Federalism And Populism

How Federalism Can Overcome Trump And Brexit

, by Robert Eagleton

Federalism And Populism

If the European project is to overcome the populism of Trump and Brexit, it must begin to address the extant classed-based societal cleavages which these phenomena have successful mobilised around. In this article, I will clarify what I mean by the terms ‘nationalism’ and ‘populism’ before discussing how the proponents of Brexit and Trump have used nationalism to fuel their respective political projects. I’ll conclude by arguing that, to effectively combat the forces of populism, federalists must promote a federalism which is imbued with the ideas of Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi.


While the majority politicians endeavour to be popular, spin the truth in order to justify their actions, and take decisions which are politically expedient, a populist is an individual who: a) is not committed to any discernibly coherent ideology, b) impetuously rejects empirical evidence, and c) knowingly advocates policies which are completely undeliverable. When examining the programme and actions of Trump, it is clear that he meets the aforementioned criteria. Firstly, from an economic perspective, Trump has no coherent strategy; he supports policies which are both pro-business (such as large cuts to corporation tax) and anti-business (such as a protectionist trade policy). Secondly, when confronted with inconvenient information, Trump has shown a propensity to either label such information as ‘fake news’ or cast aspersions upon the veracity of the empirical evidence underpinning the information in question. This behaviour is illustrated by his promotion of ‘alternative facts’ and his unjustified rejection of the scientific consensus on man-made climate change [1]. Thirdly, Trump has jettisoned a panoply of his campaign pledges; promises to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton and classify China as a ‘currency manipulator’ have both been scrapped. Additionally, Trump has completely altered his view on NATO and has made absolutely no progress on building a wall between the US and Mexico.

Similarly, the proponents of Brexit propagated the myth that leaving the EU could result in an additional £350 million, per week, being spent on the National Health Service. They also falsely claimed that the UK could secure a post-Brexit relationship, with the EU, which would deliver the ‘exact same benefits’ as full EU membership [2]. When it comes to an aversion to facts, the pro-Brexit Michael Gove (the Secretary of State for Justice at the time) told Sky News, when asked to name one economist who supported leaving the EU, that “people in this country have had enough of experts” [3]. However, the common thread which links the election of Trump with the Brexit vote, is the populists’ success in utilising a nationalistic anti-immigration agenda as a vehicle through which to exploit deep-seated societal cleavages.


Nationalism is a nebulous and elusive concept which can take on many different forms. While the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum showed that nationalism can be civic and peaceful, an askance glance at Russia shows that nationalism can be ethnic [4] and, as events in the Crimean peninsula illustrate, aggressively irredentist. In light of this, Peter Alter is right to contend that nationalism:

“Conceals within itself extreme opposites and contradictions. It can mean emancipation, and it can mean oppression: nationalism, it seems, is a repository of dangers as well as opportunities… nationalism does not exist as such, but a multitude of manifestations of nationalism do. In other words, it is more appropriate to speak of nationalisms in the plural than of nationalism in the singular” [5].

The populist-nationalism which characterises the contemporary era of Trump and Brexit is not emancipatory; it is isolationist and regressive. Indeed, while Trump promised to put ‘America First’, and temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the US, the campaign for Brexit called upon voters to ‘Take Back Control’ and proselytised about the benefits of curbing migration from the EU. The question is, how did these campaigns succeed in winning people over to their respective projects and how can federalism tackle it?

Sovereignty & Class-Based Discontent

Both Trump and Brexit drew their support from older, poorer, and uneducated voters [6][7]. Indeed, while it is certainly true that Clinton received more votes than Trump, from households with an annual income of less than $50,000 [8], her lead was smaller than one would have expected a Democrat to have over a Republican amongst such voters. Ultimately, both campaigns employed nationalistic rhetoric which was designed to resonate with those who could be accurately described as being ‘left behind’ and marginalised by the forces of globalisation. This nationalist-populist strategy, of appealing to the victims of globalisation, is not unique to Brexit and Trump. In the recent French Presidential election, Marine Le Pen drew support from de-industrialised areas with high levels of unemployment [9]. Conversely, a walk through the Brussels Bubble, will soon inform you that those who support supranational institutions and immigration tend to be better educated, wealthier, and younger. But why is this the case?

Ford and Goodwin argue that, in the UK, Euroscepticism “is driven less by views about the EU as a set of political institutions, and more by a general belief that the EU and its accompanying institutions threaten national sovereignty” [10]. These voters value national sovereignty, and are susceptible to slogans such as ‘Take Back Control’, because they feel disempowered. Indeed:

“Over the past fifty-years, a deep divide has opened up between struggling, working-class voters who have been left behind by the economic and social transformation of Britain, and the university educated middle classes, who have prospered” [11].

We live a world where the eight richest men control the same amount of wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people [12]. In Britain, the country I know best, the post-financial crisis policies of austerity have had a devastating impact on working people. The percentage of people owning their own home has plummeted from 73.3% (in 2008) to 63.5% (in 2016) [13]; annual university tuition fees have increased from £3,290 (in 2011) to £9,250; public sector wages were frozen from 2011 to 2013 and have since been subject to annual increases capped at 1% (which is a real terms pay cut given that inflation is at 2.6%); the Royal Society of Medicine found that (in 2015) 30,000 ‘excess deaths’ were linked to cuts in health and social care budgets [14]; and last year the Trussell Trust reported that the number of food parcels distributed by food banks rose to just under 1.2 million [15]. In light of this, is there any surprise that voters – feeling economically precarious and deprived of the agential capacity to change their lives – want a strong nation-state to protect them from globalisation and austerity?

The Role of Federalism

In order to provide a compelling alternative to the forces of populism, federalism cannot be neutral to these class-based resentments. If federalists want to effectively combat contemporary populism, we must advocate a federalism which is imbued with the ideas of Spinelli and Rossi. In the Ventotene Manifesto these men argued that “to meet our [the federalists’] needs, the European revolution must be socialist in nature, in other words, its goal must be the emancipation of the working classes and the guarantee of a decent quality of life for them” [16]. While some of their proposals, such as the nationalisation of the steel industry, may seem outdated today, the fundamental principle is as relevant now as it was 76 years ago. Federalists need the support of the working class as much as the working class needs the ideas of Spinelli’s federalism. Indeed, globalisation and austerity cannot be addressed by the faux-panacea that is nationalist isolationism; they can only be addressed by a federalism which is based upon the central tenet that “economic forces, rather than dominating man, should be ruled over by him” [17]. Similarly, federalism can only be achieved if it enjoys the broad support of the working class [18].

In an era of Trump and Brexit, federalism can act as a compelling alternative to populist forces. However, to do this, it must engender the policies and values necessary to capture the populists’ disenfranchised support base. The solution is evident, the question is whether federalists are bold enough to endorse it.





4. Yuri Teper and Daniel D. Course (2014), “Contesting Putin’s nation-building: the “Muslim Other” and the challenge of the Russian ethno-cultural alternative”, in Nations and Nationalism. 20 (4), 721-741.

5. Peter Alter (1989), Nationalism. USA: Oxford University Press, p2.





10. Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin (2014) Revolt On The Right: Explaining Support For The Radical Right In Britain. Routledge: Oxon. p.188.

11. Ibid. p.137.





16. Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi (1941) “Towards a Free and United Europe. A draft Manifesto”, in EuroStudium (2011), issue 20. p. 107. Web.

17. Ibid

18. Ibid. p. 111.

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