The European unity project is floundering with the long established but lazy federalism movement regurgitating old ideas and providing few solutions to current problems. But should we be taking the whole idea of closer integration more slowly? Ken Sweeney says yes.
The Confederate States of Europe – that has a kind of dodgy ring to it, doesn’t it? Well, I suppose since the term “confederate” was more or less destroyed by a bunch of American slave owners back in the 1860s, and, let’s face it, now it is almost up there with the term “Nazi”, it seems that any use of it today is a bad choice. But while the term has been blackened, the concept certainly has not, and when it comes to the future of Europe, maybe it is a concept that should be looked at in more detail.
If you had asked me three or four years ago what my opinion was on how the EU should develop in the future, I would have shouted “federation” from the tree tops, but now, given the recent issues in Europe, and myself examining alternatives as a result of what I do here at Europa United, I’m looking at a more open, less constrained EU than a federalist one. Honestly speaking, I’ve been seeing it coming for a while now, as I was continuously finding that the whole federalist idea, along with the movement itself, seemed to be mostly testosterone fuelled ideals of a European army, one nation, either in or out talk, or, most recently, being a “global hyperpower” – yes, someone actually used that phrase. I mean, let’s be honest, being a superpower is so Cold War anyway, so why not take it to the next level and hyper the hell out of it, shall we?
It also seems to me that very few of the main players in the federalist movement have a realistic idea of just how the federalist proposal works. Yes, many use grandiose phrases like “European narrative” and “First Democracy”, but the important details so far have been absent. It seems to me that no one entity has been able to grasp what is required to construct a completely new state and what that state needs to address at a social and democratic level.
And as far as convincing others to join the cause, again any plan seems lost on them. Many keep going back to this Erasmus generation in the hope that they will be the missionaries of federalism – heading out to the far reaches of the EU and converting the natives to the belief system of a united states of Europe. But unfortunately, the vast majority of this Erasmus generation has no plans to be any kind of Knights Templar for European unity once their few years abroad are over. Because most of them need to join the real world and very quickly that involves somewhere to live, somewhere to work, kids, death and taxes – all things that simply drain the enthusiasm about Europe out of them. Such is life.
So despite eighty years of talk about European federalism, we still have no real plan to instigate it. Maybe we need to just drop it for now and come up with something else. A so called Euro unity lite and the idea probably already exist in the theory of confederacy.
Locking down states is a turn off
Generally by definition the difference between a confederation and a federation is that the membership of the member states in a confederation is voluntary, while the membership in a federation is not. And here I believe is the key to obtaining a more united Europe without literally dragging people kicking and screaming into this so-called hyperpower. We also cannot escape the fact that any talk on a big scale of more unity is utterly reprehensible to a substantial portion of the EU’s citizens right now. They want answers to problems that are happening on their doorstep and if we are going to be frank, problems like a more interfering Russia, while important, are not going to make them more enthusiastic about further union of the EU. In fact, it seems that problems that are on a large scale along with everyday social issues seem to be the type of worries that many European citizens want to be solved by their respective states rather than in Brussels. That may be a case of batting down the hatches in times of storm, nonetheless, the current rise in the right is thriving because of a more regional movement rather than a continental one.
And where is the federalist political movement right now? Can we name an EU member state that has a federalist party which is making the same gains as a far right one? Not that I can see and what’s worse is that what federalist movements we have are either committed to a pan-European model or to setting up underfunded local parties that have little or no knowledge of the politics in the region that they claim to be representing.
If we could win over already established local parties to the concept of further unity without a situation where the status of their state or existence in question is diminished, we may have a better chance to keep the European Union together and allow it to become more unified. Because although every federalist will tell you that each state will still be a nation, the cold hard fact is that under a federal system, it will lose independence, because, by definition, once you are in, you are in for good. So while the United Sates of Europe, or whatever it will be called, may contain states, countries, regions or nations, none of them will be independent – unless they all agree to an alternative confederation which by definition gives the Confederacy the power it needs to be a world player, but it also gives the members far more liberty than the lock down of federalism.
It is that liberty that so many citizens across Europe are determined to hold on to in this current climate. So how do we convince them that coming together in certain ways is a good idea? Well, we need to give them what they want – to be happy, be healthy and have disposable income in their bank accounts and feel safe.
