26th Oct 2021


'Prison island' birthplace of EU reborn as think-tank venue

  • Ventotene seen from twin isle Santo Stefano (Photo: Silvia Marchetti)

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Ventotene Manifesto, the European Union's building block. Celebrations have kicked-off on two small twin islands off the coast of Rome which are considered the 'cradle' of Europe - and are pushing for greater integration.

This month, tourists enjoyed watching a team of pro-Europeans swim three miles from Cala Nave beach on Ventotene island all the way to the spooky abandoned prison isle of Santo Stefano, rising across the choppy waters, to commemorate the birth of the manifesto and European values.

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  • Santo Stefano isle prison fortress (Photo: Silvia Marchetti)

At the end of the 'Natalonga for Europe' swimming marathon the European Republican Cafés (EuReCa) project was launched with the goal to create a network of coffee bars across Europe to discuss the future of the Union, supported also by the European Democracy Lab in Berlin.

Despite the lively holiday vibe, the cosy beaches packed with families and the pristine seabed swarming with giant groupers and barracudas luring divers from across the world, the twin islands share a dark past.

Ventotene served as an island of confinement for anti-fascists and political dissidents such as Spinelli who were shipped there by the regime, while Santo Stefano was a fortress jail for criminals serving life sentences - a place of torment and anguish. Built in the 1700s, the huge crumbly prison is shaped like an amphitheater with 99 cells on three floors and a central chapel.

The prison was shut in 1967 and fell into oblivion, turning into a ghostly place.

But now Santo Stefano is being revived through a €70m refurbishment project to turn it into a high-level European think-tank, academy and open-air museum aimed at boosting the European integration project by training EU youth, scholars and politicians.

In future, both islands could become locations for European summits of heads of state. Today, they are pilgrimage meccas for EU leaders, officials and pro-Europeans.

"The twin islands are like two huge joint trees, they have deep roots anchored in the memory of Europe's and Italy's founding fathers but look to the future and how to build a stronger Union", says Marina Berlinghieri, Democrat Party chairwoman of the Lower House European Affairs committee.

"On the occasion of the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) that opened in May, these will be places to discuss key themes and objectives such as European citizenship, the direct election of a European Commission president, the creation of a fiscal union, a common budget and European Parliament transnational electoral lists. Addressing the future institutional architecture of the EU is now crucial in a post-COVID world", adds Berlinghieri.

Renzi, Merkel, Hollande summit

The makeover of Santo Stefano was launched in 2016 by then prime minister Matteo Renzi when he organised a summit with German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Francois Hollande on a warship in those same waters where the ashes of Spinelli were thrown.

He accompanied his guests to visit the islands, stressing how the rebirth of an austerity-plagued, crisis-hit Europe must start from its origins.

Five years later, Italy's new government has finally unlocked the funds necessary to giving the jail fortress a new life. Italiy's Roma 3 University has been involved in creating on the islands an international centre on alternative ways to jail imprisonment and convicts rehabilitation, says Silvia Costa, Rome's commissioner in charge of the project.

"Ventotene and Santo Stefano, once restyled, will be buzzing with pro-European youth coming from all over Europe. They will be accommodated in new hostels and even now we interact with them through forums dubbed 'Next Generation EU' as they refer to the post-pandemic social and cultural goals our institutions are focused on implementing", says Costa.

Each summer the European Federalist Movement, uniting 150 young Europeans and dozens of academics, meets on Ventotene to honour the memory of Spinelli, who in 1941 pieced together the manifesto with his fellow prisoners Ernesto Rossi and Eugenio Colorni.

The three dreamed of a united, free and federalist Europe with a common army in which single nations willingly gave-up sovereignty for the common good.

Ventotene today hosts the Altiero Spinelli Institute of Federalist Studies while the local middle school is named after Europe's founding father.

At sunset teenagers gather for drinks under a stone monument in the bright central piazza with engraved phrases from his autobiography.

Spinelli's former confinement lodgings have now been turned into a apartment for tourists, with view of the cliff-hanging Bourbon castle. Former prisoner dwellings and canteens have become bright purple and yellow studios.

During this special year of celebrations Italian and European youth will stage across Ventotene EU-themed art shows, exhibition and concerts, and will plant vineyards in the countryside as a symbol of hope, says Costa.

"The horrible pandemic has reminded us that European construction is still a work-in-progress which needs to be finished and that the dream of the founding fathers is yet to be fulfilled. Their teachings are all the more topical today", says Berlinghieri.

The twin islands will also host seminars and spring schools on freedom of speech, Europe's Green Deal, human rights and Mediterranean migrant routes, adds Costa.

"Ventotene already features summer camps for youth, we plan to enlarge these and to mix their study on European issues with a bit of fun, like diving and sailing", she says.

The restyle of Santo Stefano's prison fortress is part of the New European Bauhaus initiative launched by the European Commission to promote culture and history through sustainable, green architecture and art. It will be an environmental-friendly renovation and the number of day tourists will be limited, assures Costa.

"Ventotene and Santo Stefano are at the heart of the Mediterranean's bird migratory routes, there's even a bird-watching observatory on Ventotene which will be reinforced. We want to preserve such pristine habitat".

Author bio

Silvia Marchetti is a Rome-based freelance reporter. She covers finance, economics, travel and culture for a wide range of international media.


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