Brendan McKee discusses a future Federal EU based on the Canadian model.

The unparalleled economic damage caused by COVID 19 has necessitated action from Brussels with the aim to mitigate the damage to Europe. This has brought the normal sorts of condemnation and adulation from the usual suspects. Most of these reactions stem from suspicions that this may be a step towards a more centralized EU, one in which the EU would be a single state usually envisioned as having a federal structure allowing for some form of continued regional representation. However, despite there being good arguments both for and against a federal Europe, the public conversation on EU federalism continues to be largely dominated by rather shallow conversations revolving around either the perception that Brussels seeks authoritarian domination over Europe or that federalism will act as a sort of panacea for all of the EU’s current woes. Though neither of these types of arguments have much merit to them, given their obvious lack of grounding, they nonetheless highlight the importance of having a conversation on federalism to better understand its practicality.

To accomplish this, I want to examine those two areas that get discussed so often in discussions of EU federalism: how federalism will deal with and/or accommodate nationalism and what possible shape the EU could take in terms of the federal distribution of powers. Conversations on these topics can risk being too abstract at times, so to help ground them we also take a look at how these sorts of discussions have operated in other federal countries, particularly Canada. The reason for the focus on Canada is because it relates well to the EU in many ways. This may diverge from the common comparison of the US to the EU, which at first glance seems to make sense since both the US and EU are similar in size, both in terms of territory and population. However, the US does not have the same strong regional identities that the EU possesses; for example, states such as New Mexico and New York definitely have very different cultures and political interests from each other, the differences amount to little when compared to the differences between European nations such as Portugal and Estonia. Canada, though substantially smaller in terms of population, has a plethora of strong and highly distinct regional identities, as well as a large geographic territory and over 150 years of existence as a democratic federal state which helps to make it the best available testing ground that we can use to discuss European federalism.

I should be clear: my purpose in this article is not to argue for or against the idea of European federalism. Rather, I am arguing for a better way of understanding Europe and federalism.

Federalism and nationalism

One of the most common assumptions made by proponents of European federalism is that federating the EU could help mitigate, perhaps even act as an antidote for, the rising tide of nationalism. In theory, this makes sense as giving Brussels greater political power would both remove some of the levers of power from the hands of state nationalists as well as give people another institutional locus around which to rally. The issue with this is that, in practice, having a central government does not automatically precipitate these changes, and if regional identities are strong enough, than a federal system may only engender those regional groups to seek greater autonomy and independence. In the case of Canada, over 150 years of federalism has failed to mitigate or weaken regional identities.

Quebec is the most famous case, given that it has twice tried to secede from Canada and that it continues to elect Quebec nationalist governments at both levels in the form of the federal Bloc Québécois and provincially, the Parti Québécois historically but more recently the Coalition Avenir Québec, but it is far from the only province to have a regional identity which has found fertile soil within which to grow in Canada. Other prominent examples of this can be found in cases such as Alberta and Saskatchewan’s recent flirtation with the idea of separatism, which has become referred to as Wexit, the continued fondness which Newfoundlanders harbour for the independence they enjoyed as a dominion prior to joining Canada in 1949, and the creation of Nunavut as a Inuit political entity through the division of the territory of the North West Territories. We can also expand the conversation to talk about the growth of those nations which exist within Canada yet do not form a majority within any province or territory, most notably the various First Nations and French Canadians communities who have never shied away from taking political action.

Strikingly, in almost all of the cases that I have just mentioned, the major acts of nation building have all occurred after Canada became an independent dominion. Therefore, the creation of a federal Canadian state, one which was both more centralised and more democratic than the colonial entities which preceded it, seems to have cultivated the growth of regional nationalism. For why this may be the case, we can turn to Pierre Trudeau, one of Canada’s most influential former Prime Ministers and the father of the current one, who was also a talented scholar in the study of federalism. In his book Federalism and the French Canadians, Trudeau notes that:

“Most English Canadians fail to realize that it is their attitude which exactly determines the extent and force of Quebec nationalism. Central government encroachments, which are accepted in other provinces as matters of expediency, cannot be so viewed in Quebec. For French Canadians are not in any important sense represented in the Canadian power elite, whether governmental or financial, and any attempt at unilateral transference of power from the Quebec elite to the Canadian one will naturally set the corresponding defence mechanisms in motion.” (pp. 140-141)

Trudeau’s assertion helps explain the growth of regional nationalism in post-confederation Canada, as the centralising tendencies of the Federal Government have certainly played a key role in helping proto-national communities make the jump to full-blown nationhood. It bears mentioning that many of the nationalisms within Canada, particularly the First Nations and French Canadian ones, are older than both Canada and Canadian nationalism; an obvious illustration of this is the Quebec flag, which predates the Canadian flag by seventeen years. It would obviously be wrong to assume that federalism always leads to the development of regional autonomy movements, but that federal government which is centralizing and untactful in its relations with those regional entities is bound to strengthen them.

It seems, therefore, that the argument that centralising power in Brussels will mitigate regional nationalism or that EU federalism will be a solution to the current growth of reactionary nationalism is entirely backwards. Instead, the confluence of European political power is more likely to have a centrifugal effect on European institutions, as nationalist reactions are encouraged by the encroachment of a centralised government and states seek to safe guard their powers against Brussels. This is not to say that a European federal state is bound to break apart, after all Canada has remained a single state despite some close calls. However, we can say with some certainty that it is extremely unlikely that investing Brussels with greater political authority will reduce nationalism in any meaningful way.