If federalists want to bring Europe together then they need to stop abusing nationalism, because despite what they may say, it is not a dirty word to be banished from Europe for ever. They may say that they want it to be a thing of the past, because it causes so many problems and is apparently connected to racism, but the reality is that, like so many parts of society, it has been abused by individuals or groups with a agenda to control and influence. And if it’s not nationalism, then it will be something else like religion, education or security – all targets of tyrants. European federalism wants to banish symbols of states and create an equal utopia across the continent under one flag and one union, but are we not just substituting one form of nationalism for another? How can we claim to be against the concept of pride in nationhood when so many pro-Europeans pull out the EU flag and start signing Ode to Joy at the drop of a hat – this despite what some may claim, is still nationalism, but has just been given a course of steroids and thrown into a testosterone filled gym of Euro ego-maniacs. These same maniacs scream for joy when Europe wins the Ryder Cup, but they have no concept of how nationalism can be a positive force in everyday life, in particular sport with whom they seem to adopt only a passing attention when it suits their own ideals. I addressed the issue of sport and federalism previously and you can decide for yourself whether it is possible to go supersize in sport under a federalist system like the USA.
Citizens enjoy nationalism and trying to deny, re-brand it negatively, or worse, hijack it, is not going to make them happy. It will just cause anger and force a closing of ranks, which in turn results in protectionism, isolation and, possibly, xenophobia which is precisely what is happening across Europe now.
Confederacy allows nationalism to continue, but it can enable Europe to concentrate on one of the main worries citizens have about life in a modern society – health care. The EU already has the ability, both financially and bureaucratically, to introduce a basic form of universal health care across the member states. By examining all the current health care systems and bringing together a panel of experts from all parts of society, it is not impossible to draw up a system that works for all. A big goal should be preventative – universal vaccinations, cancer screening and regular annual free checks can save the system billions of euros per year and would set a standard across the world for reducing the risk of all the major killers, such as cancer, STDs and age related illnesses. Free health care for under seven year-olds and over sixty-fives should be considered as well. While the cost might be initially high, a system of maintenance rather than repair would quickly fall into place with those being regularly checked, screened and attended too, so their complaints or illnesses don’t escalate and cost the system billions of euros. Universal health care could also reduce waiting lists for vital operations if it was possible for patients to be able to travel to nearby member states and have vital surgery sooner. Some states already have such an agreement in place. My own state, Ireland, has an agreement with the UK region of Northern Ireland to facilitate certain procedures to take place in their jurisdiction, thus reducing costly waiting lists and improving the lives of thousands of citizens. Each member state has something to offer from their health care system and there is no reason why it could not be a runner. Eventually initial costs would be drastically reduced once the system was fully up and running, because people would be healthy more often and become less of a strain on the system.
Prevention is always better than cure and that should be the core principle of any future health system in a confederation.
Any spare change, mate?
So what should we do to give people of a future confederacy of Europe a better standard of living? Well, maybe we can look at Universal Basic Income, or UBI for short. This is a theory that has been doing the rounds for a number of years now and is designed to be able to provide every citizen of a state with an amount of money for them to live at the minimum level of basic needs. It’s not unemployment benefit, because you can still work. Some critics say that such an initiative will encourage laziness and, indeed, there may be an initial backlash, but if we encourage citizens to contribute at a civil society level, such as volunteering or going back to education, long term, we can start a society revolution that not only enables people to be more active, but also be a bulwark towards the intervention of automated systems in manufacturing and the inevitable loss of employment that will occur. Trials have taken place around the world in places such as Canada, Namibia, and most recently Finland, with mixed results. There is no doubt that this concept needs tweaking as well as commitment on large scale, but no better place for it to be put into action at such a size than in a new Confederate State of Europe. But you can make up your own mind on this, as I admit it is a contentious issue, but something that should not be ignored or excluded from the conversation.
