As part of our spotlight on federalism, Brian Milne, asks why is there such a fear of European federalism and suggests that it could be the answer to a new political system in the United Kingdom.

Federalist theories are ingrained in political philosophy that are far more normative than analytical, therefore tend to focus on the reasons why states should form any kind of union rather than why they would freely surrender sovereignty (Hill and Smith 2005: 21). Thus far beyond discussion the EU has not fully achieved voluntary union. There are many good reasons for this. It is also not totally likely they ever will.

To begin with, in the present 28 member states of the EU there are 30 ‘constitutions’ and a similar number of legal systems. The UK is the odd one out that skews the number. With the peace agreement in Northern Ireland, constitutional arrangements were made that do not exactly match those of England and Wales, accordingly laws are not all the same. Scotland has never had the same constitutional arrangements as the rest of the UK to begin with, less so now with the Scottish Parliament and the legislation that created it. The legal system has never been the same as the Anglo-Saxon common law system. Apart from that, there is a longstanding debate as to whether England actually has a constitution? The Magna Carta Libertatum as it was signed in 1215 and modified over the centuries actually carries little legal weight in contemporary England since most of its original clauses have been repealed and any pertinent rights ensured by other statutes. Thus, although common law is claimed to represent a constitution, since there is no structured document it is a dubious claim.


It is, however, ironic that one of the political gambits among Europhobic elements has been objection to the notion of the UK becoming part of a federal structure with the larger part of Western Europe as though it would become a single state with a capital, president and central government. The Westminster based political classes often fail to understand the differences between unions. A federation is a group of states with a central government but independence in internal affairs, but a confederation is a more or less permanent union of states with some or most political power vested in a central authority. Two very good examples explain this well. I am sure we all know that the United States of America is a federation of its states. It is not in the classical definition actually a country at all; indeed its name gives that away. A country or state is a nation with its own government, occupying a particular territory; a nation is defined as a large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory; alternatively, nation state describes a form of political organisation under which a comparatively homogeneous people inhabits a sovereign state, especially a state containing one as opposed to several nationalities. The USA does not fit the bill of any of those definitions. States occasionally say they may secede if such-and-such happens, usually sabre rattling but not without substance since close examination of the 50 states would reveal sometimes substantial differences between legislations. The other is Switzerland. We probably all know the CH on Swiss cars, the Latin Confoederatio Helvetica. In fact, modern Switzerland is a federal directorial republic that consists of 26 cantons with Bern as the federal capital that calls itself the Swiss Confederation for mainly historical reasons, but retains a great deal of cantonal autonomy and legal variance. My wife’s canton, Ticino, is at present proposing holding a referendum to limit the number of Italian workers who migrate there or travel across the Italian border to jobs in Ticino every day. The Federal Council in Bern is saying it would not be valid, so Ticino is defiant and intends to go ahead anyway using its own cantonal laws. At present there is a bit of a standoff.  Not in content, but in essence based on the outcome of the EU referendum in the UK, a similar standoff is developing between central government in London and two members of the union, Northern Ireland and Scotland plus a British Overseas Territory, Gibraltar, that have majorities that wish to remain in the EU.

A united states of Britain

The UK is thus a political union of three countries, plus a province and a territory, with Westminster at present trying to impress on all that it is a more or less permanent union of states with the balance of political power vested in a central authority. It could almost be redefined as a confederation given the political attitude of the present regime. Yet with devolved powers and either assemblies or a parliament it could also be defined as federal. It is therefore extremely ironic the UK treats federal notions for Europe with such contempt. After all, the British Empire was either a confederation or federation depending on how you look at it, but traditionalists will inevitably throw in the fact it was headed by the Crown rather than by a republican presidency, therefore was a monarchic empire. It is actually hair-splitting at its finest when one considers the fuss being made over the expression ‘ever-closer union’.

It is ironic that the very principles of union and of bringing people together are precisely those that European federalism stands for, yet divides political movements and the people of Europe. Its history is far older that the 1957 Treaty of Rome. Victor Hugo won broad approval for a speech at the International Peace Congress in Paris on 21 August 1849 when he suggested the notion of a ‘United States of Europe’. It was based the principle of universalism which were peaceful initiatives, that were often dormant but survived tumultuous times that saw Europe torn apart by two world wars. A small number of people realised that peace and reconciliation were only ever going to be possible within a union of economic, political and cultural forces instead of the old military alliances. The UK, strange to say, was where the first European federalist group was established in 1938. The Federal Union was a pro-European group that advocate the idea of a federal Europe in which member states would unite around a tiered structure that would not lead to excessive centralisation and interference in the affairs of its members and their governments. It was in essence what Churchill said when 1946 he delivered his speech at the University of Zurich in which he called on European countries to form a regional organisation for security and cooperation that he called a future ‘United States of Europe’[1].

