Spinelli: who was he?

Few of the younger MEPs or staff in the European Parliament seem aware of the person after whom the main parliamentary building is named: Altiero Spinelli.

I was privileged to attend as a special guest last Monday, the premiere of a film on the life of Spinelli — not a documentary but a historical drama on his life, including the 16 years he spent in Mussolini’s prisons and internment camp on the island of Ventotene. Members of Spinelli’s family, people who worked closely with him, the actors, film director, and the head of Italian TV station RAI were there. The film itself was very moving and well acted. It would be nice if it were not only shown on Italian television, but also in other countries.

It’s been 28 years since Altiero Spinelli passed away, at which time I wrote a tribute to him, as I had the privilege of working with him from 1982 to 1986. I’ve copied an extract of the article below; I hope it will enable a new generation in the Parliament to understand the significance of the man behind the name of the building in which we work.

Spinelli was one of those men whose actions were directed towards his ideas. Brash but persuasive, willing to compromise but not to sacrifice his principles, able to quote the literature of eight languages but never verbose, acutely aware of the limitations of the political class but nevertheless a passionate democrat, Spinelli was a man of many facets. Few politicians commanded respect across such a wide political spectrum and in so many countries. The presence of so many young people at his funeral showed that this respect also transcended generations.

Spinelli did not live to see the European Union which he did so much to render possible, but it owes its birth to him more than any other man. Spinelli was involved in almost all the major events of European integration since the Second World War.

It was during his long spell in Mussolini’s prisons that Spinelli became convinced of the need to build a United Europe. In 1941 — well before the outcome of the Second World War could be safely predicted — he co-authored the “Ventotene Manifesto” which stated that the first task for all progressive forces after the overthrow of fascism was to build some binding form of cooperation among the states of Europe. The alternative — a return to totally sovereign nations in shifting alliances — would inevitably lead one day to another war. Strongly influenced by the analysis of the pre-war British Federalists, Spinelli was to devote the rest of his life to promoting the cause of European federalism. He remained independent of political parties, having broken with the Communist Party in the 1930s over Stalin’s purges; he remained a man of the left but was able to build bridges to politicians of all parties.

The Ventotene Manifesto was widely circulated in Europe’s resistance movements, and a conference of resistance leaders was held at the end of the war in Geneva, at which they proclaimed their support for a European Federation. Spinelli founded the Movimento Federalista Europea which became the Italian section of the Union européenne des fédéralistes which he led for almost two decades. These organisations spread the European idea well before national governments became interested and began to make modest proposals themselves in the late 1940s. Spinelli was naturally disappointed with the early governmental stumblings towards European integration, and he remained convinced that, contrary to Monnet’s expectations, the nation state would not gradually become eroded as they became more closely interdependent in the Union, nor did he believe that economic integration would automatically spill over to political integration. He constantly urged further steps, and ones that would not be based on the collaboration of bureaucrats, technocrats and diplomats, but would involve a people’s Europe, established by a democratic method in involving an elected European Parliament.

Spinelli returned to the forefront of the European scene when he became a Commissioner from 1970 to 1976, accepting the need for a “long march through the Institutions”. As Commissioner, he was midwife to the Vedel report on the powers of the European Parliament and later was the main influence behind Commission’s famous 1975 report on the European Union – which ultimately helped create enough pressure for the institution of direct elections to the European Parliament. Spinelli became a member of the European Parliament as an independent [and the rapporteur of the special committee set up, at his instigation, that drafted a proposal for a new treaty replacing the European Community with a European Union. It was this proposal that triggered the treaty revisions that led to the single European Act in 1986 and the Maastricht Treaty on European Union.

Spinelli’s achievements were to set the sights of politicians away from day-to-day minutiae and on the more fundamental and long-term goals of the European Union. On each occasion, the result went beyond what would otherwise have been achieved. On each occasion, too, it remained below what Spinelli would have liked and what remained necessary. It is now up to others to complete Spinelli’s work.

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