Federalism, Confederalism and the European Superstate

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One of the main themes in the current debate on the future of European integration is the alleged or real dilemma between the break up of the euro zone and the formation of a European superstate. A break up of the euro will most probably have a cascading effect as it will set a very bad precedent against any further monetary, fiscal, banking or political integration; eventually putting an end to the dynamic that has been developing over the decades. On the other side, the argument goes that integration is too important to be jeopardized thus we need to have a European superstate with powerful central institutions that will rule over European member-states with an iron fist, imposing system-wide policies which will bring about a more unified political entity and keep the integration process on track.

Within this context federalists are seen as advocates of the latter option, the superstate, since they appear to be in favor of “more Europe”; and given that the very idea of a European Leviathan sounds scary, detached from domestic life and eventually undemocratic, most tend to see the federalists as infamous apologists of a manifestly unjust system.

Analyzing things from my own vantage point I may provide an explanation of the views featured in this debate, so as to correct what I consider as a grave misconception of the federalist position. As an opening remark I dare say that much of the discussion is based on a series of misunderstandings over key terms and concepts.

A distinction ought to be drawn between federalism and confederalism. The former is the ideology which advocates a single, decentralized state, composed of semi-autonomous but not independent or sovereign states or regions. Whereas confederalism is the system whereby a group of mostly sovereign states establishes an extra level of authority –a supranational level– which holds certain powers on issues of broad concern. Simply put a federation is made up of semi-autonomous regions or states and power is vested at the lowest possible level, from the bottom all the way to the top; while a confederation is an agglomeration of sovereign states which cooperate only on areas where there is an alignment of interests between the states/governments and where power stems from the top and flows to the bottom.

A federal system is facilitating the introduction of localized policies, or to put it differently it avoids the implementation of one-size-fits-all measures, since decisions are taken at the lowest stratum of power that exist, allowing citizens and their representatives to legislate in accordance with whatever localized information and particular needs may exist. Local issues are dealt with at the local level, regional at the regional level, national at the national, and system-wide or federal are decided on the federal level. In this sense a federation allows for diversity and differentiation, efficient and inclusive democracy, always with great coherence since the state is one, even though decentralized.

In contrast a confederation features high-powered decisions that are made by heads of states or ministers and technocrats in the form of top-down directives which allow little room, if any, for the incorporation of particular needs and other inputs of localized information from the citizens. In a confederation the locus of power is found in the constituent sovereign states, not in the citizens and their representatives. Thus it can be said that this is a two-tier system of governance, since there is more or less a clear distinction between the national and the supranational strata of authority. Democratic rule is in this context, most probably limited to the lowest tier of power, the national level, as the upper tier is from the outset determined by methods that are not democratic, in a typical inter-governmental style similar to that of all international organizations.

In the EU as it currently stands, we can identify a blend of these two systems. For example the area of competences that pertain to the single market, where the European institutions have more power, can be said to lean towards the federal model, even though the Commission and the Council of Ministers are not democratically legitimized institutions – if they were it would clearly be federal. On the other side, when heads of states meet behind closed doors within the context of the European Council to make decisions on say the eurocrisis, the setting resembles that of a confederation, as it is states which hold the power to direct the process in whichever way they prefer (let us ignore the fact that the governments of France and Germany were on the driving seat because of that).

In the current inter-governmental decision-making process of the EU, the individual citizens, civil society and parliamentarians, do not have a real impact on decisions since these are in effect determined by heads of states or even worse by unelected ministers and technocrats. Free society is therefore faced with a range of fait accompli that cannot be questioned or modified in as far as their main scope is concerned. The EU policy-making of our days, is therefore largely undemocratic, at least in as far as the crucial issues are concerned. No wonder the EU suffers from a democratic deficit.

Given that most of European integration is forwarded along inter-governmental lines, or along nationalist lines as I would argue, it can be said that if things keep following the trend of the last years/decades, then the EU will eventually morph into a confederation, perhaps retaining some of the elements of a federation, but remaining confederal in essence nonetheless. In such a case we would indeed be legitimized to speak of a European superstate.

