and war—could be transferred to a higher level? This act would have simply shifted the issue of war from a state of war between states to that of a war between continents, which is not exactly a “peaceful” perspective. Thus, on the basis of the problem of peace and of European reflection on the subject, a confederation could be founded, but not a European one as much as a World one.
Moreover, the liberal tradition that provided the basis for a conceptual solution of the issue of war and peace was diffident, if not openly hostile, to democratic participation. Republics had to be based on openness and discussion, but not necessarily on the equality of rulers and ruled, and even less on majority decisions. Hostility against democratic decision in favor of legal governmentality might have even looked like an advantage to the politicians in charge of governing populations that had shown a high degree of support for totalitarian ideologies, but the issue of constructing a democratic Europe could not be solved from the perspective of liberal universalism. Thus, the European Community was founded on the basis of a paradox: the main tradition that provided the solution to the problem of peace and federation had very little to say on the issue of community and Europe.
The solution to this problem, adopted by many of the pro-European intellectuals, starting with Denis de Rougemont (September 8, 1906–December 6, 1985), was the project of the creation of a European common identity on the basis of the same combination of selective remembering and forgetting that had been at the basis of national identities. The “idea of Europe” was projected in the past, from ancient Greece onwards, to prove that Europe had been a reality for centuries. As the nationalists had stressed the moments of unity and common memory within the nations to support the creation of the nation states at the expense of the equally numerous moments of disunity and conflict, so the Europeanists projected in the past a unity that was supposedly already achieved and just needed to emerge in the European consciousness. Europe, instead of being a constituent project open to the future, became an already constituted identity that, from Plato to the Enlightenment, was already forever given, as the Italian identity or the American identity in the nationalist projects.
Today, the contradiction between liberal universalism and a European nationalist project tends to emerge as an unsolvable problem, as the return of a repressed trauma. On one side, the lack of a theory of constituent power within the liberal tradition continuously fosters governmentality over democratic participation. On the other side, the reference to an idea of Europe as an accomplished project fosters the exclusion, in the name of an already existing European community, of those who arrive in Europe attracted by its wealth and its universalist promises. A solution can be found only when those who support a solution that breaks with nationalism, but care about democratic participation, will recognize that the European project must be rethought in terms of Europe as a community that needs to be constituted. A democratic Europe can exist only when we will accept that Europe did not always exist but might exist in the future. The constitution of Europe requires a constituent power, and the solution of the question of peace requires that this constitutional power could continue to operate, so that Europe could never be fully constituted.
Emanuel Rota is Assistant Professor of Italian in the Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese at the University of Illinois. At Illinois, he is also an affiliated faculty member of the Department of History, Program in Jewish Culture and Society, European Union Center, and the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory. Rota holds a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. His current research and teaching interests include 19th and 20th century intellectual history; Italian political theory; fascism; critical theory; Marxism and post-Marxism; migrants and diasporas; and racism and European identity. He has book manuscripts in preparation entitled Angelo Tasca: una vita in esilio, and Machiavelli’s Children: Italian Radical Philosophers against the Nation State.