Why believe in european federalism?

Time for pro-europeans to turn their beliefs into action

, by Thomas Grandjouan

Why believe in european federalism?

The ascendancy of Emmanuel Macron should signal at least one thing to federalists: time to relaunch a discussion on renovating our politics. Thousands of young men and women today would call themselves pro-europeans, some even proudly with fire in their eyes. But what does this mean without a project? Like a growing number of activists, I believe we need to inject a dose of federalism into our discussions about Europe. But before explaining its merits as a political plan for action, let’s first remind ourselves why federalism has become relevant.

What the crisis changed

Thirty years of untrammelled growth and liberal doctrine have given our borders shape-shifting qualities. At times they resemble a porous membrane, at others an impassable wall. But now, the spaces delineated by national barriers are being supplanted by networks whose rules are determined outside our territories, far away from the jurisdiction of our courts. This seemed fine when the jobs were there and wages rising but when the financial crash revealed the vulnerabilities created by open borders, we were left cap in hand looking for answers.

In France, your small business broke-even in 2006 only to enter the road to bankruptcy in 2011; in Hungary, the engineering job you longed for out of university remained out of reach; in Greece, your hard-earned pension evaporated into thin air as the government tried in vain to reach a deal for a fourth bail-out package. In a situation of financial insecurity, our anger turned to the professional politicians who seemed as incapable of fixing the situation as would a small child clambering onto the factory floor intent on stopping its huge machines.

Meanwhile, experts tell us the continent faces a ‘polycrisis’. A fiscal-banking-debt crisis on the one hand, a mass-migration crisis on the other, both of which are drawn across a backdrop of growing wealth inequality for promethean but lonely individuals. Decades of economic liberalism have brought us the freedom of material choice, education, work and leisure. Technological innovation enables us to claim a new level of consumerist power, with every person now equipped with a smart phone, an object so captivating it almost becomes, for better and for worse, an extension of our body.

Our flamboyant age highlights the inner contradictions of democratic life. It is the famous “double bind” of democracy. By empowering individuals through the conferral of equal rights, the state precipitates its own undoing, enabling a permanent militant opposition that undermines good government by constantly questioning public authority and the knowledge of its experts. How do we contain the fervour of public life ? Well, naturally by turning our attention back onto ourselves to become rich and free, but, alas, this also leads to the undoing of the state, since favouring the pursuit of individual freedom results in a multiplication of aspirations and demands that so preoccupy the average citizen that they stop thinking about the needs of collective society while also sapping the authority of a state no longer able to keep up with the growing demands of its citizens.

The costs of hyper-individualised politics are visible through two societal problems: inequality and atomisation. The first, an unprecedented expansion of wealth inequalities has already received a lot of attention. Surveys have shown that in almost all European countries, the gap between the richest and poorest has never been as high, and Piketty has shown us that far from regulating this tendency, liberal capitalism has aggravated inequalities, leading to wealth disparities unseen since the days of robber baron capitalism at the end of the 19th century. The only solution for Piketty is appreciated by federalists because it necessitates stronger global governance to implement a global tax on capital along with greater transparency for large fortunes.

What is less spoken about is how atomised our generation will become. Partly out of economic choice for a remunerated career, partly as a result of technological change enabling us to live and work at greater distances from each other. Surveys on the political views of children born in western Europe since 1980s indicate this atomisation could be the result of a lifestyle choice, since the political views of today’s young professionals are likely to be more eco-friendly but also more economically liberal, something the Macron trend embodies clearly. [1]

For those born in the 1990s, intent on seizing the opportunities offered by free movement, our relationship to politics differs starkly from our parents. The impact of always being far from home, of uprooting to find a job, regularly displacing your mental caravan, may lead us to develop a heavier reliance on virtual connections, through Facebook, WhatsApp and email.

If our political structures cannot adapt to this mobility, we will find ourselves isolated. But at the same time, we must regulate these new cross-border relationships. Already, while more connected than ever, reports across various European countries are finding young men and women increasingly distressed. By increasing the distance between the family home and the office we also create a need to rebuild new local support structures. And while more informed than ever, the public debate is too scattered to create a discussion, and so we continue to tweet, email, and type in our corner, while the increasingly derelict public forum remains deserted.