The Ventotene Manifesto (Manifesto di Ventotene), officially ‘For a Free and United Europe. A Draft Manifesto’ (Per un’Europa libera e unita. Progetto d’un manifesto)[2], was written by Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi while prisoners on the Italian Ventotene island during World War 2. It was completed in 1941 then circulated within the Italian Resistance, soon becoming the programme of the Movimento Federalista Europeo. It promoted a federation of European states that would keep the countries closer to each other. consequently preventing war. Vayssière (2005: 69-76) notes that it is widely seen as giving birth to European federalism. Spinelli became a leader of the federalist movement through authorship of the Manifesto and post-war advocacy. It demanded ending Europe’s past to form a new system in which politics would be restructured and there should be extensive social reform. It was presented as the best option for Europe after two major wars but not as an ideal. It is very clearly based on Marxist ideology, however almost certainly takes the flaws in the Stalinist Soviet Union into account, but has had some influence in the formation of the EU. It may also be one of the reasons some anti-federalists are as fearful of a EUSSR as others are of a USE.

In the classical concept and model of peaceful world federation, social organisation begins with at grassroots among people and their communities. Constitutional and international law, civil and human rights create concord between social actors and the circles of association they belong in. Thus the idea itself is based on personal and autonomy principles that can be found in the works of many advocates of federalism that include Aristotle, Grotius, Suarez, Saint-Pierre, Penn, Locke, Paine, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire, Tocqueville, Proudhon, Brugmans, Monnet, Spinelli, Tindemans and even Delors. It is often criticised for being ambiguous, leading to it being hard to understand, furthermore it is often (mis)used to describe both the ‘process of political unification and the diffusion of power within a unified state, or the process of disaggregation’ (Wiener and Diez, 2004: 29). That ambiguity has led to a great deal of misunderstanding through diverse interpretations, whereby the meaning in the UK is often very different to some European states which led to disagreement during the Maastricht European Council in 1991 (see Rosamond, 2000: 24). Despite overcomplicated differences of interpretation, in fact the EU’s most fundamental perceived need for effective foreign policy remains the most compelling argument for federalism. Despite strength in numbers, the UK has never subscribed to that proposition.

Different views

Not everything about federal structures is perfect though. Within the EU itself, Germany is a federal republic of states. Yet one of those states remains very much autonomous. Bavaria, Freistaat Bayern, has always refused to become what it considers a subject of Prussia rule, nonetheless has few constitutional legal differences with the rest of the German state. Nearby, within the Schengen Area but outside the EU, is Switzerland. In the 1949 film of Graham Greene’s screenplay, The Third Man, Orson Welles’s character Harry Lime says the following in one scene: “In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock[3].”   In fact, the Old Swiss Confederacy was an alliance of valley communities in the central Alps that facilitated administration of common interests and ensured peace on the important mountain trade routes. The Federal Charter of 1291 was agreed between the rural communes of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden and is considered to be the confederacy’s founding document. Glarus and Zug cantons, Lucerne, Zürich and Bern city states formed the ‘Old Confederacy’ of eight states that existed until the end of the 15 century. In 1798, the revolutionary French government conquered Switzerland then imposed a new unified constitution. Centralised government effectively abolished cantons. The Congress of Vienna fully re-established Swiss independence and cantons in 1815, whereby most European powers agreed to permanently recognise Swiss neutrality. The Swiss were not at peace amongst themselves even then, there was the Züriputsch of 1839, then the Sonderbundskrieg civil war in 1847 when some Catholic cantons attempted to set up a separate alliance, the Sonderbund. Switzerland increased its territory with the 1815 treaty with the admission of the cantons of Valais, Neuchâtel and Geneva[4]; borders have not changed since, except for minor adjustments. One canton, Graubünden in the south, illustrates very well the myth of democracy and peace.  Today its languages are officially German, Romansh and Italian, but in the past it successfully managed to do away with the Slovene language that remains only as traces in place, fore- and family names, until recently would not recognise and in fact tried to outlaw Romansch and treated Italian with similar disdain. It was only in March 1996 that Romansh was recognised as an official language of Switzerland alongside German, French and Italian in Article 70 of the federal constitution. Until then the German speaking cantonal government had been able to forbid it to be taught or used in education, road signs and all other use of the language was suppressed and generally it was a dying language. Whoever wrote Harry Lime’s words fell for the myth of 500 years of peace and democracy which even today has not been fully achieved.

Fundamental federalism

Then we can briefly move on to the USA. In 2016 we have heard a great deal about gun laws that are anchored in the US Constitution, thus both preventing controls and allowing unreasonable use in other nations’ terms. The presidential election campaign has been an example of excessive access to and (ab)use of power by people who are ill suited to hold executive power of a large state. The USA is still a paternalistic, racist, generally sexist and unconvincingly secular union because on the one hand there is absolute paranoia about a particular religion yet one sees the political establishment going on bended knees to what is essentially a religious minority. The fundamentalist Christian lobby is one that still insists on a doctrine of creationism and even flat earth belief whereby the USA has produced some the greatest humanist thinkers ever, science without boundaries and are at the forefront of space exploration. The two do not coexist happily, but such is the nature of their federal structure.

