A federation of nation states is a Confederation writ large

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In his 2012 State of the Union speech before the European Parliament’s plenary session, Mr Barroso, the Commission president, made reference to the need of establishing a “federation of nation-states”. The use of the term “federation”, that “f-word” so many in Europe assiduously avoid when referring to European integration, was enough to send many pro-Europeans and federalists into raptures of enthusiasm and jubilation. Paeans have already been written on Mr Barroso’s audacity to articulate what others are too hesitant to say. Many are those who now praise his determination to “drop the f-word bomb” at the European Parliament and who laud him for setting the agenda for the future.

While excitement over some rhetoric may occasionally be acceptable and perhaps justifiable, I am afraid that I will have to distance myself from those who fell for what I consider a neat trick. Mr Barroso has successfully managed to bring many inattentive federalists behind his back, while having in fact made reference to a political order, which if realized, will be nowhere near a genuine, decentralized, bottom-up federation. Put bluntly, Mr Barroso spoke of the need to strengthen the existing inter-governmental political order and to give to it a stronger centralized character.

Because words can be –and in the case of the EU have often been– inwardly distorted, elaboration on the main features of a federation and of the existing order is necessary.

Conferedation vs Federation: A matter of sovereignty

The present architecture of the European Union is established on the preservation of a single doctrine: national sovereignty. The EU is comprised of sovereign nation-states, while the key issues, such as amendments to the Treaties –new treaties–, or the important political decisions like the measures to draw a line under the eurocrisis, are all drawn by the European Council; the institution which brings together the heads of state and government of all 27 member states (soon 28 with Croatia). The supranational EU institutions, with the exception of the European Parliament, are theoretically acting on their own accord, within the context of their institutional independence, regardless of what member states do. However the practical fact is that all EU institutions, except the EP, are subject to the long-term stratagems of the member states at the Council.

The Commission, while it functions as the executive, is nothing more than the assignee of the Council as it uses its various directorates/departments and subordinated agencies, bodies and offices to flesh out, that which national governments agreed upon at least for the medium-to-long term horizon. The case is not different with other supranational institutions like the European Central Bank (though confined within the Euro area – there is however the European System of Central Banks which covers all the EU, but this is a technicality). For instance, it is crystal clear to the informed minds that the latest Outright Monetary Transactions (OMT) of the ECB did not spring, full blown so to speak, from Mr Draghi’s head nor from the “independence” of the ECB which many confound with omnipotence but were in fact concocted in such a scrupulous way so as to be perfectly aligned with the broader strategy of the powers that be, in as far as the eurocrisis is concerned. To those familiar with EU politics it is readily apparent that the locus of power is at the Council, which in terms of political theory means that the EU, with its dominant inter-governmental character is much closer to a confederation than a federation.

The main difference between a confederation and a federation is that the former is a collection of largely sovereign states, which most probably hold such important policies as foreign affairs (a common European foreign policy, reminiscent of NATO’s intergovernmental approach, is not the same with a single foreign policy of a federal state). In a confederation sovereignty is reserved for the constituent states, even if the upper stratum of power, the confederal, still has considerable powers. Whereas the latter case, the federation, does not encompass sovereign states, but rather autonomous administrative regions –”states”–, which are only granted internal powers for regulating daily life. Sovereignty in a federal state is indivisible, meaning that only the federal level of power is sovereign, with all constituent states being inferior to it if a dispute of supremacy arises.

While such a subtle difference might prove rather demanding to identify, it should not be inferred that it is not important. In a confederation, because of separate sovereignties, democratic scrutiny at the upper level is much more difficult and complex, just as the EU currently is with its notorious democratic deficit and the often conflicting interests of its constituent nation states. In contrast a federal system can be, though not necessarily but certainly potentially, much more democratic and less complicated than the confederal one, as the sovereign state is only one, the federal state; and thus power is relatively easier to check upon.

Barroso spoke of an imperialist Confederation

Having outlined the main distinction between a confederation and a federation, I may now subject Mr Barroso’s exact phrase to closer examination. Mr Barroso said the following (emphasis mine):

Let’s not be afraid of the words: we will need to move towards a federation of nation states. […] Today, I call for a federation of nation states. Not a superstate. A democratic federation of nation states that can tackle our common problems, through the sharing of sovereignty in a way that each country and each citizen are better equipped to control their own destiny. This is about the Union with the Member States, not against the Member States. In the age of globalisation pooled sovereignty means more power, not less.

And, I said it on purpose a federation of nation states because in these turbulent times these times of anxiety, we should not leave the defence of the nation just to the nationalists and populists. I believe in a Europe where people are proud of their nations but also proud to be European and proud of our European values.