European federalism tries to provide us with a new paradigm to solve these problems.

How can our state structures evolve to catch up with this runaway world? How can a political right trump economic rationale? Is it still possible to make a dent on your environment ? Is there still time to dream? Federalists have recognised the need for an action plan, one that is conceived for a globalised polis, a blueprint aimed at building an interstate democracy whose criteria of success will be its ability to place the European citizen within touching distance of its institutions.

Reinvigorating ailing democracies

Our democracy is not going through death convulsions, it is demagnified as a result of suffering from a crisis of imagination. Vindicated by the collapse of the Soviet Union and two decades of global growth, the European social model seemed to have reached its apogee. We felt the job was done, the model of European social democracy, as comprised of free market, welfare state and rule of law, would carry us to Mars, coasting on the assumption that politics and history had come to an end. But then the tremours returned. First in 2001 for the west, and then 2008. European citizens, left disarmed, looked back at their governments only to find their public institutions had little traction on market forces, and their politicians were unable to build a narrative that gave hope.

Federalism is a narrative that can give hope. It can do this because it provides a technical blueprint for change combined with a vision for a better world.

No other single political idea offers this: “Social-democracy” fails to explain its contradictory reliance on the exploitative nature of capitalism, “liberalism” fails to protect our most vulnerable, “conservatism” fails to rip out natural equalities. The only new political phenomenon has been a new form of identity politics, resulting in xenophobia for conservatives and vapid multi-culturalism for the left. Each set of priorities contains some truth, but none seem convincing when taken as a single bloc of ideas. One strength of federalism is its ability to absorb ideas from other political traditions. If taken first as a method for institutional change and secondly as a receptacle for political ideas, federalism can subsume existing political ideologies, thus providing the key to solve problems parties have failed on working by themselves.

On a geographic level we are faced with another phenomenon: a concern with national sovereignty. Why are we seeing a resurgence of nationalism? Most probably because of the societal damage wrought by globalisation; we feel something big has changed in our political life but are unable to place a finger on it, like a deaf explosion or an underground tectonic shift. Our governments seem demagnitised of their power to the detriment of the national myth and to the advantage of thousands of anonymous hedge-fund managers sitting somewhere overseas.

Those choosing sovereignist politics must ask themselves, is it necessary to refuse the realities of a world already globalised, blaming our neighbours for our current vices while searching internally for what once made us great? Federalists say gently no. It is possible to accept the impact of globalism, but to do so we must be ready to govern it.

To those worried that European federalism leads to an international hodgepodge, where national differences melt into a globulous mix of Esperanto, they should know this: recognising local and national diversity is what makes Europe’s brand of federalism unique.

To protect this difference we must continue to defend the integrity of our borders, but since our frontiers have moved outwards, only decisive action on an European level can preserve this richness. The only way to do this is a European federation.

Do EU citizens really oppose the creation of a federal state ?

Two years ago, the European Commission published a report to see whether Europe really was facing its worse ever crisis of public opinion. The vast collection of data from 28 different member states gathered over the last 40 years gives us some important insight to ideas about European citizenship and reason why Europeans have cause to be optimistic about the future. [2]

Why are the results encouraging ? Here’s why:

-  EU citizens continue to believe EU membership is a good thing (47% versus 17%)
- EU citizens favour euro-zone membership (63%), despite a fall since 2011
-  EU citizens are optimistic about the future (51% in 2013 )
-  EU citizens are increasingly interested in what is happening in neighbouring countries,
-  EU citizens overwhelmingly (83%) believe closer cooperation is necessary in the wake of crisis
-  EU citizens favour a common foreign policy (63%)
-  EU citizens want a greater role for defence (73%)

The dissatisfaction remains on the weak quality of EU democracy, divided opinions on shared identity, a feeling of being badly informed about EU affairs, and the majority do not know the rights the EU confers on them. Meanwhile, the respondents confirmed overwhelmingly their desire to cooperate on economic matters, energy and migration. The report concludes that EU citizens want to know more but are becoming increasingly disinterested in their EU rights.