As a final remark on federalism and nationalism in the context of Canada and Europe, I should observe that there is a certain irony in the desire to turn the EU in a federal state resembling Canada. After all, René Lévesque, founder of the nationalist Parti Québécois and father of the Quebec separatist movement, explicitly wanted to make Canada more like Europe – specifically the European Economic Community (EEC). In his book An Option for Quebec, Lévesque refers to the EEC as “an inspiration for Quebec and the rest of Canada” (p. 94) specifically because of how the decentralized character of the EEC has allowed for a “stable framework in which new institutions have provided unprecedented progress to…ancient and still sovereign peoples who dared to take the plunge into well-ordered interdependence” (p. 99). While some in Europe have sought to make the EU into a state which resembles Canada, some in Canada have sought to make the Canadian state more closely resemble the EU.

The division of powers

The second lesson that can be drawn from the Canadian case is on the division of powers. The proposition for a federal Europe assumes that a greater degree of centralism than currently exists will be fundamentally beneficial on the basis that a federal European state, due to its great size, will be more competent at handling certain issues. In terms of resources, this is undeniably the case: a state with a larger budget will have more wealth to throw at problems. However, this logic only applies in fiscal discussions. When it comes to actual politics, the fact of the matter is that the competency of a state fundamentally relies on its political elite. After all, as Trudeau notes, “there is no reason to presume that the federal government will be more enlightened than the sum of the provincial governments, or even than one provincial government acting alone” (Federalism, p. 146). A state with greater resources will certainly have more options during a time of crisis, but if that state’s elite is incompetent in how it handles the state’s response then it fundamentally does not matter how many resources a state has.

This conclusion is, however, a rather obvious one. More importantly, this notion that a federal EU government would be inherently more competent than currently existing state governments is itself an anti-federalist assumption. The reason for this assumption is clear: the current system of crisis management is perceived as being sorely lacking, often requiring European leaders to invent solutions on the fly, and that further integration would help create better institutions for responding to problems. The issue with this assumption is that it favours centralization of political powers and, as Trudeau explains, “most of the reforms that could come about through greater centralization could also follow from patient and painstaking co-operation between federal and provincial governments” (Federalism, p. 148). If it is expediency or the ability to create a more effective unified response to a given issue that one is looking for, federalism is probably not the best political system to advocate. After all, and this is the point that Trudeau was making, it is patient and painstaking co-operation that is at the heart of federalism and all multi-lateral forms of government, not unilateral action from a central government. In Canada, this principle of co-operation is on full display when it comes to the managing of the COVID as the Canadian division of powers has led to the various provincial governments taking on the majority of the duties, particularly in terms of healthcare, with the federal government focusing on supporting provincial responses through actions such as border closures and providing employment insurance for those who have lost their jobs. Rather than a single unified response to COVID, Canada has witnessed each provincial and territorial government tackle COVID in the way it believes is best suited to its particular regional peculiarities while finding support, fiscal and otherwise, for their varied responses from the federal government. Far from allowing for a single, unified response to a crisis, federalism in Canada has encouraged a multitude of often divergent responses.

So, if federalism does not provide for expedient, centralized responses and is indeed reliant on the slow and cumbersome process of negotiating and coordinating between different levels of government, we are left with the question: why use federalism at all? Firstly, and most obviously, the sort of multilateral structures that exist in federal states allow for regional peculiarities. In Canada, federalism was employed precisely because it would give French Canadians, who largely lived in Quebec, control over those affairs which were specific to them. Secondly, the fact of the matter is that political power in a federal state is divided between (usual, but not necessarily) two levels of government not simply because certain levels of government may be more capable at accomplishing certain tasks due to their particular institutional make-up, but also to ensure a greater level of democratic accountability. The federal structure, by dividing political power between units of government, allows citizens to hold a particular unit accountable for a particular policy. Both of these, representation and accountability, are built into the structure of federalism and designed to increase the quality of democracy within the state versus a unitary state. They are, of course, not specific to federal states. After all, representation and accountability, as well as the patient and painstaking co-operation described by Trudeau, are arguably already built into the current EU arrangement despite it being more confederal in nature and may not in fact be increased by further integration.

 Impossible and possible

If the case of Canada illustrates anything it is that federalism can provide for a robust and representative framework, but it is a framework which would not necessarily solve the challenges facing Europe today. Issues relating to nationalism would almost certainly persist, or even grow, under a federal system and the redistribution of powers in a federal Europe would not give Brussels the centralized authority to act unilaterally or to overrule the prerogative of a state acting within its own competencies. This is not to say that federalism is by any means impossible for the case of Europe, but rather that discussions regarding it ought to be more realistic about the nature and prospects of federalism. As I have said before, I have not sought to advocate for or against European federalism in this piece, only to expand the conversation by providing a useful case through which we can learn more about federalism and how it would look if applied to Europe. Nonetheless, in searching for political and institutional solutions to the problems we currently face we would do well to remember that federalism is just one amongst a multitude of options for the EU’s future and it behooves us to ensure we explore the diversity of possibilities that exist. After all, the EU is, as we are continuously reminded, a rather exceptional experiment in multilateralism and as such we should not shy away from exceptional possibilities for Europe.

Brendan McKee
Brendan Mc Kee is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a particular passion for nationalist politics. His work focuses on unpacking the complexities of current affairs and expand the political conversation. You can read more on his blog: https://medium.com/@brendanmckee

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