Mr Barroso is very specific on the need to establish a two-tier system of power, which will not erode the sovereignty of all constituent nation-states. “Sharing sovereignty” is profoundly different from working under a single sovereignty. The word “sharing” of course being another way of assuming a greater role for the European Council where decisions are made, through the “sharing” of national (state) interests. While the word “Federation” provides a convenient fig leaf of federalism to Mr Barroso’s speech, it is crystal clear that the wording points towards a confederation which will practically emphasize on all those opaque methods of decision-making the EU is (in)famous for. A federation of nation states can never be a genuine federation, litanies to the contrary notwithstanding, as sovereignty will remain divisible while the locus of power will continue to be the nation states at the Council.

Putting aside this fundamental flaw, I believe that Mr Barroso’s truly alarming remark is the need for more European power in a globalized world. This is the clarion call of those whom I call the European meta-nationalists; of those who want the EU to become stronger so that it may “protect” us from the supposed threats and pitfalls of a globalized world. The willingness to strengthen the power of the EU as against the others, is a delicate recrudescence of age-old “we-they” syndromes inherent in nationalist doctrines. The only difference between the nationalists and the meta-nationalists is that the former are the “old school” while the latter have captured the shifting in the political tectonic plates and want to cling on to nationalist power at a European level. Put simply the meta-nationalists have realized that the old nation-states of Europe are too weak, in terms of brute force, to implement protectionist policies, stringent migration controls and ultimately be the new big bully of the world order on the alleged preservation of humanitarian values and the environment, among others.

If the concentration of more power is the ultimate goal of European integration, so that “we” can stand up to the implicit evil forces of globalization, to safeguard “our European values”, then I fear we may sooner or later experience European imperialism anew.

Fear-mongering and the oratory of “we” against “them” may only engender mercantilist policies at the economic level, i.e. protectionism of “essential” industries; and profoundly xenophobic views at the political front. To “protect” the values which “we” consider “our” own, “we” will put forth such schemes as impregnable external borders for third country immigrants, to prevent them from enjoying or undermining “our” welfare system and other cultural values. As for the economy, “we” will continue the mindless task of erecting yet more trade barriers for goods –the economic barbed wire– so that “our” chimera of self-sufficiency may be pursued further. This mentality, while it may be founded on good intentions, is essentially a philosophy of war. Once the rest of the world are treated as villains and are obstructed by “our” machinations, they will eventually resort to reprisals, in what will ultimately become an inane race to the bottom with suboptimal or tragic outcomes for the vast majority of people.

Lastly Mr Barroso, stressed the need of not abandoning the defense of the nation to the nationalists and populists. At first it must be understood that no nation needs to be defended because there are no real enemies, except from those ghosts “we” want to make up (such as “the markets which attack us”). Secondly, the reference to defense vindicates my view on the meta-nationalist pontifications, as only in juxtaposition to some external or common foe may (meta-)nationalism flourish. Thirdly, European nations are not defended by any nationalists or populists, unless Mr Barroso implies that all or most or some governments fall under either of the two categories. If that is so why should “we” Europeans join these narrow-minded nationalists and populists in protecting their fictions and figments? Once again the answer lies in the inherent confederalism and meta-nationalism in Mr Barroso’s speech, always in federalist clothing.

The prospects for a genuine federation are dim

In light of the afore-mentioned I must say, while risking being seen as an iconoclast for standing against the trend, that the prospects for a genuine federation in Europe are dim. The ideal of the early European federalists to abolish the old order of nation-states in Europe, has long been swept into the dustbin of history and in its place now lies a new vision, that of a hypertrophied, megalomaniac and imperialist confederation; wrapped up in the euphemistic palaver of “federalism”.

While I myself am a federalist, in a profoundly different sense, I see no light in this tunnel we have entered. National sovereignties will be preserved; the European fortress will assert “itself” into a “stronger” entity that will be more capable of enforcing the protectionist and restrictive policies the EU already has in place; and the drums of war rhetoric will gradually start beating again, the more globalization is seen as a threat, instead of what it really is: the greatest opportunity humankind ever had for world peace, tolerance and openness.

In the recent past demagogues rallied our peoples against one another in the name of a fictitious national interest. In the present and probably in the near-future, the self-centered priests of European meta-nationalism, who are in charge of the European project, will pit us against the rest of the world, always with the most philanthropic intentions of “protecting” us from the rapacious and evil forces of globalization.

It’s a shame to realize just how many federalists fell for Mr Barroso’s humbuggery and obscurantism and hailed him for naming a confederation a federation.