The progress that Europe has made, thus far, along the road towards its unification has been achieved through a fundamentally ambiguous mechanism. The protagonists of the process, essentially the governments of the European nations, have been driven, at each crucial moment, by two contradictory motivations. On the one hand, they realised that the wellbeing of their citizens, and thus the consensus that allowed them to go on governing, depended on a certain measure of unity within the framework of the European Community initially, and subsequently of the European Union. On the other, this realisation was checked by the determination of the nation-states not to relinquish their sovereignty. Hence, the eminently equivocal nature of the process. Governments were induced, by this attachment to their sovereignty, to pursue and to defend national interests, even when these went against those of the other member states. But this clash had to exist within a framework of European compatibility, and this made it possible to reach reasonable compromises and to avoid the degeneration of differences into conflict. In this way, institutions and laws (the so-called acquis communautaire) were created that, possessed of a considerable inertia, will not easily be abolished. It is, indeed, thanks to these that Europe has enjoyed a period of unprecedented stability and prosperity.
All this was able to come about thanks to the political framework created by the Cold War and by the hegemony that the United States exercised in a setting characterised by a marked convergence of European and American interests. This framework and this convergence, which had been weakening gradually with the passing decades, disappeared entirely at the end of the '80s, when the world situation underwent a radical change. Europe was left facing new and hefty responsibilities for which, since the protection formerly afforded it by the United States was not replaced by a European political power, it was not equipped.
It is important to stress that it is not by advancing towards intermediate objectives like the direct election of the European Parliament, the single market and the European currency objectives that are achievable without the transfer of sovereignty to a European federal state that Europe will prove able to face up to these new responsibilities. Security and an autonomous power of taxation cannot be regarded as intermediate objectives since they are intrinsic elements of statehood. Neither is it possible to envisage partial institutional reforms that might allow the process to advance. The community method, for a long time criticised by federalists, has definitively run its course.
The prospect of the Union's imminent enlargement to the countries of eastern Europe exacerbates the impasse in which Europe finds itself, highlighting its incapacity already evident in the framework of the Fifteen to make decisions. Although the most insightful of Europe's politicians had drawn attention, clearly, to the need for a radical reform of the Union's institutions prior to its enlargement, the priority given to the maintenance of national sovereignty prevented this awareness from being transformed into a design. This is demonstrated by the failures of the Amsterdam and Nice summits.
The truth is that the process has now entered a new phase that can be described as involutional rather than evolutional, a fact illustrated by Europe's humiliating impotence in the current global equilibrium, by the now complete paralysis of its institutions, and by the deepening of its democratic deficit, which is emerging not only at the level of the Union's institutions, but also at national level, where it is possible to observe a strengthening of populist, nationalistic and xenophobic trends a phenomenon that is emerging in different ways and to different degrees in the various countries. The euro, despite constituting a great step forward on the road towards European unity, is far from safe from the dangers engendered by the absence of a political power that can support it, and its use as an international currency is being jeopardised by the lack of confidence generated by this situation. In the absence of a radical turn-about, the forces favouring Europe's disintegration are destined to prevail over the inertia of the acquis communautaire. And, signalling the end of the framework of compatibility that has, to date, been the condition that has allowed the process to advance, such a development would open up the way for the dissolution of the Union.
The once widely held view that European integration is irreversible, and that a deepening of the process is leading us spontaneously towards federal unity, is thus being shown to be totally unfounded. A few of Europe's governments have taken this fact on board. But procrastination seems to be their only way of reacting to this realisation. This is what they did in Laeken, when they set up a "Convention" to study the reforms needed to revitalise the Union's institutional structure. But we are deceiving ourselves if we imagine that what the governments proved unable, and unwilling, to do in Nice and Amsterdam can instead be achieved by a body that is made up of representatives from the same governments, of members of the Commission and of indirectly elected members of the European and national parliaments, and that is the expression of a framework the framework of the Fifteen plus the candidate countries as observers that is structurally incapable of reaching decisions and within which, in view of its composition, forces opposing any relinquishment of sovereignty are bound to prevail.
In reality, the process needs to be relaunched where there exists the richest legacy of European consciousness, and the greatest sense of responsibility. It is only in a setting such as this that, as soon as circumstances allow it, a project might take shape that is capable of radiating to embrace, ultimately, the whole territory of the European Union. This setting cannot be any other than that of the very heart of Europe, i.e., the Franco-German axis. It is here that the initiative must be taken to create a federal design, a design that will then have to be developed and adopted by the minimum number of countries required to form the critical mass needed to give the design the credibility and the drawing power that are essential if it is to extend progressively to the rest of the Union. This can be done only by a homogeneous group of countries united by a long history of integration a group that can, therefore, be made up of none other than Europe's six founder states (or of five of these states if the anti-European drift of the Italian government takes root). These countries should propose the design, in substantially non negotiable terms, to all the other members of the Union, proceeding in a fashion not dissimilar to that adopted in the creation of Europe's single currency. It is highly predictable that, as happened over the adoption of the euro, this initial core will quickly be enlarged. But for the process to begin at all, the formation of this core remains an indispensable condition and it must be formed on the basis of a radical design and a strong will to make it a reality.