We need to talk about federalism

Sat, Feb 18, 2012, 00:00

WORLD VIEW:Using federal methods in the EU does not necessarily mean creating a federal state, writes PAUL GILLESPIE

WHAT IS “political union”? The phrase has not been used much recently in debates about the future of the European Union, following the loss of nerve by its political leaders after their constitutional treaty was rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005.

The phrase is now being renewed in Germany and elsewhere to describe the major moves that must be taken to create a more common politics in the EU if the euro is to be saved.

Often – if arguably – the question is asked in a different way: “What would a federal European Union be like?”

This way of putting it activates different nerves in the European body politic. Federalism is virtually taboo in some political cultures, quite acceptable in others. It is the bogeyman for Eurosceptics and the political mainstream alike in the UK, for sovereigntists in France, and

for supporters of intergovernmentalism everywhere, including in Ireland.

But in Germany, Austria and Belgium it describes their own political systems, so most political actors are not rootedly opposed to a European version of federalism. Would it not simply project what they are already used to on to the European level of politics? That is, if there were agreement on what needs to be done there to ensure the euro’s future. Several parties in each of these federal states do not think much more can be done, or are yet to be convinced that it should be done.

A further complication is that there is no canonical version of federalism – or of political union. German, Austrian and Belgian varieties differ one from another, as do those of the US and Switzerland.

Governing structures differ according to whether executives and parliaments are separated, as in the US, or shared co-operatively, as in Germany. Many federations self-consciously rejected other federal models at their founding, as the US did with the Dutch, thereafter giving looser confederations a bad name. Their reputation was not helped, either, by the disintegration of the Soviet and Yugoslav federations in the early 1990s.

That was when political union was more explicitly on the European agenda. The Maastricht Treaty, signed in that Dutch city 20 years ago this month, brought together treaties on economic and monetary union and on political union. The former was much more thoroughly prepared than the latter, which was vague and ambiguous in its meaning.

A pamphlet I wrote on the subject with Rodney Rice at the time broke the concept down into eight headings: federalism or intergovernmentalism – on forms of decision-making; cohesion – on tackling disparities between richer and poorer states and regions; a common foreign and security policy; community institutions and the democratic deficit; European Community citizenship; a social Europe; variable geometry – differing speeds or tiers of integration; and enlargement – from its then 12 members to its now agreed 28.

Most of these issues are still current, despite being further clarified in the three subsequent EU treaties of Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon. This is natural in such a large transnational political experiment involving states and people. Most issues have been aired and discussed for a long time, but are often parked for want of agreement.

I was reminded of this while chairing a meeting in Maastricht last week of three participants in the negotiations on the Maastricht Treaty: Wim Kok, then Dutch finance minister; Henning Christophersen, then Danish vice-president of the European Commission; and Enrique Barón Crespo, then president of the European Parliament.

They spoke of political constraints then, including opposition by most states to the Dutch proposal for a more federal structure; the reassertion of sovereignty; the fear of an intrusive commission; and the consequent weaknesses and shortcomings of the governing structures of the euro – now identified by the sovereign and private debt crises. At that time too there was huge speculative market pressure on currencies, which made it imperative to move together or fall apart.

A major political concern was how to accommodate a united Germany in the new EU. Jacques Attali, then French president François Mitterrand’s adviser, spoke of the need to “dissolve Germany in Europe” to ensure it stayed there after Helmut Kohl’s departure as German chancellor. Hence political union.

Uncannily, the issue arises once again with German chancellor Angela Merkel. A fine piece of journalism by Quentin Peel in the Financial Times last week pieces together her emerging strategy for a renewed political union from speeches, hints and senior officials.

Merkel wants to see a stronger commission acting as a government and reporting to a two-chamber European Parliament, the existing one supplemented by an upper chamber consisting of the existing European Council of national governments. There would be EU-wide elections for the commission president.

This vision will provoke as many arguments as before – not least in France – but we are probably more ready for them now. We should remember two central facts. Using federal methods does not necessarily mean creating a federal state, but finding a better way to combine shared rule and self rule. And the politics of doing so can create a demos that was not there before.