Starting this weekend, we are looking at Federalism in Europe. We be publishing a number of articles and talking to leading people in the federalist movement. We’ll also be asking just how viable is the idea of a federal Europe and how would it work in our everyday lives. To kick off our federalism week, Adam Snygg takes a look at the definition of federalism and how it can work in a future Europe.

At its most basic, federalism is a political system founded on the idea that as much decision-making power as possible should be as far down the political chain as possible, while the decisions that need coordination are moved higher up in the political chain to administer it better. Federally structured states consist of a varying number of more or less self-governing units, united by a common statelike structure, the “federation”. The goal is to give the population far-reaching rights, flexible rules, a mutual responsibility with great individual freedom. Exactly how this is put into practice varies by union – Swiss federalism differs radically from American federalism.

How does federalism work in practice?

Most federal states are built on three political levels. They are, in order of high to low: the federal level, the states and the counties or communes. More levels are possible and, perhaps, good for democracy in such a big federation as a potential European one. Each level in the federal structure can pursue its own policies and make their own decision either until the decision is so big or important that it affects other member states or is considered too difficult and hard to grasp to take on that level. The decision-making power is then moved up a step in the federal structure, which decides if they can decide or if it should be moved up further.

Each federal unit usually have their own institutions that are responsible mainly or even solely for that area. American police, for example, are only responsible for their state. They must contact federal police, the FBI, if a crime needs to be addressed by several states.

What are the benefits of federalism?

Most of the benefits of both unitary states and wholly separate states, with few of the drawbacks of either. There is great freedom in federalism especially if soil and ethnicity are separated. People in one area can decide they want free trade and liberal policies while the other can have social democratic governance and heavy state involvement. These decisions can be moved closer to the people so that they in as large a capacity as possible only applies to those who want it.

What are the characteristics of European federalism?

The European federalist movement is today mostly engaged in uniting questions rather than delegating ones, as Europe simply isn’t federal yet. In most other states where federalists are engaged – as for example the USA and Russia – has the state for a long time had a lot of power begun moving towards unitary governance, rather than federal. Thus, most of those who want a pan-European state are labelled federalists, even if they want a unitary state, since they want the continent to federate and thus, unite.

Europe today has one federal attempt: the European Union. The Union is very close to creating a federal state in Europe and has done much to create and uphold solidarity, democracy and political unity over our great European continent, thus it is also closely tied to federalist movements. In theory, a European federalist need not be pro-EU and could attempt to seek federalization through other channels, but in practice most European federalists are also positive to the EU, at least as a structure.

How do we reach European federalism?

A European federal state is usually claimed to need three things to officially be a federation:

  1. A common European economic union with a unified currency. This is perhaps the step we have made the most headway in because of the Euro, but an economic union with a general European tax needs to be developed.
  2. A common European foreign policy, most likely with a united European army. We have a commissioner for European foreign policy and pan-European so called “battlegroups” in the EU, but these need to be developed and be more respected before we can fulfil this step.
  3. A way to bind the European states to political decisions made by a pan-European government and, which should not be underestimated, the will and proven capability to be able to put this into effect. Some political decisions can be achieved, but this step is like a muscle that slowly must be trained up and used to become stronger. That the commission isn’t a European government also needs to be reformed to work federally.

What is your part in this?

Whatever you want it to be! But the biggest challenge today is public opinion, weather by the states and their leaders themselves who feel threatened by federal policies, as well as the people of Europe who are still deeply mired in nationalist systems of governance. So, go out there, build opinion, demonstrate, send letters, debate and organize!

You can do this!

Adam Snygg
Masters student of history, guide at the Royal Palace in Stockholm, Adam Snygg, is a federalist, proponent for solidarity, unity and liberation from oppression.

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