The European constitutional convention: how far towards federalism?

Report from the AGM, 22 March 2003

Jeremy Hargreaves

Jeremy Hargreaves: What’s wrong with politics?

What would a federal Europe look like? Too often we talk as if it’s something somewhere ‘over there’, completely qualitatively distinct from what we have at the moment. But actually it’s not a black-and-white question – you’ve either got one or you haven’t – it’s greyer than that. How federal is Europe already? I will divide that into two parts. First what might a federal Europe actually do? Secondly how might it be organised?

What might a federal Europe do? Its task is to deal with issues that are common to all European countries. For example, the current international situation cries out for a common foreign and security policy – the Iraqi crisis affects all of us together. Environmental protection at the global level is another example. At present, Europe is not working together very well. If it could be organised better, it could be a more effective counterweight to America. It could for example get far more for the money that it spends on defence.

Home affairs issues are another example where Europe should work together. This means dealing with issues such as immigration, asylum, crime, and drug smuggling. Criminals do not recognise national borders and the fight against crime should not either. There has been great progress in this area over the last two years. 11 September has made a great difference in encouraging European member-states to take forward issues which previously had seemed to have little prospect for progress soon. A common foreign and security policy may seem quite far away at the moment, but changed circumstances can have a major impact in clearing previously apparently impossible logjams.

Economic integration is another area where European countries are better off if they work together. This means obviously the single market – Europe works best as a single economic unit – and there is also the euro, too. In the economic field, a federal Europe is not so very different from what we have now.

So there is a mixed picture of how close Europe is to being federal in terms of the powers it might have. A federal Europe is not something apart ‘over there’ but something we are already quite a long way down the road towards.

How would a federal Europe be organised? Three elements: it would respect the principles of law, democracy, and subsidiarity.

Federalism is the belief that political entities should relate to each other by law rather than by force. On some big issues, in Europe, like war, we have this. But on other issues, intergovernmental politics still seems to trump law on most occasions. For example, the terms of the stability pact now seem to be pretty much optional. The French ban on British beef is another example of this.

Democracy is essential to how a federal Europe would be organised. We as citizens must have the right to choose the government. This point shouldn’t have to be made in the 21st century, but it has to be said in Europe at the moment. In a federal Europe, there would be elections by which the people would choose the government of Europe and decide the policy programme. We have elections every five years at the moment, but they don’t select the government or choose the policies they should implement. MEPs should choose the executive. And of course there should also be a proper role for national states in the European system as well.

We shouldn’t be afraid of politics in this system. The British government talks of a two-thirds or 80 per cent majority in the European Parliament to choose the president of the Commission, on the grounds that the Commission should not be political. Why not? What’s wrong with politics? It is often argued in Europe that everyone has to agree, and the Commission needs to be ‘impartial’ or ‘independent’. I don’t agree. Surely we don’t believe in independent government: government should be dependent on the people. The European Commission should be no exception to this.

And then there is the principle of subsidiarity, which would also be central to a federal Europe. People in different European countries have different views on how the public services should be run. For example the UK and France take different views about how much tax they want to pay and what level of public services they want to get in return. And there’s no reason why we shouldn’t continue to follow our separate ideas on this: public services do not have to be run at the same level across the European Union. Another example of subsidiarity is how to regulate fishing. Is the EU the best level to regulate fishing? Why should the European Union regulate this issue in the North Sea – the country’s that border the North Sea should do this, and not the rest. The concept of subsidiarity doesn’t always mean the national level: there might be a more effective and democratic way to take these decisions.

John Pinder

John Pinder: confidence in the Convention

Federal Union was established in 1938 to propagand for a European federal state. Its aim was to prevent the war from happening and then to put the world back together again after it was over. Plus ça change.

Our policy has been influenced by Jean Monnet. We have a federal union, with legislative, executive and judicial branches. Federal powers are exercised when national powers are inadequate. If the Union also had exclusive use of military force, we would have not only a federal union but a federal state.

Valéry Giscard D’Estaing is now chairing the European Convention. Who are the main players that he has to deal with? Ernest Wistrich and I have worked with him in the European Movement and so know him pretty well. He is very presidential. He wants to keep defence and macro-economic questions inter-governmental, but accepts that other issues should be federal. France broadly speaking accepts this view. The British government accepts most of it too. The German government is pretty wholeheartedly federalist, promoting the European Parliament and a federal European Union.

The question for Giscard is how to deal with the British? If he cannot get a proposal which France, Germany and the Convention can accept, his career will not end in success. If the UK does not support this proposal, it may be left out for a while.

What should be the main elements of this new constitution? There should be a charter of fundamental rights; there should be co-decision for the European Parliament on all legislation and the budget; the European Parliament should elect the president of the European Commission (although the British government has been against this because it wants the Commission to be administrative and not political); there should be dual majority voting in the Council of the states together with their populations, and open legislative sessions.

The biggest problem is the executive. Germany doesn’t like the idea of strengthening the Council but accepted in order to get the French on board for the rest of the proposal. The Convention as a whole is against the idea of having two presidents but Giscard is in favour. The UK has proposed very broad terms of reference for the chair of the Council, which in my view is a very dangerous prospect. Germany along with a majority in the Convention will ensure that there are narrower terms of reference. Andrew Duff (described by Giscard as the Socrates of the Convention) has proposed that the roles of chair of the Council in its executive role and president of the Commission should be held by the same person, and elected by a Congress of MEPs and national MPs. This is the really difficult issue for the Convention and for Giscard, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this proposal attracted more support.

I haven’t given up hope on foreign policy. The Franco-German proposal calls for majority voting for non-defence-related foreign policy. And we hope that the Commission can become a stronger body to lead foreign policy. We shall need a diplomatic service, which will take time to create. And the Convention should leave an open door for further developments, including progress from the rapid deployment force towards a European army.

What will the final outcome of the Convention be? I think it will be a federal legislature with a stronger role for member state parliaments. I fear that there will be a weak and divided executive. I don’t expect that there will be many new competences for the European Union, nor are they needed except for a process for developing a strong European foreign and security policy.

We can have confidence that the federal elements are always stronger than the inter-governmental elements. My expectation is that the Community method will deliver enough benefits so that the citizens and their governments will understand this point and thus support the continued building of a federation.

As for us British federalists, there may not be many of us at the moment but we are right. More of the British are coming to appreciate the need for a stronger European political system and we have to explain to them why it has to be federal.

This article is based on talks given by the two speakers at the Federal Union AGM on Saturday 22 March 2003. The opinions expressed are those of the speakers and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

More information

Report on the 2003 AGM

Report on the AGM debate on foreign and security policy

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