On Federalist Theory


Lucio Levi
La théorie fédéraliste [in French]
Presse fédéraliste, Lyon, ISBN: 978-2-4914-2904-1, 281 pages, €25.00

This work offers both a history of federalism, using the Philadelphia Convention and the drafting of the American Constitution of 1787 as a starting point, and a passionate analysis of the theoretical evolution of the federal concept since the 18th century.

Lucio Levi stresses right from the introduction that the processes that have more or less been completed both at the level of the European Union and at the level of a number of its member states (Germany, Belgium, Austria, etc.) “represent a response to the death throes of the national state and are the expression of the tendency to create new forms of state of a federative nature going, upwards, beyond the model of the national state, and downwards, thereby creating new levels of government above and within nations” (our translation throughout).

The author recalls that, in 1795, Immanuel Kant argued in his project for perpetual peace that only federalism can establish peace. Throughout the entire 19th century, many criticisms of the nation state as a factor in conflicts were voiced. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Constantin Frantz argued that the “national principle and the unitary state are not factors in the development of democracy, but of new forms of oppression (). They are not factors in peace, but sources of antagonism and unprecedented violence between states”. Proudhon distinguishes between “a spontaneous nationality, which is the result of natural connections between local communities, their territory and their culture, and an organized nationality, which is the result of connections between the State and the individuals living on its territory and which is the expression of the need for a social and cultural uniformity and an exclusive loyalty towards the bureaucratic and centralized State”. “The current French nation is made up of at least 20 separate nations, the nature of which, as observed in the people and peasants, is highly distinctive (). The Frenchman is a conventional being, he does not exist (). Such a large nation can hold together only by means of force. This is the principal purpose of the standing army. Remove that support from the central administration and police service and France will fall into federalism. Local attractions will win the day”, Proudhon argues in an accurate description of France in his days. In France, the 19th century was that of the subjugation and homogenization of the people, by force if necessary; mobilization and the trenches of the First World War completed the destruction of local identities to the benefit of a national myth. National fictions are always a source of oppression. “In the social pact, agreed upon in the manner of Rousseau and the Jacobins, the citizen resigns his citizenship and his commune and, above it, his department and province, absorbed into the central authority, they are henceforth nothing but outposts under the immediate management of the ministry. The consequences of this will not be long in making themselves felt: the citizen and the commune lose all dignity, the shamelessness of the State increases and the charges on the taxpayer rise proportionately. This is no longer government made for the people, it is the people made for the government. Its power takes over everything, seizes everything, claims everything, forever”, Proudhon goes on, unwittingly describing the France of today with the new super-regions, but all under the same yoke of the state. With a few tweaks, the description also applies to other centralized states, such as Spain.

In the same spirit, the Italian Carlo Cattaneo (1801-1869) stated that “each people (meaning peoples in the cultural sense, separate from the nation) can have many interests in common with other peoples, but there are interests that it alone can deal with, because it is the only one that feels them, because it is the only one that understands them. Furthermore, there is also in each people the awareness of its own being, and also the pride in its own name, and the jealousy of the land of its ancestors. Hence the federal law, in other words the law of the peoples, which must have its own place alongside the law of the nation, alongside the law of humanity”. Making the case in 1871 for the “United States of Europe”, the British historian John Robert Seeley considered that the European federation should not be “merely an arrangement between governments, but a real union of peoples”. He went on to state that “it can never be attained by mere diplomatic methods, or by the mere action of governments, but only by a universal popular movement (...) large enough in the end to impose the measure upon governments that would in many cases be from instinctive interest bitterly hostile to it”. What is there to disagree with?

As one would expect, the author does not omit to refer to the work of Altiero Spinelli, from the Ventotene Manifesto to the draft Treaty of the European Union approved by the European Parliament in 1984. Levi considers that the form of words “federation of nation states” proposed by Jacques Delors in 1995 represents a “significant attempt to define the nature of the federal institutions in the post-national era”. “It is not about erasing the nations (), it is more about reshaping them by transforming them into one of the levels of government that should be conserved with its autonomy within a multi-level federal system”, he writes, adding that there are “problems principally health and well-being policies that should remain within the remit of the national level”.

If there are “problems”, these should be identified on the basis of efficacy and that has never seemed to me to be the case with health and well-being, which can be best managed at local or regional level, in other words as close as possible to the needs of each population. Any higher level will always deal with the matter not on the basis of local needs, but on the basis of a system of planned economy aiming to achieve the best overall efficiency. Bureaucratic shortcomings and the shortages experienced during the current pandemic are a perfect illustration of this. Health is an area which, in my view, should be shared between the European level (marketing approvals for drugs and single European negotiators to set prices; epidemiological monitoring and recommendations as to stocks and sanitary measures; coverage of citizens when traveling out of their regions of residence, amongst other things); and the infrastructure-management level, healthcare staff and equipment and sickness insurance, which should be regional.

Finally, in a Europe surrounded by crises and war, Levi allows himself a touch of great naïveté: “to become independent in security and defence matters, all it will take is for the EU to adopt a small professional army suitable to manage security crises, not just to organise peacekeeping missions, but also economic assistance and political stabilisation (state building)”.

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