Opinions European elections

"There Is Finally a Call for More European Unity; Now it Is up to Governments and Institutions to Respond"

, by Stefano Feltri
Mario Monti, the senator for life and Honorary President of the Institute for European Policymaking at Bocconi University, takes stock of the outgoing European legislature and explains what can change after the vote

In his latest public speeches, French President Emmanuel Macron has become the spokesman of total pessimism when it comes to the future of the European Union: either it adapts immediately to the new hostile geopolitical context, or it is destined to dissolve.

Senator for life Mario Monti, twice European Commissioner and former Italian Prime Minister, became Honorary President of the Institute for European Policymaking after his mandate as Bocconi President. Bocconi established the IEP to commemorate the legacy of Mario Monti, a man less pessimistic than Macron.

In his new book "Demagonia - Dove porta la politica delle illusioni" (published by Solferino), Monti warns that our liberal democracies risk losing legitimacy because governments are too concerned with short-term consensus, and not enough with achieving concrete results in the medium term.

However, there is a sign of optimism. Monti underlines that, for the first time in decades, European citizens are decisively demanding a more united Europe, along with more ambitious and effective European policies on par with those that were effective in stemming the crises of recent years, particularly during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.

This call for European unity is the most encouraging consequence of the past five tumultuous years following the 2019 European elections. Now, with the European Parliament election on 8-9 June quickly approaching, it is time to take stock and look forward to the near future.


President Monti, what is at stake in the 2024 European elections and how is it different from previous elections, specifically that of 2014 immediately after the debt crisis and that of 2019 right before the pandemic?

The 2019 European elections were marked by Brexit, Donald Trump’s presidency and similar phenomena within EU Member States in terms of populism and sovereignty. The central issue was whether the populists and sovereignists could succeed in giving the European Union the boot in Strasbourg and Brussels. They did not succeed at the European level, but something significant happened at the Italian level.

Following the 2019 elections, Italy was the only country that sent MPs belonging mostly to sovereignist parties to the European Parliament. Such parties include Lega and the Five Star Movement, which were in government at the time. 

The failure of the sovereignists at the European level, coupled with the widespread fear of their strength, has – in my opinion – helped set a different tone than in the past, one that is more incisive in subsequent EU policies. 

The response to Covid, in particular – despite all its approximations, delays and errors – was strong not only in the healthcare field, with the Commission responding to the States’ request for community-wide action, but above all in the post-pandemic economic policy. 

Had there not been the thrill of sovereignist risk, perhaps the European Union would have been less proactive and more in line with its tradition of extreme financial caution. 


Now that the fear of the sovereignists has subsided, are the elections only looking outward, to the return of war in and around Europe? 

If we think of Italy in particular, the political forces that have a sovereignist European agenda have either disappeared or are keeping quiet. Or they have had their own learning process, specifically Brothers of Italy. The party experienced a sovereignist blow from the opposition when Lega and the Five Star Movement hit the Brussels wall, and they learned a few lessons from that. 

Now the concern is mainly beyond our borders, where the European agenda is made more difficult because of the failure to ratify the Treaty on the European Defense Community in 1954 – the only setback in the history of progressive EU integration that has not been remedied in the short to medium term. 

In 2022, with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, we realized that this was not just one of the many matters to be resolved when it comes to Europe, but a gigantic and dangerous chasm. 


So the challenge of the next legislature – the Parliament, the Commission and the Council – will be to overcome that stalemate on defense?

I think so, and the new MEPs must simultaneously have a much broader and concrete vision. They usually become intimately acquainted with the concerns and interests of various groups – industrial, agricultural, etc. – or they take up high-profile issues, such as human rights around the world. 

Now history will force them to deal with not only issues pertaining to how the EU interacts with the world, but also terribly tangible matters concerning armies, military and industrial spending, and so on. 


Is the idea of introducing a European Commissioner for Defense a step in the right direction? 

