Federalism, a Decisive Challenge for Europeans - 2. Making Europe Charming Again Through Reason and Heart *

Michel Dévoluy 
Professor Emeritus in economics, holder of the Jean Monnet Chair at the University of Strasbourg

Indifference, doubts and blockings: for which reasons?

Three quarters of a century ago, Europe's Founding Fathers conceived a method of integration calibrated to come up to a European federation. However, this last stage seems to be hardly completed for now. There are multiple reasons: we could trace back the main ones, without intending to rank them. All of them shed light on the indifferences, the doubts and even the objections of citizens and Member States. Knowing these obstacles is a first step for moving forward. The construction of a federal Europe will not be achieved by denying or bypassing the political, economic, social, cultural, doctrinal and emotional realities.

The successive enlargements have slowed down the federal dynamic by increasing States’ heterogeneity. Today, the 27 Members are not expecting the same things from Europe. How to find, then, a common ground for a federal Europe? Moreover – and that is an uncomfortable question – would the founding countries have already attained the federal step without these enlargements?

The new Member States from the former socialist bloc, freed from the USSR crushing guardianship, became part of the EU in 2004 to benefit from freedom and from a common market, that bring economic progress. Their priority was not to strive for the construction of a federal State. For them to feel fully committed for a political Europe will require time. We should accept history and its shifts.

A multi-speed Europe would facilitate the formation of a federation comprising a few States. This possibility of a “vanguard” is even more legitimate given the Eurozone’s peculiar statute. But the treaties are built on the idea that all members should move at the same pace. Waiting for all the members to cross the finishing line, Europe is clipping its wings and scaling back its ambitions. However, the treaties offer two types of derogations. “Enhanced cooperation” allows at least 9 States to cooperate in order to accelerate the achievement of one of EU objectives, while of course strictly respecting the treaties. On the other hand, the “exceptional status” acknowledges that a State can benefit from a peculiar and less restrictive status with regard to EU law. For example, the non-members of the Eurozone have an exceptional status. The fact is that the main rule remains uniformity; hence the difficulties in moving forward.

Europe is not a credible and internationally recognized power yet. It has no army, and no common foreign policy. NATO’s role as the ultimate protection of the integrity of many EU Member States is a tangible evidence. Creating a political union while giving up on autonomous defence is contradictory.

Another dividing line is human rights. For many citizens, Europe is too accomodating in its mission to impose respect for human rights. For others, it is too invasive and without regard for national peculiarities. Compromise, a key method of EU functioning, is of little help to address this issue. Over recent years, the presence of illiberal democracies within the EU is undermining some citizens’ desire to build a federal Europe that would neglect Europe’s founding values.

The notion of Welfare State is still linked to that of Nation State. This is hardly surprising, since the treaties do not give real social competencies to the EU; everything hinges so far on States’ will. The latter is a crucial point, as redistribution and support mechanisms of personal and collective risks are at the core of the sense of belonging to a political community. A federal state plays a dual role in these matters. It intervenes directly in the financial mechanisms that constitute the welfare state. It initiates, facilitates and controls the process of homogenizing the social systems of the Member States. The EU is not in this situation yet. Moreover, Europeans are fully aware of the incantatory words according to which people anticipate the creation of a federation without implementing the convergence of its social systems.

The national political spaces are more understandable than the European political space. Transnational parties are absent and the perception of the major issues remains national. The EU remains distant and complex to many citizens.

To Europeans’ view, the EU is hindered by complex, heavy and undemocratic decision-making mechanisms. Conversely, national spaces are reassuring, and seem more efficient and transparent. The benefits provided by Europe appear to be messy and unrecognizable. Europe is perceived as being more concerned about the common market’s good functioning than the citizens’ well-being.

National narratives are crushing European narratives. European identity is still blurry.

The absence of a “European people” is recurrently evoked. But in a democracy, people are formed by sharing common interests within a political space recognised by all.

The veto procedure, according to which a single Member State can block a decision, undermines the perception of a solidarity-minded Europe.

A federation is built on rights and duties. Solidarity between Member States should not be a one-way process. The debate around the “frugal States” or the “Club-Med States” does not give much desire to create a political Europe.

The question of a common language is recurrent too. But several federations are multilingual!

The issue of egos should not be overlooked either. Indeed, the transition to a federal state implies a federal government, which would automatically downgrade national politicians in the hierarchy of powers. Are the latter ready for this sacrifice? As the proverb says, it would be a “turkeys voting for Christmas” situation.