United security not military
There is so much talk around the idea of a European Army within the federalist movement, with some jumping for joy when the issue raises its head. We don’t need an EU army at this point in time, because firstly, we are not a state, and secondly, the vast majority of Europeans do not wish to have their own nation’s army thrown together just because arms businesses like Dassault and H&K want to push out the US manufacturers. If France and Germany want to do it, let them go right ahead. And besides, do we actually understand how threatening the idea of having a big EU army as a poster boy for European federalism is? It is a complete sign of militarising the movement. Ask the average person on the street today about closer European integration and what they don’t like about it, and they will say “EU Army” and that is a very disturbing fact. The mainstream media are blatantly using it against the federalist movement and you can well bet the right wing element will, too. It’s exactly the opposite of what the federalist movement should be advertising. An army is reactionary and should not be the point where the deference of states is paramount. You want to halt threats to the EU, put the police, coast guard and security services together and introduce a Federal Bureau of Investigation for Europe to focus on more law enforcement cooperation and common border management. Russia has not got the capacity to invade the EU and besides, it is probably causing much more damage through cyber warfare and who is thwarting that? The police and security services are – not troops on the ground. Building a massive army is just putting a big red target on Europe’s back. The army is the last thing the federalists should be shouting about, and when you have a republic of Europe, then you can have your army.
Baby steps to unity
I don’t know how long I will live, but generally, let’s assume that we are talking about the next fifty years, then it is impossible for a European federal state to be incorporated – I mean that is what we are suggesting here, isn’t it? In order for something so big to happen, it would require a fundamental shift towards a minority political view which, in some cases, is seen by people as politically fundamentalist at best and treacherous at worst. We are not even close to leaving the age of European nation state building which really began around 1800 and continuing on from the congress of Vienna. Over two hundred years on and we are still running Europe along those lines – the names may have changed slightly and the regions they hold have shifted east or west depending on the circumstances, but what we have is not too far unrecognisable for any person should they be transported from 1820 to today.
So despite what we may experience in the tiny federalist bubble that exists in the likes of social media groups and in places like Brussels, Strasbourg, and some white, middle class socialites, there is no real desire for any kind of further unity, especially political unity that involves reducing the importance of nation states, regions, countries and provinces. We are indeed living in a period of political shift towards the right and like any other shift, it will have its time and it will probably cause some kind of disruption but will it destroy the EU? Absolutely not – the EU is a massive machine that no individual state or despot can challenge without dire repercussions. Ask Britain about that right now, and even though it may lose members, it will not collapse entirely.
European citizens are speaking and it’s not what the liberals or federalist want to hear, so the solution is to call them crazy nationalists and try to consolidate their own place by selling further political union. People don’t want an elite concept based on academic principles with no clear manifesto – because a few want federalism but haven’t a clue how to implement it on a daily basis – it threatens the few things that they hold dear to them – community, closeness, security and input. We can sell them the line about how federalism works at a local level, etc., but it’s too complicated at this time. Federalists need to forget about changing the colour of the bulb during the night to blue and yellow and focus on confederacy – universal health care, basic income supplement, equal education and a new form of policing. But most importantly, if federalists want to bring Europe together, then they need to stop abusing nationalism, because despite what they may say, it is not always a dirty word to be banished from Europe for ever.
The idea of bringing the member states of the EU closer together needs to be an attractive idea that is gradual and inclusive – not another project fear which not only alienates vast sums of potential voters, but looks for unnecessary conflict both inside and outside the EU. Compromise and confederation are the keys to closer unity and if the European federalist movement wants to be successful, then it needs to face reality and devise a way to work with nationalism, otherwise they will continue to be seen just as bonkers and fundamentalist as those who they claim to abhor.
The author doesn’t give an accurate description of what federalism truly is.
To say the least.
For one thing federalism goes hand in hand with the subsidiarity principle.
There would be much more to be said but, above all, the author misses the point.
There are two main issues at stake in Europe now.
First, problems which are of global scale can’t be resolved at national level.
For sure all citizens in Europe want to be happy, healthy, safer, but at a time of increasing globalization no single government will ever be able to deliver.
National states are not independent
They pretend to be.
They are too small to face problems of global nature.
They are inadequate, powerless
What’s the “fake solution” of nationalistic political parties?
To lock oneself within national borders and defend narrow selfish national interest.
Not precisely the recipe for a peaceful and prosperous future on the planet.
Which brings us to the second issue : our democracy is at stake.
A new supranational institutional model is urgently required.
Not slower integration, rather a quantum leap is necessary.
A fast-track group of countries should take the lead towards closer political integration.
Leaving the door open for any country that would like to join later.
