Federalism and national identity

Richard Laming

By Richard Laming

Concern about nationalism and national identity is the basis of the enduring debate about the future of the European Union today: given how stubbornly the countries of Europe cling to the idea of Europe in the face of all kinds of pressure and tabloid newspaper hostility, there must be something in it worth preserving.

Federal Union argues that the European Union needs to be more like a federal system, not less. This implies a system of parliamentary democracy at the European level to manage the single market and its associated policies, resulting in a more effective voice for Europe on the world stage. A consistent criticism of this proposal is that it also implies the creation of a European nation, a criticism which Federal Union denies. This attracts us some opposition from two sides.

There are those who argue that a European nation is indeed what Europe needs, that the process of European integration today is the successor to Mazzini’s unification of Italy in the nineteenth century. He had to create Italians as much as create Italy. There are proposals around now for various measures to create and promote a European identity. Most of these leave me cold. Identity is something that emerges in its own time and its own way: attempts to manufacture it are not going to help.

A second criticism – and one which is much more common in the UK (the previous one is a continental variation) – is that European integration needs a European nation and that this therefore is a reason to oppose European integration. In this view, the prospect of a European nation is so horrifying that it is worth surrendering all kinds of other political objectives – free markets, global influence – in order to prevent it coming into being.

What both of these criticisms have in common is the idea of the nation as the source of all identity and power. When God was removed from the political structure by the secular revolutions of the eighteenth century and onwards (it is no accident that kings are crowned in church), a replacement was needed as the source of political authority. That replacement in France was the nation, and that replacement appears to have stuck. (Perhaps if the French revolution had not happened, the slightly earlier and much more interesting American revolution would have been a bigger influence on subsequent independence struggles.) 

The more interesting revolution in political authority is when it no longer has to be vested in a single institution at all. The recognition that the citizens are sovereign – not because of their nationality, wealth, gender or anything else but because of their existence – produces all kinds of new considerations about both power and identity.

First, power has to be allocated to the level where it can most effectively be exercised on behalf of the citizen. The act of moving power from one level of government to another is an administrative act, not a moral one. The US constitution is based on this concept, but has become rather fossilised since then: the transfer of power from the US federal government to the International Criminal Court, to take a small example, shows this.

Secondly, the old assumptions about identity get turned upside down. Identity can no longer be something that comes from government, because there is more than one level of government. In Europe, where the continental level of government is accumulating power in economic and other issues, we actually see the growth in regional identities – Scotland, Catalonia – as a counterbalance. The mean distance from citizen to decision-maker, if I am allowed to refer to such a concept, might actually be getting shorter, not longer. In England, there are now even proposals to establish elected regional assemblies – England has historically been utterly unitary.

The idea that identity is absolute and that one’s national government demands absolute loyalty is passing with the emergence of multi-level government. Events in Croatia and Bosnia in the last decade showed how serious were the consequences of being caught on the wrong side of the national dividing line – it was literally a matter of life and death and consequently war became a rational course of action. No-one will fight over the border between the East and West Midlands of England.

Some people welcome the passing of this kind of imposed identity because it also means the passing of one conception of the role of the state. Many of its functions can now be passed to the marketplace, goes the argument. Children no longer need to be taught to be British: now they can be taught to be consumers. Personally, I regret this. I do not welcome the decline in the public realm, even if I am glad it is no longer the British public realm or the French public realm or whatever. There are things that we have in common as Londoners, English, British, Europeans or whatever (I live in London) that we have as citizens and not as consumers. The loss of the concept of absolute loyalty and unique identity pose a new challenge to those who wish to preserve the concept of a public space. Perhaps the Scots, Welsh and Irish (and the ethnic minorities now resident in England) have got better answers than most of the English have yet discovered.

My conclusion is that the creation of new levels of government is an essential means towards getting better government, but that federalists in the UK have yet to grapple with the idea of identity and how it needs to be changed. The traditional approach has been simply to dismiss the consideration (the writers of the 1930s who raised the question of federalism as the means to prevent war did not really consider it at all) but I am sure that will not do. The anti-Europeans, who still cling to the Union Flag and all it has stood for, have a coherent concept of identity, even if most of the British people no longer share it. The argument for multi-level government – that international democracy is possible – needs to be accompanied by some better ideas about identity if it is to be successful. And, staring into the abyss of the alternative to international democracy as we do right now, those ideas about identity need some urgent attention.

This article was contributed by Richard Laming, Director 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. Last updated 26/02/03.

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