Challenges for federalism in an enlarged Union

Richard Laming
By Richard Laming

Based on a speech given at the Europa-Haus-Marienberg seminar, “The future of the European Union”, 19-22 June 2003.

Thank you for inviting me here today. It is a pleasure to speak to this seminar, at such an important moment in European history. I am not sure if the organisers of this seminar, the UEF and the Europe House here in Bad Marienberg, could really have predicted that these few days would have seen such an important document as the draft constitution published. But it means we have the perfect moment to discuss the future of Europe.

My own view, as will become clear, is that the contents of the draft are very positive, but that they do not mean that the battle for federalism is over. Let me explain why.

What do we mean by federalism?

I am going to take federalism in two ways, first of all as a political practice – multilevel government where each level has a direct relationship with the citizen – basically this is what we have in the EU today and even more so under the draft constitution

Secondly, I am going to look at federalism as the political thought that advocates multi-level government of the kind I have just described. We should consider the challenges facing federalists, as well as those facing federal government. We should never forget that federalism means more than just the mere practice of federal government – the United States is a federal political system, but thinking about its attitude towards the United Nations, for example, no-one could think of the United States as a force for federalism in the world.

But before all this, I should define what I mean by an enlarged Union.

What is meant by an enlarged Union?

I think that the Union could be said to be enlarged in three ways.

First there is the obvious question of the geographic extent. 10 new member states are set to join next year, and afterwards there will be perhaps five or even ten more. Both the federal institutions and the federalist movement need to think about how they will deal with these extra member states.

Secondly the union is enlarged in the powers that it has. In areas such as foreign policy, there has been a definite increase in the role of the Union in the world in recent years and this is set to grow. The draft constitution takes this a little further, not much, but a bit. How will federal government and federalist campaigning cope with a stronger Union?

And thirdly there is the public profile of the Union. The way that the citizen engages with Brussels has changed dramatically over time and will continue to change in the future. This is also a great challenge for our developing federal system of government and our friendly and hopeful political movement.

So, the Union is enlarging in three ways. What does this mean for federalism?

Three examples from the future agenda of the Union

I am going to take some examples from the future agenda of the EU and look at each of them in turn. With each one, I am going to compare it with each of the three dimensions of enlargement. In some cases, that might not be suitable, but that will be obvious when it arises.

I have chosen examples that will illustrate the different issues that have to be dealt with. They also are quite new and topical, I hope. Where there is an example to draw from the draft constitution, I hope I have taken it. That way we can tie this debate into the previous sessions of the seminar.

The examples from the future EU agenda that I have chosen are as follows:

– Developing a foreign policy identity
– Choosing the political leadership of the European Union
– Regulating the single market

I could choose others, but I hope these will illustrate the options available.

Developing a foreign policy identity

Geography: the new 10 member states will make forging a common foreign policy a bit harder but in the end not that much. The range of possible foreign policy options is not going to get that much bigger because of enlargement, and so enlargement will merely add more member states to the mathematics of choosing which one. By this I mean that they are not going to bring distinctive viewpoints that are not already among those expressed. The awkward issues that arise are provoked by colonial history – the new member states have been on the wrong end of colonialism themselves – or existing military commitments (apart from Poland in Iraq, they don’t really have any). It would be mistaken to think that the Vilnius 10 were favouring American rather than European policy in Iraq. The countries that signed the letter made it clear that they should not be seen as making this choice, and this is reflected in public opinion in those countries. Jacques Chirac was quite wrong to make his statements about whether or not the accession countries had the right or wisdom to say what they said, but I do not think that too much should be read into this for the future, After all, the existing EU15 were split on this issue too. There was nothing “un-European” about the contents of that letter.

Increased powers: a stronger foreign policy is an example of that increased power. It is going to lead to increasing interest by the member states in the policy-making of the EU. Sometimes in the past, governments have signed up to things they did not really agree with for the sake of a quiet life (Margaret Thatcher signed the Stuttgart declaration on the single currency, for example). As the powers of the EU get bigger, this will happen less and less. We will see more arguments over the policies that are made in Brussels and foreign policy will be an important occasion for this.

Public involvement: this is going to be a major force bringing a common foreign policy together. Remember the millions of people who marched against the Iraq war? While the governments of Europe may have been divided over the right policy, the peoples of Europe were not. The more that public opinion has a voice, the more that the common foreign policy will develop. This is especially true if the EP gets more of a role on the budget, Then, aid policy will become much more closely controlled by votes: the role of MEPs will grow and they will become a greater focus of public opinion;

Choosing the political leadership of the European Union

The draft constitution requires that the choice of president of the European Commission should be made as a result of the European elections, and also creates a post of permanent chair of the European Council. It is not clear to me which of these two posts will turn out to be the most important – I hope it will be the Commission president – but it does not make a difference here: the question I have posed relates to the political leadership of the Union, wherever it is exercised.

Geography: providing a coherent political leadership might be harder because of the increased diversity of the political parties. There will be more parties like the British Conservatives or Forza Italia, or Ireland’s Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, which exist only in one country and do not easily fit into the ideology of a European political group. That will make finding wide support for single candidate a bit harder, and in fact will make it harder to say that X party or Y party has “won” the European elections. However, given that there is a need to find a single president in the end, these smaller parties will not create too much trouble – they cannot propose an alternative candidate – and will find themselves supporting one or other of the major candidates.