Federalism or not ?
Call it what you want.
Action is needed.
Time is running out.
You bring absolutely nothing to the debate except more soundbites and project fear and complete deaf ear. Is it so bad that I now need to give a basic explanation of federalism? If you weren’t so blind to your own propaganda, you’ll maybe get the points that I am actually making. But let’s do it your way shall we?
1. The article is nothing to do with the virtues of federalism. It’s criticism of the current status of the movement, in particular the recent burst of fragmented so called groups and organisations who by the virtue of their own egos, do not wish to talk to each other, never mind the “federate the federalist” nonsense. All they do is blight the image and hard work that the professional organisations have been doing for years.
2. There is no overnight revolution on the way. Organisations like the UEF know this while other pop up mobs don’t.
3. Nationalism is the bad guy to people like you but you don’t even want to know what it means to people. You just want force people into your utopian society without even trying to understand what they want. As I said in the piece, your future world just wants to replace one form of nationalism with a steroid pumped up one. Me? I’m okay with that because I understand that you cannot remove the concept of nationalism. But your belief is that for some strange reason, the United States of Europe will contain absolutely no form of nationalism whatsoever – even though it has a flag and an anthem already, despite it not being a state? Again, I’m fine with that and at least I won’t be a hypocrite. Maybe if you tried to sell it to people gradually rather that telling them they are the enemy, then maybe they will listen to you.
Your theory may look good on paper but it blows away in the slight wind that is the real world. European federalism is tiny movement – I know – I have been involved in it a decade and of course there a good people and organisations doing great work, the movement is simply not mainstream, no matter what clock you say is ticking.
Democracy has been under threat since the days of Athens facing down the Persian armies and despite all the scaremongering, it will survive.
I am not your enemy – your tactics for implementing your concept is. Federalism needs to be introduced gradually into mainstream society and to do that, it needs to be more moderate, have patience and be less radical. Forming a developing confederation will give people confidence in the system of unity and allow the necessary changes to happen without the shock of a coup.
I am also very good at memes, but my typography tends to be better.
To be serious though, I wonder how many people have actually read Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi’s ‘Per un’ Europa libera e unita’ enough times to actually understand their idea, that Spinelli certainly developed and revised until the end of his life. There is a sudden explosion of competing notions of federalism, the subject of the article above and not the substantial question of whether or not federalism is good or bad, possible or not. There are many of us who would like to see that happen, however even many is a tiny minority of all. The growing number of international, national and even local federalist movements and parties shows simply that there is no unity within the conceptual framework that has existed for many centuries but that Spinnelli and Rossi drafted a 20 century version of as a projection into an unknown future. Three quarters of a century on there is no unanimity, so the chances of development toward any kind of federation of federalists who can share a basic idea appears to be a long way off.
It has become yet again a bourgeois diktat to tell people what is best for them rather than a unifying message to remove the suspicions. Because of my own nationality I shall throw in Brexit. What is learned from that? It is easy to say British exceptionalism, then I would narrow that down to English exceptionalism because of my Scots origins. There I place national identity, I prefer not to call it nationalism, on the table, along with a political state that is breaking away rather than merging within the collective of nations. It is easy to dismiss that as part of that exceptionalism but then we all know that at present there are populist manifestos driving that kind of agenda. Brexit is a symptom of a pan-European sickness, the attempt to filter identity into a single container as those it can be made homogeneous. Let us not forget that a short time before my lifetime there was a nation that sought to make its people the ‘master race’ of the entire planet. Had they won their totally unjust war, the reality is that their quest would have continued until their Italian, Hungarian, Romanian, Japanese and all other allies had also been systematically eradicated or assimilated as the servants of the Herrenrasse, with their Herrenmenschen the masters of all inferior people according to their definitions. Ironically the outcome would have been a possible world federation under the domination of a single nationality, given that as a ‘race’ homo sapiens is biologically a single branch of the order primates, out of which we are part of the taxonomic lineage haplorhini. Nationality, thus nationalism, is a localised accident of geographic separation. But federalists certainly reject a Herrenvolk dichotomy in favour of assimilation of dissimilar cultural groups by political means.