All the above-mentioned arguments explain the citizens’ and governments’ lukewarm willingness to move forward to a federal Europe. Not to mention those – citizens and governments – who are resolutely hostile to any transfer of sovereignty to Europe, and wish, on the contrary, to unravel the EU. Or to leave the EU altogether.

Finally, it seems necessary to me to consider apart a cause less immediately identifiable. It  is both diffuse and decisive.

Europe’s economic and social doctrine has been totally permeated by the so-called neo-liberal revolution that began in the 1970s. The market was to solve all problems. Deregulated competition became the undisputed driving force for growth and well-being. The trickle-down theory would ensure a higher standard of living for the poorest. Interventionism became a dirty word and industrial policies were regarded as outdated. In short, politics was to withdraw as much as possible from public affairs, be they economic, social or monetary. But that is not all. The European economies’ convergence was also to be achieved through the use of efficient markets and competition. States, regions and employees were to compete with each other and thus benefit from the advantages of globalization. Instead of talking about solidarity, Europe promoted the “every man for himself” attitude and individualism.

This neo-liberal world has had deleterious effects on the construction of a political Europe. This lack of ambition came from several political sides. “All for the market” advocates were satisfied with the status quo. The EU had “done the job”: a single market, a single currency, well-regulated public finances, good rules of free and fair competition. Why go further and build a federation? The Europe of markets is enough.

On the other hand, many Europeans were not prepared to consider the cult of financial-market efficiency and the virtues of labour-market flexibility as convincing arguments for aspiring to a federal Europe. The single market and the euro, as defined by the treaties and experienced by these Europeans, appear above all to be technical issues unrelated to a societal project.

In their view, the neoliberal and technocratic Europe did not have the necessary scope to be the driving force for a political Europe. The Europe of treaties did not make one think of more integration, on the contrary.

In short, either this Europe was sufficient, or it was disappointing. A dismal context in which to aspire to a political Europe!

One must be motivated by reason and by the heart to work towards a federal Europe. To become a reality, this Europe will have to convince people of its usefulness, demonstrate that it is strong and protective and, dare we say, make them dream of a better world. A vast programme. One is entitled to be surprised, in a text written by a convinced federalist, at the insistence on flushing out the obstacles to the establishment of European federalism. But in order to move forward, one must show both realism and determination. Two well-known quotes sum up this perspective excellently. According to Albert Camus, “to name things wrongly is to add to the misfortune of the world”. While Antonio Gramsci urges us to “have the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of will”.

The need for Europe in the face of contemporary issues and challenges

Contemporary issues and challenges are causing a kind of alignment of the planets that pleads for a federal Europe. The arguments are gathered around several themes: the aspirations to a more inclusive, qualitative and appeased society; the new situations for what regards sovereignty and strategic autonomy; the indispensable mutualization of environmental, climatic and health problems.

The evolution of the economic and social doctrine has already been mentioned. Several elements contribute to put into question neoliberalism as an unsurpassable system. The destruction of the environment and the growth of income and wealth inequalities are increasingly associated with the functioning of the ultra-liberal economy. The financial crisis of 2008 and the current health crisis are also leading to a questioning of the neoliberal vision. Many citizens now aspire to a return of the social state and to forms of interventionism. More than ever, the EU Member States would benefit from uniting politically to guide citizens and states towards the construction of a more cohesive and peaceful society. The time for competition between states is over; the time for cohesion and unity is called for. Making Europe an exemplary economic and social area that promotes qualitative well-being, knowledge and humanist values should win over many Europeans.

The federal Europe is capable of carrying out a generous and innovative project for society. On the other hand, such an ambition would be much more difficult to achieve if it had to be led by isolated Member States, without the support and boldness of the whole federation. Let's face it, in a world governed by the balance of power and the weight of very large countries, no European state, taken individually, would have any choice but to follow political, economic and societal norms imposed by others. You cannot remake the world on your own. A powerful and credible collective dynamic is needed to change the course of things. Europe could be proud of itself should it revise the economic and social trajectory it has followed for four decades. And the Europeans would be proud to build a common narrative together.