The Commission report shows there is a desire for radical change amongst EU citizens. The question is, what national politicians will have the power of conviction and the courage to forego some of their national prestige in the short-run to guarantee their place in the world in the long-run ?

A non-identified object or a leap of faith ?

A European federation would be a political invention, a singularly new construction in the history of politics. It is therefore of little use to cobble together lessons from previous federations: American, Canadian, the Roman or Habsburg empires.

What we do know in great precision is the institutional form a European federation would take: a bicameral chamber, the European Council becomes senate, the European Parliament becomes the lower-house, and the Commission submitted to greater control by both chambers, with one president directly elected by the citizens of the EU heading a college of commissioners drawn from national representatives in the senate. [3]

Political federalism improves economic governance, reinforces political rights and safeguards the heterogeneity of its Member States.

Despite the convergence of values our continent remains a maze of linguistically diverse regions. This is why “united in diversity” is not simply a motto, it is a recognition of the cultural layering core to European identity. Naïve assumptions that federalists are pursuing a not-so-secret plan to build a European super-state ignore that we are also rooted in national tradition. The difference is that federalists recognise that pooling some sovereignty with countries that share a common past - or desirous for a common future - does not steam-roll over our national heritage. It protects this legacy by encasing them in a superstructure that can defend its legitimacy on a international level.

Many questions remain about the feasibility of federalism. For me, they boil down to two:

- Do we need a pan-European federalist party or should federalist politics subsume policies of traditional parties ?

- Should we attempt to re-open the treaties through a constitutional negotiation and create a two-speed Europe with reinforced euro-zone governance (Verhofstadt report), or push for a full-27 reform by trying to first squeeze out everything we get from the Treaty of Lisbon (Brock and Bresso report) ?

I will leave it up to the reader to make up their mind. Personally, I do not currently believe in a pan-European party, the impulse must come from traditional socialist and conservative parties to integrate the federal-local axis into their policy-making in order to prevent anti-immigration parties to claim the opposition. But, If the parties refuse to change, we must be unhesistant in pledging our support to new movements that do, of which “En Marche !” is the most successful recent example. Secondly, I believe the EU is still too fragile to re-open the treaties, although this may change dramatically thanks to France’s new president. If appetite for treaty change cannot be found, we should pursue the plan set out in the Brock and Bresso report: maximising the reforms that can be achieved under the Treaty of Lisbon before concentrating on new projects. That way, we can clear the way ahead for the momentous institutional change to be carried out in 5 to 10 years, once most Member States have stabilised their economies.

For thirty years they said it would not work, and then it did. For the past 10 years, they said the euro would collapse, and it lives. In the same way, European federalism will be derided until it succeeds.

Sources

Brock and Bresso Report (Jan, 2016), Committee on Constitutional Affairs, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-%2F%2FEP%2F%2FNONSGML%2BCOMPARL%2BPE-573.146%2B01%2BDOC%2BPDF%2BV0%2F%2FEN

The Guardian, (May, 2017), ’Facebook and Twitter “harm young people’s mental health”’, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/may/19/popular-social-media-sites-harm-young-peoples-mental-health

Centro Studi Sul Federalismo, Roberto Castaldi, ’The failure of intergovernmentalism in tackling the EU crisis and the European Parliament’s initiative’, http://www.on-federalism.eu/index.php/component/content/article/250-the-failure-of-intergovernmentalism-in-tackling-the-eu-crisis-and-the-european-parliaments-initiative

Footnotes

[1Intergenerational Foundation, (June, 2010) ’New research suggests young Britons are more liberal than any previous generation’, http://www.if.org.uk/2013/06/10/new-research-suggests-young-britons-are-more-liberal-than-any-previous-generation/

[3I bypass the discussions on the comparative advantage of a cooperative “German” model or dual “United States” model, more information can be found here: http://www.jeanmonnetprogram.org/archive/papers/00/00f0101-04.html

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