That means the proposition is to end localised identity that may have developed out of geophysical conditions, thus proposing Finns and Italians become one and the same as an example, irrespective of climate and physical environment that shaped their culture, language, informed and influence their beliefs including choice of religion but also gave many of then unique physical characteristics. That is a very simple starting point, most people do not think too much about that but then I am an anthropologist so I look at difference positively and benevolently rather than idealists who cannot agree with each other to begin with whose ambition is to metaphorically sweep them altogether with a large broom and have them all in one mixed and mingled, perfect mass at the end. In the nature of difference and on the basis of historic evidence that has the greater potential for conflicts and violent resistance than anything else. Just look at the pros and cons of colonialism and what one sees is vast empires that one might call federations of dissimilar nations. There is one almost assured outcome of this kind of union, violence tends to be far more prevalent than peaceful dissolution of these pseudo-federations we call empires. Thus an event like Brexit where one of the most conflictive parts of the picture is Ireland.
There we have a nation invaded by the Cambro-Normans in 1169 that led to a slow and inexorable take over to the point that the English king, Henry VIII declared himself king of Ireland in the 1540s, so the occupation progressed to the point that in 1800 after various stages of integration and Act of Union made Ireland part of the UK. That was hard fought from that day on until the beginning of the 20 century where it became bitter enough for the partition of Ireland to 1921 and the Irish Free State, then two years of civil war after which the separation into what has become the Republic after leaving the commonwealth in 1949 and Northern Ireland became a new stage in that 800 plus year conflict. It is the straw that is breaking the camel’s back right now. Brexit may fail over Ireland, but the damage is done. It is entrenched in history and will not go away because somebody releases a white dove across the border, either metaphorically or actually tries that. The pigeon is likely to shit on you either way. What was a relative peace is not violent but is aggressive and potentially dangerous. Now magnify that into differences in the EU on the mainland where perhaps Germany would like to have Alsaß-Lorraine back which it would be by proxy within a federal state but might well be the very reason federation could never happen because Alsatian French want to remain French. Which one of your many competing federalist movements is even thinking about such details and many of them rather than the couple of examples I have used? The ideal is to throw everything together with federalists fighting over the results of that enormous merger because they all have different, often competing ways of achieving that.
A lot of words I suppose to come to one conclusion. Unless this competition or ideological war between federalists ends, until the entirely bourgeois notion of peaceful union imposed on people to make them peaceful is thought through, unless differences are taken into account that include national, regional and local differences and irreconcilable differences reconciled somehow and a longer ‘shopping list’ of to dos, then the warring factions of federalism remain a Kindergarten of immature ideas that have forgotten the idealism of Spinelli and Rossi, along with many other people with enormously ambitious vision, to become just another phase of political alternative that like the 1960s hippy movement is a fashion, a phase that will leave a few people locked in time and that phase, but will be forgotten by the vast majority. The game all of these various federal groups is playing is precisely the one that undermines federalism. Have fun whilst it lasts but when it falls apart do not expect those of us who are serious to wipe away your tears.
After reading your article, I do agree with you that you are saying very correct things. Even though I would love to see the USE (United States of Europe) as a federation, you are definitely correct in saying that it is a very utopian project even in the long-term perspective. All one needs to do is to look at the current situation where not only the EU member-states fight among each other, but on the regional level there is a lot of division too. I do not see the EU citizens giving their votes to a rather vague entity, namely the EU federal government, anytime soon.
The biggest “issue” here is that the EU is not a gathering of countries that have similar cultures, languages, history, ambitions etc. They are all very different. This makes the entire situation very beautiful, but at the same time nearly impossible to govern. In this context a confederation of countries or even regions would be a better option, because it would allow people to maintain their identity and at the same time pool resources for the common goals.
It is a very important topic to discuss and I honestly wish that more people would think about it. Again, I am a federalist by nature, but federation is not going to work everywhere and we must be realistic about it.
I agree with you that the multiplication of so-called federalists groups poses a risk to the introduction and development of federalism into mainstream society in Europe. Thank you for this useful warning.
But I’m afraid there is some misunderstading on nationalism. As far as I am concerned it is not the “bad guy”. There is nothing wrong with nationalism per se, as long as it is some kind of sound patriotism. We all have and need roots. Besides our mother tongue, our national flag, anthem etc. are symbols of our fatherland and of the community we belong to. As you wrote rightly “you cannot remove the concept of nationalism”.
