Federalism as an alternative to populist forces

, by Juuso Järviniemi

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Federalism as an alternative to populist forces
Participants at the March For Europe in Rome in March 2017. Gioventù Federalista Europea (JEF-Italy) // Facebook

With Britain’s decision to leave the European Union in the June 2016 referendum, and with Donald Trump’s election as the President of the United States, the powerless, “forgotten people” claimed power. Votes for populist forces undoubtedly call the existing political structures into question, in Europe and the United States alike.

The federal structure of the United States was built to guarantee individual freedom even when those in power lack respect for such principles. Similarly, European federalism would strengthen the checks and balances that ensure citizens’ fundamental rights. In Europe, federalism is also a viable way to ensure the very democratic accountability that Eurosceptics and nationalists in Britain and elsewhere are calling for.

Moreover, federalism can strengthen Europe in policy areas with which electorates prone to populism are discontented. Federal structures can protect those who are unable to protect themselves from government encroachment. They can also cater to the needs of those who feel powerless, and thus diminish the appeal of chauvinism and nationalistic jingoism.

Federalism protects our basic rights from illiberal populists

President Trump has been regarded as a potentially illiberal and anti-democratic leader, which has served as a reminder of one of the arguments for federalism. James Madison’s argument that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition” referred to the kind of case at hand – in federalism, different levels of governance balance against each other to guarantee individual liberty and frustrate authoritarian leaders.

In today’s United States, the perceived threat to individual liberty emanates from the central level, which calls for states’ rights. In the nascent European federal system, on the contrary, it is certain member states such as Poland and Hungary which may threaten hallmarks of liberal democracy like free press and independent judiciary. However, in Europe the central level has thus far been at pains to provide citizens with the appropriate protection against such infractors, which calls for stronger powers to Brussels.

In a stronger federal system it would be conceivable that the central level – in the European context, the Commission – should be able to exercise coercive power to end infringements of the basic principles of the community. The use of Article 7 TEU, the “nuclear” legal pathway currently available for the EU, notoriously requires unanimity from member states. Therefore, the member states themselves are essentially the guardians of the fundamental values of the EU, and ultimately there is no higher level of governance to balance against them in this regard. A treaty reform following federalist principles would be required so that ambition could be made to counteract ambition in Europe.

The frustrated and the powerless appear to have a historical tendency to confer power to those who may one day end up exploiting their liberties, often in the name of nationalism. In an age where forces similar to Trump continue to battle for power in Europe, a reliable system of checks and balances against such developments remains an attractive prospect. Voting for illiberal politicians employing nationalistic rhetoric can be a cry for help by those for whom the existing system has not delivered. In the first instance, however, it is necessary to ensure that in such a situation the system cannot turn against the voter even more dramatically as a result of such a vote.

Whose political rights and liberties are threatened cannot be powerful. To ensure that the people retain their freedom and consequently their power in society, federalism is an answer worth exploring, as national constitutional structures alone have proved insufficient in certain instances.

What nationalists call for, federalism can deliver

Secondly, it is paramount to tackle those deficiencies of the existing system which drive the desperate to the populists’ bosom. In the run-up to the British EU referendum, it became clear that democratic deficit at the European level of governance was one concern. “Unelected Brussels bureaucrats” is a phrase that entered the vernacular not least because of the pro-Brexit campaigners.

Brexiteers’ anger over democratic deficit is legitimate. However, the campaign to ensure the democratic legitimacy of the executive branch at the European level is that of the federalists. Holding the Commission truly democratically accountable would require a presidential or, perhaps more plausibly, parliamentary system. The introduction of a clear parliamentary system at the European level would be an explicitly federalist reform, and steps towards it have been taken through the Spitzenkandidaten system, supported above all by pro-Europeans.

The European Union’s inability to assume control of immigration has been another deficiency highlighted by nationalist populists. Again, as pro-Europeans have repeatedly noted, a more centralised asylum and immigration policy would be a pathway towards resolving some of the most pressing problems at hand. A conferral of more powers to the central level could be interpreted as integration following the ‘sui generis’ model, but a centralised asylum policy would also be consistent with federalism. With a federalist policy we could end the frantic race to the bottom as European countries seek to reduce their pull factors to divert immigration elsewhere. Conversely, we would also end the possibility of “shopping” for countries with the most lenient asylum policies of which populists are keen to accuse asylum seekers. All in all, federal-level policies would have the potential to produce the order and calm that those lamenting “uncontrollable immigrant flows” would seem to desire.

A third apparent concern that nationalist populists have successfully tapped into has been terrorism. Many such populists are keen to give the public the impression that the only alternative to doing nothing and letting terror reign is closing the borders and perhaps discriminating against minorities. However, European integration following the model of federal states, once more, presents an attractive alternative. A centralised intelligence agency with executive powers and an integrated intelligence database is what one would expect to see in a federal state, but the European Union still lacks one, despite the freedom of movement within the Schengen area. If Europe became more like a federation in this regard, it would potentially become a more secure place.

We find that some of the most pressing concerns that nationalist and populist forces in Europe articulate could be constructively addressed through federalist solutions. Branded properly, European federalism is synonymous with democracy. Call it what you may, integration towards a European federation can also lead to more orderly immigration and more security from crime and terror. The verdict of populist parties’ voters is that today’s Europe is not democratic, orderly or secure. But precisely in the fields that these parties highlight, today’s Europe is still largely one of nation-states. A federal Europe might be a different story.


Maintaining formal competences at the national level risks weakening the actual power of democratic institutions, as the international nature of various problems compels states to ally with others one way or another to broaden their range of available policy choices. If states retain formal decision-making power in this context, intergovernmental deals with limited democratic accountability are unfortunately the default option. International political institutions are the remedy, as has been understood in the European Union, but democracy is still lacking when it comes to the executive.

Cooperation in Europe is clearly extensive enough to be of a political rather than merely bureaucratic character, and the direction still arguably needs to be forward, towards more integration of a more political nature, as abovementioned examples illustrate. The corollaries of politics in our shared value system are accountability and democracy, the primary devices ensuring that power remains in the hands of the public. To give the powerless what they yearn for, we need Europe. And not just any Europe, but specifically a federal Europe.

Populists call for power for and accountability to the people, and responsiveness to the needs of the public. These are respectable principles, and entirely consistent with federalism. Federalism can shield freedom, a key prerequisite to power, from the dark, illiberal side of populism. A federalist parliamentary model would secure better accountability to the public at the European level. Through integration with the policies and institutional models of federations as a guiding light, Europe can cater to the public’s need for order and security.

The hitherto record of the Europe of nations and intergovernmentalism in providing liberty, accountability, order and security is unsatisfying to many. Federalism provides a credible alternative. Indeed, perhaps the noblest principles of populism are more consistent with federalism and less so with nationalism than most nationalist leaders would like to admit.

This essay was originally submitted to the Antonio Saggio Award essay competition. The title of the competition was “Nationalism and federalism in the era of Trump and Brexit: federalism as an alternative to populist forces”.

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