How popular is federalism here?

European and British flags (source European Communities 2009)

A question comes in through the website:

“Given the (almost) universal Euro-sceptic stance with the public in the UK, how popular is federalism here?”

A very good question, with an answer in three levels.

The first, immediate answer is that federalism is unpopular in the UK. Almost every reference in the newspapers or in politics to federalism in Europe equates it with a centralised superstate, and the corresponding abolition of Britain. Discussion of federalism in the UK leads inevitably to the assumption that it means the dissolution of the union (the opposite outcome to the criticism of European federalism, you notice). The idea of world federalism is not even discussed, not even to be criticised, so far off is it.

The second level of answer looks beyond the explicit use of the word. What actually is happening in practice? As far as Europe is concerned, membership of the EU (itself founded on federal principles) is overwhelmingly the party political consensus. Robert Kilroy-Silk stood out against it at the least general election and got less than 6 per cent of the vote in what he thought was the most likely constituency. David Cameron knows that to voice criticism of EU membership will cost him votes and not gain them. The supranationality of the European Union works, and Britain’s politicians know this, even if they are not willing to say so in the newspapers.

Within the UK, too, federalism is proceeding apace. Scottish and Welsh devolution has put opposition parties into government, and in each country the word “government” is now used in place of “devolved administration”. Debate has now turned to how the English can be better represented within the union.

And the UK’s commitment to global institutions such as the UN and the WTO remains strong. The UK’s commitment to economic liberalisation, for example, stands in contrast to those countries that wish to see a resurgence of state-led protectionism. The UK is also a champion and sponsor of the International Criminal Court, another expression of federalism at the global level.

So, in practical terms, the case for federalism looks at present quite healthy. But it would not be correct to leave that as the final word, without a look at what is coming next.

The recent debate over the Reform Treaty for the EU could only reach a conclusion by allowing the British a range of opt-outs, relating to the Charter of Fundamental Rights, for example, and cooperation on Justice and Home Affairs. Britain is also outside the euro, showing no signs of seeking to join it. The rhetoric of the British government is still strongly along the lines that Europe is something it is protecting us from, rather than something it is making the most of. The continued drive for federalism in Europe comes from elsewhere, not from the UK.

While there are now government ministers for the regions of England, they are appointed by and active in Whitehall, with no accountability to or real role within the regions they are supposedly responsible for. We wait to see how any disputes between London and Edinburgh are solved: there is a real possibility of political tension.

And the official British view of the UN remains state-centred. In the recent debate about reform of the Security Council, the British were unwilling to rethink their own veto right, and therefore by extension everyone else’s veto right. The British government acquiesced in the automatic replacement of Paul Wolfowitz at the World Bank by Robert Zoellick: considerations of accountability or of choosing the best candidate simply did not apply.

So, I would say overall that federalism is practised without being popular, and without even being understood. I would say that, if it were better understood, it would also be more popular, but I admit that on this question I am quite biased.

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