I think it would be useful. This has always been the case; when a specialty passes to the EU level, a Commissioner is appointed. The same, for example, happened for Justice and Home Affairs. 

Having a Commissioner tasked with thinking of and building a European defense, which is distinct from the Vice-President in charge of Foreign Policy, can be very advantageous.

This is linked to the European Union's quid agendum over the next five years. I found some very interesting polls that looked into voters' opinions of European policies. For the first time, EU policies – including on defense – had high approval. 

How can we reconcile this with the fact that we are instead experiencing a return to nationhood not only economically, but also in terms of identity and perhaps even spirituality? 

Citizens want security. They understand that it can only be brought about through a coordinated and common basis, and an awareness similar to that which has evolved regarding healthcare and the climate crisis. 

Member States also know that more European action is needed, but they cling to national sovereignty and the necessary exercisable powers at the national level more than citizens do. 

We have extensive precedents related to this. There was a lengthy phase in which everyone recognized the need to introduce a single European currency, but the two most powerful categories – that is, the finance ministers and heads of the central banks – did not want to give up on their prerogatives. 

The force of circumstance, however, led them first to want the single currency and then to implement it. Today there are very few people who would like to turn back time. 

The next five years will determine the possibilities of what the EU can do on the global stage, and how it can project itself outward; I hope not with missiles, but with values and interests. 


Who will lead the process of building a common defense – the Parliament, the Commission or the European Council? 

The European Council will certainly decide what to integrate into the defense apparatus and how to do so. Then other parties will concern themselves with the details, but it will be up to the national Heads of State and Government, who will meet in the European Council, to decide what steps to take. Therefore, the elections at the national level will be important, as they will determine who will sit on the European Council. 

Those who want more European unity must respond to a new call – which is finally being heard – for EU policies by overcoming the unchanged resistance of national governments to ceding sovereignty. 


The Council is destined to remain powerful, but this legislature has seen strong leadership from Ursula von der Leyen, President of the Commission. In fact, she is running for a second term. What is your assessment of her five years in the Commission?

The Commission under von der Leyen as a whole is doing well, compared to others in the past. Much is thanks to her, one of those rare Commission Presidents who has never been head of a national government, just as with Jacques Delors – who served "only" as Minister of Finance. 

The Commission has earned higher marks in the first few years than in the last few, with its handling of the pandemic that went better than expected – including the invention of new tools. Another reason is because these last few years have led to some strained relations with the Member States, as well as among some States, due to differing positions relating to Kiev and, especially, to Moscow.

Arguably von der Leyen's desire to be confirmed has made the coherence of the Commission's positions less ironclad in some contexts; for example, towards the protests of agricultural workers that have shaken the determination to pursue a crucial objective for this Commission – combatting climate change. 

However, today more than in the past – in the eyes of the public – the European Union is its Commission, and the Commission is its President. Perhaps being a citizen of a powerful country such as Germany, and being appointed to the presidency by both Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of that powerful country, and Emmanuel Macron – the President of the second most powerful country – allowed von der Leyen to exercise her role with maximum impact. So the President of the Commission is doing well, but the Commission's relationship with the Council – which is not very autonomous – is not too good. 


In recent speeches and interviews, Emmanuel Macron has said he is very pessimistic about the future of the European Union, as if he feared its imminent collapse. Are you also sounding the alarm?

President Macron possesses the typical French intellectual propensity to look at phenomena in their longue durée, which is an essential component of politics, especially European politics. 

In considering the long-term prospects, however, short-term forecasting errors can be made, as when Macron pointed out NATO's "flatlining” which has instead found new centrality in response to Vladimir Putin's actions. 

Like all manmade bodies – and this has been a very necessary, but particularly bold one – the European Union may one day come to an unfortunate end. It is something worth thinking about, but I do not foresee this happening in the near future – unlike on the eve of the 2019 elections, when the risk was more concrete. 


translated by Rosa Palmieri

Explore our European Elections focus