Altiero Spinelli and the Crocodile Club: yesterday, today and tomorrow

, by Pier Virgilio Dastoli, translated by Brittany Ingham-Barrow

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Altiero Spinelli and the Crocodile Club: yesterday, today and tomorrow
Altiero Spinelli founded the Crocodile Club. Photo : © Communautés européennes 1985

Pier Virgilio Dastoli is President of the Italian Council of the European Movement, member of the Spinelli Group and former assistant to Altiero Spinelli. The following article is a re-elaboration by Dastoli himself of his article “La crisi dell’UE a quarant’anni dal ‘Coccodrillo’” (The EU crisis forty years after the ‘Crocodile’), published by Il Mulino on the 8th July 2020. The original is available here.

The process of European integration, initially launched with the Schuman Declaration on the 9th of May 1950, has encountered recurring issues. Up until 1980, however, these issues had been resolved with solutions that enabled continued progress within the European Community.

At the beginning of 1980, decision-making bodies were struggling for various reasons. Issues in particular included: an institutional crisis between the European Parliament and the European Council over the size and quality of the European budget; an economic crisis affecting the competitiveness and growth of member countries of the European Community in a globalised world; and a political crisis, which affected relations between the East and the West.

The European system, established with the Treaty of Rome in 1957, was not in an adequate position to resolve these contemporary issues. However, neither national governments, nor the Commission, which at the time was led by the somewhat unreliable Gaston Thorn, a well-established politician from Luxembourg, acknowledged this. In fact, national governments and the Commission responded with contempt to the European Parliament’s request to grant the European Monetary System (the forerunner of the European Economic and Monetary Union) fiscal capacity. Their reaction revealed the strict European budget and the legitimacy of British blackmail within the leader Margaret Thatcher and her well-known demand: “I want my money back”.

The European Parliament was elected directly by citizens for the first time in June 1979, twenty-one years after the coming into force of the Treaty of Rome which had paved the way for election by universal suffrage and planted the seeds for representative democracy. An overwhelming majority of elected members of parliament did not even consider the idea that the Parliamentary Assembly could claim further legislative powers, nor that it could assume a constituent role, that is to say, go beyond its very limited tasks outlined in the Treaty (i.e. censuring the Commission, approving the budget and offering the Council non-binding opinions). The sole exceptions were the former German statesman Willy Brandt, who had called the elected parliament a “permanent constituent assembly”, and, of course, the Italian federalist Altiero Spinelli, considered one of the founding fathers of the European Union.

Unlike Brandt and Spinelli, the majority of MEPs believed that there were still many aspects of the Treaty of Rome of which European institutions could potentially take advantage, without the need for granting additional powers. However, the clash in December 1979 between the European Parliament and the Council over the size and quality of budget expenditure for the following year, which resulted in a victory in May 1980 for the Council (aided by the Thorn Commission), supported the idea that the Assembly had little value if limited to advisory functions only.

However, even after recognising such Parliamentary limitations, actual reforms were not guaranteed, as was demonstrated in June 1980 during the debate in the Chamber concerning the Council’s agreed budget and also previously that year on the 30th June, regarding the European Council’s mandate for the Commission.

Significant change would not have been possible had it not been for Altiero Spinelli, one of the MEPs elected as an independent from the Italian Communist Party electoral list. Spinelli’s programme was consistent with the constitutional and constituent changes that he had tried to encourage the European Commission to adopt five years beforehand during the debate created by the Tindermans Report by former Belgian Prime Minister Leo Tindermans in 1975 on how the European project should continue to evolve.

On 21st June 1980, Spinelli described the European situation as such:

“The existence of common problems is recognised; the need for common answers is acknowledged; creating answers within a European political entity and a European administrative entity is possible. However, while this procedure enhances national preparations and encourages the formation of internal consensus on specific problems, it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to develop European conception and create European consensus”.

Drawing on what we might call Cartesian thinking in his speech (Spinelli was a militant federalist of thought and action), Spinelli outlined the essential content of his project, method, and agenda. For example, he proposed:

drafting a short text of a global constitutional nature, consistent with primary goal of completely replacing all existing treaties underlining the constituent role of the European Parliament creating a timetable which would allow the European Parliament to submit the draft directly to all national parliaments (without going through the paralysing procedure of diplomatic negotiations) in order to turn the European elections of June 1984 into a confirmatory European referendum.

Spinelli’s speech, however, did not arouse much interest as the majority of Socialists, Liberals, and supporters of the European People’s Party were worried about jeopardizing the agreement reached between national governments in which all three political families were present to some extent (albeit with varying majorities). This forced Spinelli to turn his speech into a letter which was sent to every MEP on the 25th June.

