Some frequently-asked questions about federalism

At first sight, federalism is very simple. The basic idea is that relations between states should be conducted under the rule of law. Conflict and disagreement should be resolved through peaceful means rather than through coercion or war. However, even a simple idea like federalism can provoke a lot of questions.

Does federalism mean a European government?

Yes, but that’s nothing to be afraid of. Already the institutions in Brussels have many of the features of a system of government: an elected parliament, an executive, a legal system, a budget The drawback is that the Brussels system is not as efficient as it could be and not as democratic as it should be. We need to make the EU institutions more like a government, and not less, in order to get the best out of the European Union.

Is nationalism really all that bad?

It depends what you mean by nationalism. Let’s take the case of Scotland. A Scottish nationalism that aimed for Scotland to be a member state in a federal Europe really boils down to an argument about whether the principle of subsidiarity leaves anything for the UK level of government to do. It would be hard to distinguish this from federalism. On the other hand, though, a Scottish nationalism that sought to expel non-Scots or deny them rights, and to remove Scotland from international organisations such as the EU, could be very nasty indeed. The wars in the former Yugoslavia have been propelled by nationalisms of this second kind. The terms “civic nationalism” and “ethnic nationalism” are often used to distinguish between the two.

Does federalism create more work for lawyers?

Maybe. A central feature of a federal system is a constitution, which regulates the relationship between the different levels of government and also their relationship with the citizen. Disputes over the meaning of the constitution or other laws enacted by the various levels of government will find their way into the courts in search of resolution.

The alternative to the resolution of disputes by legal means is their resolution by force. A business or an individual that cannot depend its rights in court does not have rights worth defending. A federal system may mean more work for lawyers, but it means much less work for soldiers.

Would federalism lead to a centralised European superstate?

The only people who suggest that federalism implies centralisation in the EU are the opponents of federalism. The idea of subsidiarity – as much decentralisation as possible, as much centralisation as necessary – guards against the risk that Brussels should become too powerful. It is no accident that federalists were at the front of those demanding that subsidiarity be written into the Maastricht treaty.

Don’t we have enough elected politicians already?

It might sound odd to make the case for more politicians, but here goes. The point to consider is who is taking decisions in their absence. Big decisions about the economy and the environment do not make themselves. There are two possibilities. The first is that the decisions are in the hands of people in unaccountable interest groups – multi-national corporations, international bureaucracies, and the like. As far as federalists are concerned, the people taking political decisions should be elected and accountable, rather than self-appointed as is too often the case at the moment. The second possibility is simply that these decisions are not being taken at all. The absence of institutions to take decisions results only in an economic and environmental race to the bottom. We have the choice at present between an unqualified driver or no-one at the steering wheel at all.

If collective decisions must be taken – and in the modern world, they must – they should be taken by people who are elected to take them and accountable for the way they act.

Many of the problems and much of the controversy about institutions such as the World Trade Organisation or the European Union lie precisely in the way that decision-making hides behind a cloak of anonymity. If elected politicians are the price to pay for democracy, then federalists would say it’s a price worth paying.

Is the idea of world government utopian?

Perhaps. But federalism is better thought of as a direction rather than a destination. We may not get everything we want, but we might at least get some of it. In the case of the global system, a global democracy is plainly not on the cards, but greater democratic input into the World Trade Organisation, a more equal distribution of decision-making power on economic questions between north and south, and a more effective protection of human rights around the world might be. Some federalists focus on reforms of the United Nations to make it more effective, others are more interested in practical steps concerning specialised agencies such as the IMF or the World Bank. We should not be distracted by utopian ideals, but we should not be deterred by them, either.

Do people in different countries have enough in common to share democratic political institutions?

This is the political equivalent of wondering which comes first, the chicken or the egg. Interdependence and the awareness of interdependence are different things. The fact that different countries don’t know they need to work together on something does not necessarily mean that the need isn’t there.

It is true that the sharing of democratic political institutions should not outstrip public support for those institutions. So, if you believe that such institutions are necessary, the job of making those institutions popular does not go away. The question above may serve as an explanation of why we do not have international democracy at present, but it is not an argument that it should not be created.

Is federalism patriotic?

Yes, if patriotism means wanting the best for your own country and not demanding the worst for all the others. Federalists think that the concept of the national interest should refer to whatever is in the interests of the people rather than only the interests of the national government. If you look at the way in which international actions are often undermined by national grandstanding, this confusion between the two types of interest explains a lot.

Is federalism unrealistic?

Bismarck famously described politics as the art of the possible. But Jean Monnet, a century later, updated this notion. Politics, he said, is the art of making possible what is necessary.

This article was written by Richard Laming, a member of the Executive Committee of Federal Union. He can be contacted at richard@richardlaming.com. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union. First edition, June 2001

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