JEF Presidium Member and former layout editor for the printed edition of The New Federalist. As a local Liberal Democrat Councillor he currently represents the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.
Recently I had the privilege of being a guest of the think tank ELF (European Liberal Forum) for an event in Bulgaria to discuss the “EU Strategy in the Danube Region”. You might ask why a British guy would be interested in this topic, except sometimes it is the external view or fresh pair of eyes which recognises a different opportunity.
At the event we heard from politicians, NGOs, academics, local authorities and even young people from the region about the challenges and opportunities that it presented. So it was saddening to see that invitations to the government party and ministers were at first accepted and then repeated excuses found so that in the end there were delegates from several countries with both political and embassy representation, but not from the government of the country we were in. It highlighted a real problem for those like the king and ex-Prime minister of Bulgaria who had founded the party NDSV who are trying to make positive initiatives for change, and perhaps why JEF and the European Movement as cross party organisations potentially play an important role in getting others around the table.
But it doesn’t stop there.
For the youth organisation it makes sense
We heard from the youth organisations which are trying to work across the many countries which border the Danube. Faced with numerous challenges to find funding and recruit, it had already taken on an umbrella type feel, seeking to coordinate their work where possible but also encourage people to be more active individually- always a difficulty.
During the meeting a survey was cited that had shown many Germans who lived near the Danube had no idea which other countries it bordered further downstream. Thus the danger of some of the old Western prejudices seeping through with a historical fear of a politically unstable Balkan region. This highlighted not just a lack of knowledge but a need to improve education. The Danube is incredibly important, acting as a conduit, a border and ecological feature for so many countries and people.
So why is Federalism a solution?
Because it would make sense for a youth organisation to look to a federalist decision making process which allows for the individual groups to be active on the areas of interest in their local area and yet at the same time, by coming together, gain the political weight to be able to lobby effectively on common goals and solutions.
This kind of arrangement, probably starting as more confederate than federal in nature, would help to build up the levels of trust, knowledge and understanding over time. They would be able to keep a level of independence so that prejudices could be tackled in a safe manner and in some cases even allow for the access of funding streams due to their wider reach.
To get the action on the ground it makes sense
In the second half of the event we heard more from the organisations which have made the Danube their life blood, a hopefully symbiotic relationship. Of course the impetus, the driving force for some is “What’s in it for me?” Something which the Danube does supply.
We heard about the work that companies had undertaken both to preserve and positively enhance the ecological environment as a source of tourism and thus economic benefit. With a river the decisions made up stream can have a profound impact on those downstream.
Even at this event they highlighted their frustration though that already they had raised some of the issues further up the chain of political influence and it had been taken seriously. There is already an “EU strategy for the Danube Region”, but this isn’t enough. For one thing it was an EU strategy, which whilst involving the other countries it was not an “EU and Neighbouring countries” strategy. The result had been that whilst some nebulous decisions and ideas had been taken, the powers, the ability to make a difference, and in some cases the resources, had not managed to be devolved down to the level where it could actually make a difference.
Surely that’s the role of federalism?
We must never forget that whilst a decision might need to be taken at a higher federal level, the actual implementation will often be down to the levels further down the system. In JEF-Europe we know this, we know that whilst we might choose to focus on a given issue this year and it should be chosen at our European Federal Congress, it is the individual sections which will make it a reality. But federalism is more flexible than this.
In the same way that we have Working Groups which work across the organisation horizontally, surely it would make good federalist sense for things to be devolved down to the collection of NGOs, Businesses and the like who are working on this specialist area. Yes, there need to be safeguards in place and support should not be blind, but subsidiarity is a great motivator. We need to learn how to let go and trust in people.
Federalist dreams and a road to reality
So as federalists we dream of a situation where decisions are taken at the most appropriate level, but we must never forget the other side, that so must the actions and the powers to undertake those actions.
As Europeans, we’re well aware that there’s more than just the European Union and that whilst statements from the EU such as “As an independent player with respected authority, the EU is in a good position to facilitate cooperation.” may be true, it cannot and should not act unilaterally.
Perhaps in areas like this they provide an opportunity for us to marry our federalist and European ideals and give people an opportunity to feel the benefits in action. In this way we might help build up the trust between peoples and with the ideas.
At the end of the day:
“Federalism is the solution we’ve got.”