We Have to Decide Which European Democracy We Really Want *

Roberta De Monticelli 
Former Chair of Philosophy of Personhood, San Raffaele University, Milan; 1989-2005 Chair of Modern and contemporary Philosophy, University of Geneva; Chief Editor of “Philosophy and Mind”

Last 19 October, the Polish Prime Minister made an address to the European Parliament which triggered the indignation of the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen.

“The European Union is a great achievement of the European countries," said Mateusz Morawiecki, "and it is a strong economic, political and social alliance, and the strongest and best developed organization in History. However, the European Union is not a state, but the member states of the EU are. The states are those that remain sovereign over the treaties”.

On 7 October, the Polish Constitutional Court had issued a ruling which contested the primacy of EU law over that of the states, and ruled, in particular, the incompatibility with the Polish Constitution of certain EU provisions on human rights and the respect for minorities (in particular LGBT minorities). Nevertheless, the tensions between the EU and the Polish government led by the conservative right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) are due to, beyond minorities’ rights, the liberty to inform and the reform of the Polish judiciary system in a context of sharp reduction of the magistracy’s autonomy.

What the European Union is 

The European Union's reaction has been instantaneous. The same day, in a document that can easily be found in the magnificent directory of European law on the website eur-lex.europa.eu, the Commission reiterated that: “The EU law prevails over national law, including constitutional provisions; the EU Court of Justice’s rulings are binding for all authorities of the member states, including national courts”.

The statement of the Polish Prime Minister should have provoked a real debate on the principle that the sovereignist leader enunciated with determination: "The EU is not a state, but the member states of the EU are”. It should have and it still should, because that is the crux of the matter, even more so than a debate on the individual rights of minorities (we in Italy saw what happened to the Zan law proposal on Homophobia) and on the irrepressible pressures of national governments upon the autonomy of the judiciary system (here again, in Italy we had some experience of this issue).

In other words: what kind of political entity is the European Union? What do we want it to become? It is up to us, the European citizens. We elect a Parliament, which implicates an executive body (the Commission), we can appeal to a Court of Justice even against judgments by national courts, and we witness, too often, the impotence of the other body which, together with the Parliament, "exercises legislative and budgetary functions" (Lisbon Treaty, Title III, Art. 9B): the Council (of Heads of State and Government).

We also know something about this: think of the Dublin Treaty, which puts the burden of the management of migrants onto the countries of first reception, instead of regulating their examination and distribution among the different EU countries at the EU level.

Parliament has been pushing for a fair and rational solution, and the Council has been blocking it. The same applies to the construction of a true European international presence on the world stage, a presence already ideally outlined in the Lisbon Treaty in terms that echo Kant's words on perpetual peace. Think also of the establishment of a common defence, which would respond to these principles rather than to the logic of geopolitical anarchy; it is identically subject to the blocking rule of unanimity in the Council (a veto by one and the decision is not taken). This impotence is rooted in the inevitable prevalence (unless changes are made to the unanimity rule) of national sovereignty over the EU’s interests.

Altiero Spinelli unceasingly denounced it as the cause of the failures of all the great supranational political entities, from ancient Greece onwards. Until the Federation of the United States of Europe, outlined by the Draft Treaty establishing the European Union – otherwise known as the Spinelli project – approved by an overwhelming majority of the European Parliament in 1984, which served as model for the actual realisation of the institutional set-up of the current Union, when the international situation made it possible.


Gianfranco Pasquino wrote on 2 November in the Domani newspaper that without ideologies, populism triumphs, and that the EU’s strength is based on its ability to foster a “democratic ideology”.

How I would like to see a debate that goes beyond this ambiguous word, 'ideology', and face the crucial matter: do we want a supranational democracy, therefore, to all intents and purposes, the United States of Europe, or do we believe – with the Polish sovereignists – that the concepts of democratic sovereignty and nation are indivisible?

The latter is an opinion that has long prevailed even within left-wing parties. Pasquino rightly quotes Spinelli's famous thesis that European parties will no longer be distinguished into left and right, but into those for and against the political unification of Europe.

Not because the progressive (“left-wing”) character of the Federalist project is unclear. But because this project creates normative obligations to counter the nations' sovereign arbitrary power. These obligations are based on values universally accessible to the reason, sensitivity, and goodwill of anyone, and not brought up by the “forces” of History.

This project is made of ideals to fight for: not of “ideologies”.


* Article published in the Domani newspaper on November 7th, 2021


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