For a state, sovereignty means being able to freely choose its values, its political system, its major strategic choices and its destiny. Sovereignty also means being able to defend its territorial integrity, to control its borders, to assert its interests in the world and to enter into alliances with other countries independently. Here again a small country - in relative terms - does not have this autonomy. It is subject to the power and aims of big states, but also to the strategies of large multinational companies (industrial, commercial and financial). Although it is formally sovereign, a small or medium-sized state is not sovereign in reality. In today's - and tomorrow's - world, no European state, even the largest, will be able to fully exercise its sovereignty. Its weight in geopolitics and in the dynamics of globalization will be weak, even derisory.  On the other hand, Europe is fully capable of choosing and assuming its own fate thanks to its strategic autonomy.

Expressions of power now go beyond the number of guns and nuclear warheads. Soft power is also at work. In other words, global geopolitics is governed by the economic weight of states, their cultural and ideological influences, investments and shareholdings in foreign economies and their ability to destabilize other countries. In addition to military arsenals, power today depends on the possession of raw materials and rare products, the control of value chains, the control of trade routes and financial circuits, and the ability to discipline information circuits and virtual data storage. Countering and controlling soft power is beyond the reach of an isolated European state. In this new world, only a continental state has sufficient weight to weigh and count on the international scene. Make no mistake:  small countries, more or less the vaults of the world's immense fortunes, may seem to be safe; but this is because they are useful and pose no danger to the larger ones. On the contrary, they are at their disposal.

Another crucial and vital aspect, in the truest sense, is food sovereignty. Agricultural independence in order to supply the population with sufficient quantities is also an element of strategic autonomy. Because of its geographical and climatic diversity and the extent of its fertile land and fisheries resources, Europe is still in a position to ensure its sovereignty here.

Finally, the thorny issue of immigration is also central to European sovereignty. Europe, an aging continent, must open up in order to remain a prosperous economy. However, the essence of the migration issue stems from three immense challenges: demographic pressures, particularly from Africa; the reception of refugees fleeing totalitarianism; and the castaways of climate change. Here again, the solution lies in Europe. Sharing an economic area, with a single external border, without a single migration policy is technically and politically unbearable. Migration tragedies are tearing the conscience of Europeans and fueling pernicious rivalries between Member States. Faced with these tensions, a federal Europe would be more effective and would help to bind Europeans together. Deciding to provide asylum together, within the framework of a shared policy, is both a vector of collective identity and the manifestation of a self-confident power.

Ideally, environmental, climate and health problems should be dealt with at a global level. Even if meetings such as the Conferences of the parties (COP) or organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) act on behalf of the international community, we are still in an intergovernmental logic in which each party defends its own interests. There are two sets of reasons why these issues should be dealt with by a federal Europe. Firstly, the dimension of the European geographical area is such that decisions taken at its level will have significant impacts in the treatment of these problems. All Europeans will benefit directly. A state can of course act alone, but these issues are global or at least continental. Secondly, by speaking with one voice, Europe has a much better chance of influencing international negotiations. It could then rely on its exemplary behavior to assert in the international community standards and ambitions that would benefit the entire world community.

We will conclude these reflections on Europe and federalism with a complex problem and an intriguing theme.

The complex problem, but one that needs to be resolved quickly, is that of a multi-speed or multi-circle Europe. With 27 Member States and in the current state of affairs, it is illusory to want to switch all together to a federation. There are still too many differences and too many divergent ambitions. Hence the blockages. We must have the political courage to loosen this constraint by allowing those states that wish to do so to go ahead more quickly. Without of course closing the door behind them.

The intriguing theme points out the gap between reasonableness and concrete achievements.  Why, although there are so many rational arguments in favour of a significant move towards a federal Europe, is history moving so slowly? Or, put differently, why is it that many citizens proclaim themselves to be pro-European and in favour of a greater political integration, and yet their words seem to have become commonplace, without palpable effects, without real passions? Leaving aside the convinced nationalists and purveyors of illiberal ideologies - a small minority -, the lack of enthusiasm of Europeans for a federal Europe probably has as much to do with emotions, feelings and sentiments as with pure rationality. In fact, we are confronted here with economic, social and political issues, but also with the complexity of the human beings, with the capacity to free ourselves from preconceived ideas and with the meanders of collective history. Let's face it. To move forward, it is not enough to convince through reason, we must also desire Europe and adhere to the construction of a common narrative.


* This article is the second part of a paper whose first part was published in the last issue of The Federal Debate.

Translated by Léonard De Carlo

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