Federalism is a direction not a destination

Richard Laming speaking at Ventotene

By Richard Laming, based on a talk given at the Ventotene seminar on 2 September 2001.

It is always a pleasure to come to Ventotene to talk about federalism. There are many different ways of looking at federalism – almost as many as there are federalists (and some people say more).

I’ve been asked to look at some of the basic points behind federalism and I will ask one or two of the more interesting questions about it. I hope I can answer them, too. But first, I need to outline the basis of my approach.

As some of you may know, when I was at university I studied physics. Not law, or economics, but science. I don’t think I was very good at it, which is why I don’t do it now, but nevertheless it has been very helpful to me in setting out a way of thinking.

For example, one of the first things I studied was thermodynamics, which is the science of heat. We studied theoretical examples of gases and liquids getting hotter and colder, expanding and contracting. These studies were based on the assumption that no energy was ever lost to the outside world, and we constructed a very neat theory as a result. Of course, in the real world, energy is always lost to the outside world, so our theory was always slightly wrong. But despite this, it helped us to understand what actually was going on in the real world. The theory may not have been precisely correct in every aspect, but it was certainly useful.

I look at federalism in the same way. It is not a question of whether it is right but whether it is useful. Is it a useful way of looking at the world? Is it a useful way of deciding what political changes we want to see? That is the question you should ask yourself during this week.

And at heart, federalism is a very simple theory. We simply say that states should be subject to the rule of law in the same way that people are subject to the law. Let’s take the island of Ventotene. There is a police force here, and a town hall, and we pay taxes to ensure that the island’s administration functions properly. We can walk the streets without being afraid because we know the police are there to protect us and to take action if anything should go wrong. If there was no police force and there was no law, our experience of life on the island would be very different.

So, in the same way that people within Italy are subject to the rule of law in their dealing with each other, federalism says that Italy itself should be subject to the rule of law in its dealings with other countries.

The alternative is the same kind of tension and violence at the international level that we might see here on Ventotene if there was no law. The objective of federalism, therefore, is the prevention of international disorder or, to give it another name, peace.

By peace, I don’t just mean the absence of war; I mean the impossibility of war. I mean the way in which the use of war to settle international disputes simply does not arise. Disputes between countries should be settled via the law courts, in the same way that one company might settle its dispute with another.

This doesn’t mean, however, that everything a government might do should be restricted by international law. No, there have to be limits. We argue that the scope of international law should be restricted to those matters where countries cannot act effectively on their own so that the consequences of their decisions will have impacts on others. As much as possible should be left to countries to deal with on their own. Any centralisation of law or decision-making should be limited. This is what we mean when we talk about subsidiarity.

There is one other point to make about the scope of international law under federalism and that is the question of to whom it applies. In a federal system, law at the federal level applies not only to the member states but also to citizens and companies within those member states. A confederal system is one where the law applies only to the member states. This is an important distinction that is worth making now, both because it is not always clearly understood and because it is the source of most of the controversy about federalism. Some people say, to avoid the arguments, let’s give up on federalism and settle for a confederal approach instead. But this is always an awkward arrangement with no underlying principles and which rarely works.

Think about it: there is no confederalist movement, holding seminars to discuss confederalist principles. Federalism is different: federalism works.

Now, there are lots of practical and detailed questions about federalism to be settled, such as what the international law should be, how it should be decided, and how it should be enforced. These are the kinds of questions we will be discussing this week. That is what the seminar is for.

I am going to look at two or three of the more abstract questions about federalism as a theory. These are questions that I would suggest you ask of any political theory, and I don’t see why federalism should somehow be exempted from the same scrutiny as any other political idea.

An important question that we have to ask is whether or not federalism actually matters. We are not here this week simply to discuss the way the world works, but also to discuss what we can do to change it. Federalism as a theory therefore not only has to point out something about the way the world works, but also to be able to make a difference.

I said that the objective of federalism is peace. So we have to be able to answer the question of whether peace matters that much. Is it so important that it is worth devoting a political movement to? After all, the world has lived with continual warfare throughout history. Why try and change it now?

