The future’s federal

Brendan Donnelly
By Brendan Donnelly

At the end of last year, I was offered the post of Director of the Federal Trust, an offer I immediately accepted. Most of my friends were quick to offer their congratulations. Some were less enthusiastic. “Federalism,” they argued, was a concept at best unfamiliar, and at worst unacceptable to the great mass of British public opinion. No good could come of, or indeed to a think tank with a federalist agenda. Three months later, I am sure I was right to ignore the jeremiahs. In the British, European and international contexts, federalism is moving rapidly up the agenda. In the not too distant future, many politicians and commentators will be discovering that they have been federalists all their lives without knowing it.

There is a familiar, but fruitless debate for the long winter evenings about whether federalism is a centralising or a decentralising philosophy. A case can be made for either proposition. In the United States of America, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is undoubtedly a centralising agency, often resented by local police and politicians. On the other hand, the German Federal Republic is a conspicuously decentralised system of government, with vast powers reserved for the States against the central authorities in Berlin.

The truth of the matter is that federalism is neither always centralising, nor always decentralising. It is a pragmatic philosophy which has one central thesis, namely that different levels of government are appropriate, both in terms of effciency and accountability, for different governmental tasks and for different governmental competences. There may well be legitimate debate about what tasks at any particular time are best allocated to what levels of government. Certain tasks, moreover, may straddle the responsibilities of differing levels of government.. But at the heart of federalism is a rejection of any constitutional models based upon a single, over-arching, uniquely legitimate level of governmental authority. For this reason, federalists could never accept the concept of an all-pervasive centralised European superstate. For this reason, also, federalists are often to be found among those most hostile to the over-centralising tendencies of national governments. Until recently, a particular object of this latter critique has been the United Kingdom, with its philosophically and administratively highly centralised pattern of governance. Devolution, however, has changed and will continue to change the traditional home life of the British constitution. It also has considerable implications for British perceptions of the philosophy known as “federalism.”

For it is a patent truth, far from universally acknowledged, that the government of the United Kingdom is today much more “federalised” than it was ten years ago. Important decisions affecting the lives of millions, which in 1996 were taken by Whitehall or Westminster, are today routinely taken in Edinburgh or Cardiff. These decisions, moreover, are taken by democratically elected politicians whose legitimacy has nothing to do with the prevailing majorities at Westminster. Their position derives from a wholly separate electoral process, with its own procedures, controversies and leading personalities. In a number of instances, such as long term care and tuition fees, policies adopted by regional Parliaments are at variance with those followed in the majority of the United Kingdom. Although Westminster theoretically retains the right to revoke those powers granted to Regional Parliaments and Assemblies, it is inconceivable that the United Kingdom will ever revert to the unrelieved centralism which for so long dominated its constitutional landscape.

Too many commentators and politicians in the United Kingdom have been unwilling to accept the wide-ranging implications of devolution. Ironically, those nearest to recognising its importance are often its most implacable opponents, predicting that it will lead inevitably to the dissolution of the United Kingdom. No such outcome is realistically in prospect, but it would be a mistake for the architects and advocates of British devolution to deny the federalising nature of what they have done and what they intend to do through their proposals for English regional assemblies. An important reason why the British debate on the European Union is so confused and murky has been the unwillingness of successive British governments to explain the essentially federal nature of the European Union and its institutions. It would be a pity if the debate on English regional assemblies, or on further powers for Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast were similarly clouded through the refusal of government ministers to recognise the federalist duck created by themselves when it swims, dives and quacks at them.

Indeed, the recognition that Britain is a federalising political organism could well make it easier for British public and political opinion to come to terms with the federalist logic which will inevitably be reflected in Valery Giscard d’Estaing’s draft Constitution for the European Union. There is a widespread misconception in the United Kingdom that the former French President may produce a draft document “made in London,” easy for the British government to endorse because its underlying philosophy is intergovernmental. If ever any such prospect was in view, it has long since disappeared. Whatever Giscard’s personal preferences, his Convention can only produce a constitution in which the federal structures and the federal institutions of the European Union find their long-established roles properly reflected. The question for Giscard’s Convention is not whether he will produce a “federalist” or an “intergovernmental” constitution. The questions are rather what elements of intergovernnentalism will remain in an overwhelmingly federalist structure for the European Union, and how coherent and accountable this federalist structure will be.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the true significance of the Constitutional Convention will not only or even primarily lie in its model for the future development of the European Union. There are some genuinely controversial issues on the Convention’s table, notably those relating to defence and foreign policy. But these issues will not be resolved by the Convention. It will be the Intergovernmental Conference which does that. The Convention’s authentic contribution, on which it is now firmly engaged, will rather be that of codification and clarification of what has already been achieved. If words have any meaning, the European Union is and has been for many years a “federal system” of governance in which national and European institutions allocate competences between and among themselves. This development was entirely foreseen in the Treaty of Rome, which set up a sophisticated institutional structure only comprehensible if the European Community and later the European Union were intended to form a political entity a great deal more substantial than a mere trade-promoting organisation. In philosophical and psychological terms, Giscard’s Convention will be the moment when the sometimes implicitly federal nature of the European Union becomes entirely explicit. There may well be some national governments, and not just the British government, which will need time to adjust to this newly-apparent reality.

I hope and believe that there are important contributions to be made in the coming months to the parallel debates in the United Kingdom about British and European federalism. A central task will be to rebut the opposite but complementary criticisms that federalism in Britain means the end of the United Kingdom, while federalism at the European level means the creation of an over-bearing European superstate. The discussion will not be confined simply to British and European questions. Federalism very definitely has something to say about the role and evolution of international bodies such as the WTO, the World Bank and the United Nations. It is a commonplace of federalist analysis that the rule of law, of which the European Union is so outstanding an example, is a better model for international relations than the systematic unpredictability of power-based jostling between nations. The present crisis concerning Iraq illustrates this aspect of federalist thinking more eloquently than any mere rhetoric can. Those individuals and governments who regard an authorising resolution of the UN as being a precondition for legitimate military action against Saddam Hussein are, consciously or unconsciously, embracing a classically federalist line of reasoning. It would be a definite enrichment of our political discourse in the United Kingdom if this connection were more widely understood. There has rarely been a time when so many threads of argument, national, European and international, were coming together to emphasise the relevance and validity of federalist ideas.

Brendan Donnelly, a former MEP, is Director of the Federal Trust and may be contacted at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union or the Federal Trust.

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