So you think federalism is a good principle on which to base the European Union? Or you have some wider, more fluffy notion of European unity? What do you do?

My route, and I’m happy to describe myself as a federalist, was to join the Young European Federalists and work with other actors in the political process to push for greater democratic accountability of the European Union. For me federalism is compatible with the other things I believe in – social democratic and liberal values. Federalism is a fine principle to answer structural issues for a governmental system, but it won’t tell you whether, for example, a government should tax its citizens more or less. My views are consistent on this point with Altiero Spinelli, founder of the Italian federalist movement who wrote this in the Ventotene Manifesto in 1941:

“The dividing line between progressive and reactionary parties no longer coincides with the formal lines of more or less democracy, or the pursuit of more or less socialism, but the division falls along a very new and substantial line: those who conceive the essential purpose and goal of struggle as being the ancient one, the conquest of national political power, and who, albeit involuntarily, play into the hands of reactionary forces, letting the incandescent lava of popular passions set in the old moulds, and thus allowing old absurdities to arise once again, and those who see the main purpose as the creation of a solid international State, who will direct popular forces towards this goal, and who, even if they were to win national power, would use it first and foremost as an instrument for achieving international unity.”

But then along has come the internet, and lessening of the influence of the traditional political parties. So why not make your own political movement, and base it on the quest for political unity in Europe? Apart from it being questionable whether anyone would vote for this, do such movements actually have answers to everyday problems, or do they simply muddle the issues of governance and politics?

The newest one of these movements (and the reason I wrote this post – they e-mailed me) is called We Change Europe that seems to want more direct democracy as its answer. Their website is reasonably slick at least. Newropeans is the most established of these small organisations and they are trying to put up candidates for the 2009 EP elections. Europe United is trying to do something similar.

I should be a person to whom these movements should appeal – making EU unity an electoral issue. But I am really not convinced. Why should I join or vote for these people? I have more sympathy for even the most radical people in the federalist movement than I do for these folks pushing for political power and, I suspect, not really getting very close to it.


  1. We receive too little information about our rights as EU citizens. I think it’s an excellent idea to give Europeans a voice. Direct, acitve votes for European citizens’ are the beginning of a ‘new’ Europe, in which European citizens will be more integrate in decisions.

  2. Well I can only speak for Europe United, but we are not simply federalist. Apart from our position on institutional reform which we believe would lead to a more democratic Union we have policies on climate change, energy, migration, enlargement and foreign affairs. Additional will follow …

    Its definatly not our intention to be a party you vote for just because you want a federal Europe. As a party we need to give answers on how we want to solve the practical problems we Europeans face. That is our goal and our manifesto for the EP elections will reflect that.

    However Europe United will not label itself conservative, liberal, socialdemocratic whatever … others will do that for us if we have success.

  3. I mean a strict form of federalism, although not 2 levels (there’s the EU level, member state level and Länder etc. level) with a catalogue of competences stating what powers are to be exercised at each level, and a proper constitutional court to adjudicate between those levels.

    A clear assessment of what areas of political power are needed at EU level and, by definition, at the lower levels, would be needed, and that may require powers to be returned to Member States from the EU.

    Federalism is a valid starting point as it’s a tested system of multi-level governance which, if organised correctly, can manage to achieve efficiency, democracy, human rights and social welfare.

  4. Martin Keegan

    What does it mean to “base” the EU on a principle such as federalism? This is just hopelessly abstract. What actions and outcomes does such “basing” entail in the real world?

    What do you mean by federalism? Do you mean it in the strict sense of a system of government with two levels, between competences cannot be transferred except by consent at both levels (how the US constitution is supposed to work in theory)? Or do you mean it in the looser sense often used by both sides in the European debate of merely a collection of states with certain governing powers exercised in common, irrespective of whether the dividing line between federal and state power is effectively enforced/respected?

    Additionally, why should federalism be one’s starting point? I think it’s better to say “let’s evaluate this governance structure according to the outcomes it’ll have in terms of efficiency, democracy, human rights and social welfare”, rather than “irrespective of whether it’ll be any good or not in terms of democracy or whatever, let’s design a governance structure and give it the following feature”

  5. Ralf,

    so you want a Federal Republic of Europe. Fine, that’s yor opinion. But do you recognise that the only legitimate way to get this is through democracy?

    To date in the UK, only STEALTH has been used. The UK Government is fully behind the EU agenda, but every leading figure of it would publicly dismiss the notion of a Federal Republic of Europe as wild fantasy.

    You may be happy to abandon the nation state, but I am against this. This is not because the notion of federalism is ‘abhorrent’. Such a reaction would be emotional, and it no doubt suits you to represent those that disagree with your vision as being bound by emotional reactions, but there are many rational objections to the establishment of what your leader Barroso tellingly called ‘the world’s first non-imperial empire’.

  6. Jon,

    For those who want ‘less Europe’ and more of their nation state, ever less able to address the challenges of a globalisng world, ‘federalism’ is abhorrent.

    But when we realise that in a world with emerging new powers, not necessarily democratic and benign, we Europeans need to join our forces, the perspective shifts.

    In the long run, it goes against our historic achievements if the European level of governance in a close political union is not based on similar concepts of representative government as the national, regional and local polities.

    On the other hand, in spite of more of common cultural roots than most people seem to realise, Europe’s diversity is such that a unitary state would be a strait-jacket.

    Therefore, the European Union should develop more clearly into a real force in the world, able to defend the interests of its citizens, while abstaing from petty regulation best left to the other entities (or, often wisely, to the citizens themselves).

    This means that the EU should become a federation, preferably called, not the United States of Europe, but the Federal Republic of Europe, a small but real distinction.

    In my book the three most important aims for the future Europe are, based on the rule of law: effectiveness, democracy and solidarity.

    This Europe would need a reasonably sized Constitution, with the fundamental values and guiding principles, and the institutional framework. The policies could be left to the elected politicians: parliamentarians to legislate and the the government to run.

  7. I would describe myself as a European federalist.

    Whether or not moves in the direction of federation take the shape I would like to see is, however, a rather different matter.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *