The Island Prisoner Who Gave Birth to a United Europe
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Europe is facing another identity crisis.
Old people living on Ventotene, a tiny former prison island off the coast of Naples, still remember when a 32-year-old Altiero Spinelli, one of Europe’s founding fathers, was exiled there between 1939 and 1943. The radical journalist was an antifascist, so the regime decided to confine him on this flat, lizard-shaped and lentil-producing atoll barely two miles long.
Island youths then, some now in their 90s, would see Spinelli — who’d already served 12 years in a mainland prison — working his garden plot each day, growing his own tomatoes. He kept to himself, earning the nickname “lonely bird,” and focused as much on meditation as he did on physical exercise to survive.
It was on this island, isolated in the shimmering blue Tyrrhenian Sea, that Spinelli cowrote, alongside political buddies Ernesto Rossi, Eugenio Colorni and his future wife, Ursula Hirschmann, the famous “Manifesto for a free and united Europe” — the ideological pillar of the European Union. Spinelli wrote in his 1984 autobiography, How I Tried to Become a Sage, that his political enlightenment reached its climax on Ventotene.
Spinelli’s greatest legacy is that he was the first to realize that if national states are left alone there’s a risk of rivalries, conflicts, wars.
The native Roman wrote that he had come to know “the bottom of solitude … [and] contemplated from a faraway theatre gallery the tragedy of the Second World War” — words engraved into a stone monument on the island. Today, teens crowd around the memorial each summer, sipping cocktails and smoking cigarettes, most of them oblivious to its profound meaning.
When fascism fell and Spinelli returned home, all he had with him was a manifesto, theses and a few friends eager to see whether their dreams of creating a political, federal European union would become a reality. The goal? To never again allow the resurgence of national egoisms or totalitarian regimes.
Because everything was rationed by the regime during their stay on the island, including paper and ink, Spinelli and his mates wrote the Ventotene Manifesto as a puzzle, drawing it out on bits of cigarette papers that were smuggled to the mainland.
“Spinelli’s greatest legacy is that he was the first to realize that if national states are left alone, there’s a risk of rivalries, conflicts, wars,” says Sergio Fabbrini, director of Rome’s LUISS University School of Government. “He understood that European nations must be led to be part of a wider framework — a pact for freedom that consolidates peace,” he adds.
Today, Europe is facing an identity crisis and threats to refortify national frontiers in many countries as a result of a massive influx of refugees. The debate questions the sanctity of the Schengen Agreement and free-movement zone, and therefore the European integration process, highlighting the need to reflect on the EU’s history. “Spinelli believed in peace and in a set of values — democratic representation, European citizenship and sense of belonging — that must warm people’s hearts and which many political leaders in Europe today are trying to recover,” Fabbrini says, noting it’s a difficult task.
According to Gianmaria Fava, president of the Eurispes think tank, much of Spinelli’s legacy has been destroyed. “National egoisms and populist parties are on the rise everywhere,” he says, pointing to European countries hung up on their own self-interests.
But back on Ventotene, where Spinelli is buried in the local graveyard, there’s still a tangible link to the man and his convictions. It’s no longer a place of suffering and penance; instead, it’s a place to vacation and relax. Sunbathers rub shoulders with divers, the former prison accommodation has been transformed into colorful summer homes and visitors can even sleep in Spinelli’s old apartment.
Socialists’ canteens and old mailboxes cut from the confinement years are still there, harking back to a time when a divided Europe was waging war. “It’s not a coincidence that Spinelli came up with the idea of the manifesto on this very small atoll,” says local councilor Daniele Coraggio. After all, on Ventotene, he would’ve seen “political dissidents of all kinds — socialists, communists, anarchists and even common outlaws — mingling with residents,” he says, explaining how they all learned to live together despite their narrow surroundings. “That showed Spinelli what European nations could do if they united,” he says. That combined with their remoteness made Spinelli wish that they were “at the center of Europe’s political stage, rather than on its periphery,” he adds.
Once free, Spinelli and his friends spread their political ideals throughout Europe, founding the Federalist movement that paved the way to the European Economic Community, the first pillar of the European Union. The main square, Piazza Europa, and the school have been named after Spinelli, who continued to visit Ventotene long after he was set free. The EU’s founding father even went on to buy a home on the island, notably while serving as a member of the European parliament.