The founding fathers of the European Union: Altiero Spinelli

, by Le Courrier d’Europe, Théo Boucart, Translated by Lorène Weber

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The founding fathers of the European Union: Altiero Spinelli
Spinelli in the European Parliament, shortly after it adopted his plan for a federal Europe in 1984. CC - European Commission

Altiero Spinelli was born on 31 August 1907 in Rome. For his birth anniversary, The New Federalist decided to publish a portrait of one of the “founding fathers” of the European Union, pioneer of European federalism and author of the “Ventotene Manifesto: For A Free And United Europe”.

Altiero Spinelli was an Italian federalist who was much less-known than the other “founding fathers” of Europe. All his life, he defended a democratic and federalist European ideal. Despite his great influence on European integration, could he see himself in today’s European Union?

According to one of its (numerous) possible etymologies, the word “Europe” would derive from the Greek word Eurys and Ops, and whose association could be translated into “the one who looks far ahead”. This acceptation would perfectly correspond to Altiero Spinelli, a visionary federalist who exerted a decisive influence on European integration, revolutionary communist but also the profound defender of a democratic Europe.

Revolutionary communist, defender of a federal ideal for Europe

Born in 1907 of socialist parents, the young Altiero was immersed very early in politics and revolutionary ideal. He joined the Italian communist party in 1924, right before Benito Mussolini took over the whole Italian society. As a consequence of his role in the opposition to fascist totalitarianism, he was sentenced in 1927 to 16 years of jail.

Isolation determined the intellectual path of Altiero Spinelli. In jail, he (temporarily) distanced himself from communism, as the Soviet dictatorship was against his ideals. He was eventually excluded from the communist party in 1937. In 1941, in the middle of the world war, he co-wrote with Ernesto Rossi and Eugenio Colorni the famous “Manifesto for a free and united Europe” (better known as the “Ventotene Manifesto”, the name of the island where he was imprisoned).

This text denounced the responsibility of the nation states in the horrors of war and called for the creation of a federal Europe, the guarantor for a lasting peace. [1]

When the war ended, he involved himself in the structuring of European federalism during the congresses of Montreux and The Hague in 1947 and 1948, he founded the European Federalist Movement and co-founded the Union of European Federalists, two organisations at the source of European federalist activism even today.

The federalist conviction of Altiero Spinelli was different from the functionalist method of Robert Schuman or Jean Monet: while these two other “founding fathers” bet on a pragmatic and technocratic method, Altiero Spinelli was convinced that a federal Europe had to be built from a convention committing in writing a European Constitution: a sort of “United States of Europe” in which the citizens would fully take part in European integration.

A federalist, radical democrat who demonstrated pragmatism

The construction of a democratic Europe in which the citizens had a first-class role was the focus of Altiero Spinelli. This is why he first rejected the European Steel and Coal Community (ECSC) and the European Economic Community (EEC), much too technocratic for him. However, it did not prevent him from demonstrating a certain realism when he became European commissioner between 1970 and 1976 and, most importantly, a Member of the European Parliament between 1976 and 1986.

He conducted his last combats within the Strasbourg chamber. Between 1982 and 1984, he developed his project of Treaty on European Union, a project that inspired the Single Act and the Maastricht Treaty. [2] This was a posthumous victory for Spinelli, who died in 1986. He was buried in Ventotene, as a return to the roots of his European commitment. [3]

A non-negligible legacy, but which should be even more important

How would Altiero Spinelli feel gazing upon today’s European Union? Would he be delighted to see an increased interdependence between the European countries, a reunited Europe, and many of his ideas used, such as subsidiarity or the co-decision process for the European Parliament? Or would he be distraught to see a still too little democratic Europe, adept of a “pseudo-democracy” vilified by Jürgen Habermas or Thomas Piketty, and the disappearing Europhilia in his native Italy? Would he be desperate to see that the concept of “United States of Europe” arouses so much wariness nowadays?

One thing is certain: his tireless combat for European federalism confers upon Spinelli the title of founding father of the EU, and his ideas deserve to be much more known.

This article was originally published in French by our partner Barbarie – Made in Europe


[1Translator’s note: Learn more about the Ventotene Manifesto on the website of the Union of European Federalists.

[2Translator’s note: learn more about the “Spinelli Project” and its legacy here.

[3Translator’s note: Every year, a seminar is organized on the island of Ventotene, gathering federalists coming from all over Europe for trainings and debates. Learn more on the website of the Altiero Spinelli Institute for Federalist Studies.

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