It becomes though “bad nationalism” when some leaders suggest and act as if their country could make it on its own, and when they use hateful rhetoric and discrimination.
Federalism goes together with the subsidiarity principle. It has nothing to do with a centralized type of government. As such, it follows a multi-layer approach. Each citizen can belong to a Region, State and a Federation of States. I can be proud of being Irish or British or Italian, French etc. and European at the same time. I don’t have to choose.
You probably came across some people who said they would like to ban nationalism at state level. This is not Federalism.
Worse, this is not doing justice to Federalism, and actually it’s creating even more confusion in a world where some politicians already deliberately lie to their electorate by blaming the EU for about anything they dislike.
Democracy will survive?
I do hope it will. But let’s not be over-confident about it. You seem to put it as an axiom. It’s not.
What about Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, Salazar, the Greek military junta ?
What price did the people have to pay to overcome those huge and deadly threats to democracy?
Are you so sure it will never happen again, once there will be no more vivid memories of WWII?
Think about the rise of anti-Semitism, of far-right parties (most recent example in Spain).
My view is that citizens are already losing patience because they feel that the EU is not giving the answers they are waiting for. And some cynical politicians are adding fuel to the fire. Nationalist politicians.
It’s precisely because the EU is already some kind of Confederation, with the unanimity rule in many areas, that the single European States can’t solve global issues, thus are unable to meet their electorate requirements. It’s because the integration process is already so slow and gradual that citizens are losing confidence in the European institutions. Putting at risk what has been accomplished since the 1950s.
“A fast-track group of countries should take the lead towards closer political integration. Leaving the door open for any country that would like to join later.” Does it sound like a coup ?
Not more than the Treaty of Paris in 1951, only 6 years after the end of WWII. Nor the Treaty of Rome in 1957, with only 6 founding countries. Maybe our generation is not up to the task ?
For sure we are no enemies. Probably we don’t feel the same sense of urgency. Thank you for the debate.
That would be the first stage either way, a federation needs a consensus and a democratic one at that(without it, it’s something else), it can not come out of thin air. All federations in history passed through the confederation stage and the length of that period varies, taking into account our complexity here in Europe we might end up having the longest period at that, besides the current structure can not be classified either as a confederation or a federation, it is an amalgamation. Europe should begin to take a course and change gradually, the more common danger of a confederation is its fragility in comparison with a federation but also it can be the vehicle to bring about a more stable unity(if managed correctly), the first laboratory to test the meddle and thus it can be as important. So as one who supports the principles of federalism I do not discount confederations or their potential importance, despite their shortcomings. Concerning the nation-state though I think that the struggle is less about specific countries to have the power alone to form a trade pact with China for instance(in our world today that is becoming more and more difficult and the European citizens know that, even the conservatives deep down acknowledge it, no matter if they don’t show it more often with the exception of the far-right of course) but more about our identity and its projection on continental(between us) and global level, the problem with nationalism is not only it’s connection to racism but also with the tendency to see the tree but not the woods a tendency though that has been projected on the EU level as well. As for an EU army, like a federation it can not shape out of a magic way, priority takes to put your house in order and of course I would support that idea, but,to be blunt here, I was worried when I heard politicians like Kaczynki in Poland or Orban in Hungary to be supportive of an EU army, people that don’t do so well in basic principles like democracy and the rule of law(and plus they hate federal principles) so other priorities and steps are essential first. So I agree with the spirit of the article that federalists should abide their time and communicate their ideas more broadly and correctly by focusing on the needs at hand faced by European citizens based on a social dimension first, after all federations are not all the same they might be based on some common principles but details can also make a big difference. As a Greek and European I’m not afraid that I will lose my identity under a European federation as it is already protected(although that myth still persists among many Europeans, a sign that Federalists have not communicated their ideas properly yet) but I’m concerned about the common shortfalls that most people face in their daily life and our core problem is our strangle to share that burden.
How do you reconcile European-wide healthcare and UBI and a confederal system of unity? These would appear to be contradictory to one another.
I find many historical models for European unit which maintain national sovereignty. The current EU is not one such model and the rise of Euro-skeptic parties, even in the face of so much opposition and as hominem attacks, is indicative of the failure of the EU. Brexit is merely the ultimate expression.