A major reason lies in a change in the nature of war. Advances in military technology and the increasing ability of the state to mobilise economic life for its own ends have vastly increased the destructiveness of war. Modern industrial war completely blots out the prospect of any other kind of political progress. War leaves an indelible mark on society. It destroys lives and property, and even landscapes and wildlife. With the prospect of chemical, nuclear and biological weapons, it even affects the gene pool.

The threat of war, short of actual fighting, carries with it its own problems. A vast amount of money is diverted from more productive uses to pay for armaments. Conscription deprives young men and women of their freedom. Democracy and human rights become curtailed in the name of “national security”.

And, even if conflict between countries stops short of war, there is still a lot of harm that can be done without violence. Global environmental challenges need to be dealt with together. Countries cannot deal with social concerns such as the growth of organised crime or the spread of diseases such as Aids or malaria on their own. Unilateral economic policies do not work and will make us all poorer rather than richer. There are lots of reasons why the countries of the world need a legal framework in which to work together.

Federalism is the key to solving all of these. It isn’t enough, but a solution will not be found without it. Federalism certainly matters.

Secondly, can federalism be achieved? Or, given that I have previously described it as a theory, does achieving half of it help? There are many political theories that set out desirable ends but can never actually deliver them.

For example, let’s take the nationalist idea that the cause of war is the fact that nations are divided between states and that states contain mixtures of different nations. If humanity could be reorganised, so that every nation had its own state and every state contained only one nation, conflict between states would be solved. That’s the theory. But how do we get there? Dividing up peoples and territories would provoke precisely the kind of war that we are trying to prevent. So nationalism is not a route to peace. The cure is worse than the disease.

Is this true of federalism?

Let’s look at France and Germany. For three generations from the second-half of the nineteenth century onwards, France and Germany were either fighting a war with each other or preparing to fight a war with each other. They don’t do it any more, and we are all much better off as a result. The reason for this dramatic change is precisely because they have established a federalist relationship between them. They have set up common political institutions to deal with common problems, with laws that apply to their citizens and not only to the two governments.

As a result, social and commercial contacts between the two countries have expanded enormously and the prospect of war between the two is now gone. There are arguments still, about interest rates and fiscal deficits, but no longer about the sovereign status of Alsace-Lorraine.

And what’s happening between France and Germany is happening elsewhere, if not yet on quite such a dramatic scale. Think of federalism as a direction rather than a destination. The fact that we cannot attain theoretical perfection does not reduce the value of the intermediate steps.

Lastly, I’ll give another way of looking at federalism that I find useful. It is based on another scientific approach: from astronomy. In the third or fourth century AD, an astronomer called Ptolemy devised a model to explain the universe, the way that the stars and planets moved in the heavens. The earth was at the centre, and everything moved around it. The model worked – it described everything – but was very complicated.

Then, a thousand years later, along comes Copernicus with a new suggestion, that the sun and not the earth is at the centre of the universe. His theory explained the same phenomena as Ptolemy’s, but much more simply. Rather than thinking of the earth as being different from all the other planets, Copernicus suggested that the earth was merely one planet among many, behaving in the same way and subject to the same forces as all the others.

As with astronomy, so with international relations. A Ptolemaic vision of the world puts your country at the centre of everything. Every action by every other country is considered according to its impact or implication for your own country. A Copernican approach considers all countries together. They all have the same problems and the same opportunities. Their interests can be served by working together, rather than thinking that what is good for one must necessarily be bad for the others. The Ptolemaic view of the world isn’t absolutely wrong; it’s just that the Copernican version makes everything much easier to understand.

So that’s why I am a federalist. I think that federalism has identified some of the biggest problems facing modern politics and proposes realistic and achievable means of doing something about them. It isn’t perfect, but I think it is useful. I hope that, by the end of the seminar if not already, you will agree.

This article was contributed by Richard Laming, a member of the Executive Committee of Federal Union. He may be contacted at richard@richardlaming.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union. Last updated 13/09/01.

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