Decision time for Britain

To draw to a conclusion, the UK cannot be excluded. The new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has made vague promises that were promptly denied and became veiled threats when talking to the executive of member countries and territories of the union. In all but explicit words, she has simply stated the sovereign power of Westminster over all countries and an overseas territory in the UK overrules the will of the people of those countries and territories. She has furthermore made it clear she does not wish to go to parliament in order to gain their approval but wishes to use a Henry VIII law that permits her to go to the monarch to obtain royal prerogative, in theory putting the final decision in the hands of the Queen. In fact, in a constitutional democracy that is anything but democratic behaviour. Whether Mrs May likes it or not, by its nature since devolution the union is now a federation of member countries, thus for her to override their will is autocratic, thus in no sense democratic.

It is when looking at downsides and flaws in federal structures we do see that there are serious imperfections in such structures. What is, however, all the more striking is how a union like the UK can be so vehemently opposed to an open federal structure in which the cooperation and solidarity of partner nations increases collective strengths without undermining the sovereignty of its members. The EEC, predecessor of the EU, was formed when European leaders came together in the wake of World War 2 intending to prevent another disastrous war. The proposal was that by allowing people to move freely across the continent, that is to say from places where there was a surplus to countries where there were labour shortages, that would not only boost European growth but also help prevent war by the movement of people across borders creating closer understanding and bonds. That EU migrants have become part of the hysteria to cleanse the UK of its membership is beyond all reason. Whereas the idea of ‘ever-closer union’ unites the entire 28 nation ‘club’ to leave it and begin what appears to be a selection process for who stays and who goes, it drives a very large wedge between the UK and EU.

In 1961 the UK applied to join the EEC but French President Charles de Gaulle considered British membership a Trojan horse for the USA to gain influence thus. Harold Macmillan continued to try to get the UK into the ‘Common Market’, thus through Sir Alec Douglas-Home and Harold Wilson until successful negotiations began in 1970 under the pro-European government of Edward Heath. UK membership became effective on 1 January 1973. The words ‘ever-closer union’ were in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, therefore it is safe to assume that the UK was quite happy with that. The EU was formally established when the Maastricht Treaty entered into force on 1 November 1993. The UK accepted accession into the new treaty, thus EU. It was a step on the way to ‘ever-closer union’. Over 23 intervening years the UK has been continually in a state one might call the political equivalent of a sulk. The UK had gone from the centre of an empire to a state increasingly alone, out of which it climbed into a community of European neighbours where it could have played a central and key role but now wishes to be alone again. The UK has picked political holes, feared increasing union and allowed phantoms in the shape of immigrants and unelected bureaucrats to become the main carp of Europhobia whilst being a place in the world that had for long attracted people from ‘all corners’ of the world into a union in which the political establishment included an unelected, honours and hereditary based upper house of parliament and an unelected head of state, Queen Elizabeth. The degree of contradiction and hypocrisy the UK has generated in fact almost disqualifies it from eligibility to any union, needing to be punished like the obstinate child who hides from the big bad wolf although he or she is big enough to know there is no such creature.

Burgess, Michael (2000) Federalism and European Union: the Building of Europe, 1950–2000, Abingdon: Routledge.
Corbett, Richard: (1998) The European Parliament’s Role in Greater EU Integration, Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Hill, Christopher and Smith, Michael (2005) International Relations and the European Union, Oxford University Press: Oxford.
Rosamond, Ben (2000) Theories of European Integration, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Spinelli, Altiero and Rossi, Ernesto (2016)  Il Manifesto di Ventotene / The Ventotene Manifesto, bilingual edition, Editrice Ultima spiaggia Internet bookshop.
Vayssière, Bertrand (2005) ‘Le Manifeste de Ventotene (1941): Acte de Naissance du Federalisme Europeen’, in Guerres Mondiales et Conflits Contemporains, Vol. 55 Issue 217: 69-76.
Wiener, Antje and Diez, Thomas (2004) European Integration Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[1] See my previous essay ‘Is the present Tory right wing true to original right wing principles?’ for a more detailed version of this speech.
[2] The manifesto is available on: http://www.federalists.eu/uef/library/books/the-ventotene-manifesto/ . It is very clearly suggesting a form of communism but can now only be read as the expression of an idea where the ultimate goal was peace rather than anything to do with where the EU has arrived.
[3] Cuckoo clocks were originally uniquely found in the German Black Forest
[4] Geneva is a good example of Swiss structure, is formal name is the Republic and Canton of Geneva. It is one of the cantons that have most often threatened secession.

Brian Milne
A Social anthropologist who specialises in the human rights of children. In practice Brian Milne has worked on the street with 'street children', child labour, young migrants, young people with HIV and AIDS. Brian’s work has taken him to around 40 countries, most of them developing nations; at least four of them have been in a state of conflict or war, thus taking him to the front line in two. Brian’s theoretical work began with migration; working on, written and publishing on citizenship and generally best known as an 'expert' on the human rights of children. Brian has a broad knowledge of human and civil rights for all ages, environmental issues and has been politically active most of his life. An internationalist and supporter of the principle of European federalisation.

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