Increased powers: this is going to make the job more interesting than ever before. Even now serving prime ministers have given up their national roles to go to Brussels (Santer and then Prodi did this, Dehaene was ready to). This will become even more likely in the future so we will have more senior, higher profile candidates. In fact, the relative skills of the Commission president and European Council chair might go a long way to deciding which turns out to be the more influential role.

Public involvement: there will be a considerable improvement in the level of democracy and accountability in the EU if the parties should nominate their candidates for president of the European Commission as part of their election campaigns. This will give the public a more precise choice about the way in which Europe is to be governed and will give the elections themselves a higher profile. They will also strengthen the political parties. Remember that political parties first of all form around people and only later adopt their ideologies. The role of leadership in a political party is very strong. Effective European political parties have not yet formed because they have not had to. There have never been absolute choices demanding absolute loyalty before. Legislation is always open to rebellions on a small or even a large scale.

Regulating the single market

Geography: this will be harder for two reasons. First, there are more interests involved – and unlike foreign policy these will bring in much tougher interest. Money will be at stake, and real live commercial concerns. This will be particularly true of the CAP or CFP but will also be true of other commercial issues too. Secondly, the changing legislative procedure will bring much more power to the EP. It will get co-decision power over almost everything to do with the single market. Of particular importance is agriculture. Hitherto, there has not really been a European debate about agriculture, there has been a series of national debates which have never really connected. With the extension of co-decision to the EP that will change.

Increased powers: the new powers in the world of the single market are not that great: the change in the decision-making mechanism is more interesting.

Public involvement: this is the really big concern. It is no accident that public opposition to the EU started to grow in then late 1980s after the single market programme started. New legislation emerged at a rapid rate to bring harmonisation (I hesitate to say harmony) to the marketplace by the 1992 deadline. Of course, like everything gin Brussels it was late, and like everything in Brussels is turned out to be bigger and more important than anyone saw. As a result of all this legislation, public interest also grew. Trade associations, lobby groups, NGOs, the media: all gathered in Brussels. There are now more journalists in Brussels than in any other European city, and any other world city except Washington DC. As time goes on, this will grow and grow. Any business organisation has to be aware of the functioning of the EU now, because that is where the law comes from. Lobbying in national capitals is no longer enough.

The draft constitution provides for greater involvement by national parliaments in the policy-making process. I think that in practice it will not make much difference either to the speed with which law is made nor to the concerns about subsidiarity. These concerns are really about party politics, not centralisation (or the opposite).

For the federalist movement itself

And for the federalist movement what conclusions do we draw? Let us look back at the three issues and see what they have in common, and then try to draw some conclusions for the federalist movement.

Geography: as the EU has grown, so has our movement. UEF has new sections from Denmark, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Poland. JEF and the European Movement have thrown their nets even wider. That changes the nature of our organisation. Our meeting schedules and working habits will have to be ready to change to recognise the new nature of the organisation.

Languages become more numerous. Political cultures become more diverse. And political expectations of Europe change too. It no longer becomes possible to speak of a shared history in the way we could in the past. All of us have to acknowledge the increased diversity that the EU now has to govern. Our political expectations of the European institutions will be different in the future.

Increased powers: it is possible for the Union to be more visible. It gives us more to work with. In the past, one of the frequent questions put to us was “why bother – what does the EU do that matters?” That is a doubt no longer. There are a great many issues over which the EU can make a difference to people’s lives, and the effectiveness or otherwise of the EU’s action will become an important issue of public concern. We can use these as campaigning issues. It is not the case that we simply have to wait for the next phase of constitutional reform in Europe: there are things to be done now.

Public involvement: this is crucial. There is a growing sense of being “European”, which we can harness and turn to our advantage. But that means an identification with Europe as it is, rather than the Europe that some of our theories might prefer. There are British opponents of the euro who claim nevertheless to be pro-European: this is nonsense. To be a political advocate of Europe can only mean being a political advocate of the Europe that exists. It can be improved, certainly, but the fundamentals are not optional. Wanting Europe without the euro is like wanting Europe without Germany. There are some things we cannot pick and choose. The same applies to those who think that enlargement has gone too far and should in some way be reversed. Public identification with Europe is crucial, and the Europe that the public identifies with cannot be made smaller.


My conclusion is that there are many challenges for federalism in the enlarged Union: I can only discuss a few here. The draft constitution holds out the possibility of many improvements in the democracy and effectiveness of the European Union, but it does not guarantee them. The relative importance of the Commission president and the Council chair, the strength of Europe’s voice in the world, and the development of European political parties are all questions to which there is no immediate answer.

The uncertainty over these issues makes it more important, not less, that federalists devote themselves to the ongoing development of European democracy. The next stage of the argument will not wait until the next revisions of the constitution: it will be reflected in the day-to-day business of the Union and the choices that are made at both national and European level. There is much for the federalist movement still to do. Maintaining an effective campaign is perhaps the biggest challenge of all.

This article was contributed by Richard Laming, a member of the Executive Committee of Federal Union. He may be contacted at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

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