The circulation of this letter launched the constituent and constitutional debate which, facilitated by the Crocodile Club, a federalist group which used to meet in Strasbourg. The letter later led the European Parliament to approve the draft Treaty establishing the European Union on 14th February 1984. Spinelli’s letter therefore had an enormous impact on the history of European integration, unlike the futile “Solemn Declaration on European Union” of 1983. The Crocodile Club was established on the evening of the 9th July 1980 in a reserved room in the Le Crocodile’ restaurant at 10 Rue de l’Outre in Strasbourg. In addition to Altiero Spinelli and myself, there were two German politicians (Luecker and Von Wogau) of the European People’s Party (EPP) present, a British Conservative (Stanley Johnson, Boris Johnson’s father), two British Labour MPs (Balfe and Key), an Italian Christian Democrat (Gaiotti), a Republican of the ELDR Group (Visentini) and an Italian Communist (Leonardi).

A large part of the discussion was devoted to relationships with political groups. Some members, such as Visentini, asked to leave the groups they had previously joined at the beginning of the term, while others, such as Luecker, insisted on the exclusive roles of groups that shouldn’t leave individual MPs room for manoeuvre.

Towards the end of the meeting, Spinelli’s idea of an “intergroup” was discussed, which, in accordance with the Rules of Procedure, would go on to provide a solution for the Assembly and reform the European Community by calling for the creation of an ad hoc committee.

It took twelve months for the assembly to arrive at a vote, which took place on 9th July 1981, and another seven months for the new commission to begin its work, commencing on 27th January 1982 under the leadership of Italian politician Mauro Ferri.

Considered by some as ‘revolutionaries’, the nine deputies decided to name their group ‘Le Club du Crocodile’, in a similar manner to how the French Jacobins named themselves after the place where they had gathered for the first time i.e. the Jacobin Convent. There is an extensive bibliography on the history of the Crocodile Club and the Treaty. In fact, the Université libre de Bruxelles’ Institute of European Studies has updated and republished the commentary edited by the four lawyers: Francesco Capotorti, Jean-Paul Jacqué, Meinhard Hilf, and Francis Geoffrey Jacobs. It also includes a preface by Jean-Victor Louis, an afterword by Giorgio Napolitano, and a long essay by ULB Rector Marianne Dony on the possible future developments of the Spinelli Project “Le traité instituant l’Union européenne: un projet, une méthode, un agenda.").

During the years of constituent debate, Spinelli decided to make use of a paper-based communication, in order to keep people up to date on the European Parliament’s progress and encourage discussion on the matter.

Over ten thousand copies of the “Crocodile: letter to the Members of the European Parliament” were printed and translated into five European languages. The letter has now been republished on numerous websites, such as those of the European Movement, the European Archives in Florence, and the Altiero Spinelli Centre of the Roma Tre University.

After the death of Spinelli on the 23rd May 1986, nine MEPs from different countries and political parties decided to set up a federalist intergroup for the European Union, promoting the creation of similar intergroups in Italy, Belgium, France, and Germany, each with varied political success. In Italy, for example, intergroups were highly successful, creating the initiative for a consultative referendum on the constituent mandate of the European Parliament, as well as its success in the European elections in June 1986. Other intergroups were less successful and had little, if any, impact.

Alongside the increased presence of intergroups, the monthly “Crocodile” publication in English and French was started up again. The publication is directed by myself, coordinated by Laura Autore, supported by a group of young federalists led by Monica Frassoni (FIGS: Federalist Intergroup Group Support), and produced with the valuable collaboration of the Scottish lawyer, Scott Crosby, for the English version

The federalist intergroup, established on the 9th July 1986 (six years after the birth of the Crocodile Club) was replaced by the Spinelli Group in September 2010, merging together their parliamentary networks. However, despite the positive perspective of constituency that began in 2001 with the Convention on the Future of the European Union (approved at the European Council of Laeken in December 2001), the presence of the Spinelli Group became increasingly less significant as the European Parliament became less concerned with its constituent role.

Today, the European Union is experiencing, to an even greater extent, the same crisis of 1980: a conflict between the European Parliament and the Council over the size and quality of the European budget.

The effects of the pandemic which have damaged economic and social factors of member countries in an interdependent and globalised world Instability within international relations aggravated by absolute aggressive sovereignty and by the unilateralism of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Jair Bolsonaro and Kim Jong-un.

Forty years after the birth of the Crocodile Club, and with no hope that Heads of State will find their own way out of intergovernmental entanglements, a new European Parliament constituent initiative is urgently needed.

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