The question which rises out of this classification is where do pro-Europeans stand on this debate? I would say that the term “pro-European” is problematic as its vagueness requires additional information to denote the character of one’s views on all things European. I would suggest that in broad terms there are two strands of pro-Europeans:

  1. the intergovernmentalists, those who would go along with the current setting since they see integration as an end in itself, regardless if that might result in a confederation,
  2. the federalists, those who advocate for further integration provided that the federal system of governance is put in place leading to a federal, decentralized, European state.

The perspective which has hitherto been more influential is probably the intergovernmentalist, judging from the fact that the “federal” elements of the EU are the weaker ones; since member-states are still entrusted with most of the power, while the European Parliament, the only EU institution which classifies as democratic, still has, unfortunately, a secondary role on most issues.

Bringing the above clarifications to the alleged dilemma of either a breakup or the formation of a superstate, I think that the federal option is a genuine third way. Neither breakup, nor some omnipotent Leviathan; only a democratic, pluralist and decentralized federation with checks and balances at every level of authority, is what genuine federalists would stand for. “More Europe” should not be interpreted as more of this kind of the bureaucratic and undemocratic EU, but only as more federalism and Europe-wide democracy as against nationalism and opaque inter-governmentalism (confederalism). Hence the dilemma that seems to exist is nothing but a tissue of misunderstandings at best or unscrupulous propaganda at worst, which presents a straw federal position than no federalist would ever support as a legitimate end.

Personally I am a federalist because I am not a nationalist in social, cultural, political and economic terms, while I remain suspicious of the unaccountability and opacity inherent in confederal institutions, such as the European Council which has over the last two years a dismal record in dealing with the eurocrisis. I believe that the confederal order is actually elitist, because it grants more power to heads of states or top bureaucrats, relative to citizens. The decisions that are made at such a level are very technical, complex and completely detached from the reality of the average European. Moreover the founding treaties of the EU, the “constitution” so to speak, run into thousands of pages, which even legal experts have difficulty dealing with. This is not and can never be democratic, for if citizens cannot read and understand the founding law of their polity, they are in effect deprived of their freedom to scrutinize power. In contrast a genuine federation would be a single decentralized state held together by certain principles, a single constitution ranging over a few pages that any averagely educated citizen may read and understand, which will allow for the inclusion of all the diverse views the broader citizenry may have, in a truly democratic framework.

Having all the aforementioned in mind, I would like to point out that the end of federalists, or of myself at least, is not European integration per se. Integration is but a means to a higher end: peace and liberty in Europe. For me this is integration, the process that brings together individuals in their efforts to dismantle the multiple degrees of nationalism and national competition that still exist in Europe so that the freedom of the individual, social, cultural, economic and political may be allowed to flourish unencumbered by the “we-they” syndromes of statists in charge of nation-states. Self-proclaimed federalists who only wish to see the progress of integration as such, are in my opinion guided by false principles and may end up being anything but federalist.

Finally because I also am a libertarian who always favors individual freedom and sovereignty over anything else, I must say that a European federation guarantees much more freedom than either a confederal Leviathan or a continent filled with petty nation-states whose “interests” may at any given circumstances hamper the rights and liberties of individuals. A European federation dismantles all internal borders (ideally also the external ones) and minimizes the possibility of such edicts or parochial interests as say border controls, trade impediments, capital restrictions, allegiance to a given state/territory etc. from ever existing. A federation in Europe is therefore far “less government” (if that is our point) than either a confederation (superstate) or a Europe full of nation-states. Were my view of the EU to be implemented, most of what we have inherited from the European integration process thus far will have to undergo thoroughgoing reforms, to draw out all its confederal or inter-governmental elements, so that it may be compatible with genuine federalist and libertarian principles. I am therefore against anything like a superstate and I know that all genuine federalists agree with me on that. If you are in search of people who work for the materialization of a superstate in Europe, then you better look among those who laud the inter-governmental approach.

I shall expand on the concept of the demos and the European democracy in a future post, so please stay tuned if you are interested.

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Protesilaos Stavrou

EU policy analyst. Philosopher. Web developer.
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