Why is Federalism a Dirty Word? In Defence of the European Project
During times of austerity we all need someone to point the finger of blame towards and it appears in modern times we now have a need to point many fingers at local, national and supranational level.
There is form to suggest that the Liberal Democrats’ evisceration was coming due to their role as junior partner in the Coalition. It is as predictable that the Labour opposition gained ground on the Tories (albeit not as impressively as Ed and Ed would have liked). So, with the fingers firmly out at local and national level, what about the EU? The Eurosceptic vote was strong across Europe to varying degrees and this has been discussed extensively, being related to changing attitudes towards race, among other social issues. However, what interests me most of all is the overall attitude to the European project apparently at the heart of the EU: Federalism.
Coming from the Republic of Ireland, I never heard any particularly negative views relating to the EU before the recent economic crash. While it is not true that this is reflective of every nation in the union, many nations have been seen to wholeheartedly buy into the concept of a federal Europe, with the continued endorsement of the ‘Ever closer Union’ clause from the initial Treaty of Rome in 1957. Recently, however, my experience living in the UK and observing other rising tides of anti-EU rhetoric has turned federalism into a term with negative connotations for national identity, sovereignty and culture.
My understanding of the federalist model that is said to lie at the heart of the EU is the shifting of power both up to supranational level and down to regional or provincial level. This notion, while fanciful without years of planning before even gradual implementation, resonated with the humanitarian in me that wanted people to be less defined by crude national identities and instead embrace regional culture while identifying with a supranational model that could do much to eradicate old colonial tension between so many countries spread across the continent. Perhaps one of the biggest beneficiaries of such a system would be Northern Ireland in that it would erode the simplistic, conflict-inducing choice between being Irish or British, instead allowing all citizens to embrace their own regional cultures.
There is no guarantee that such a model would work, but the nation-state model is transient and flawed itself. However naive it may be to dream of a federalist Europe, it is a dream of positive integration that allows regional issues to be governed by regional government, while maintaining the high law and stability that bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights offer the EU. Unfortunately, the reality of a federalist Europe is now one that is tarnished, whether rightly or wrongly, by accusations of power-grabbing and deception. Whatever about his other credentials and controversies, the fact that EU Commission presidential candidate Jean-Claude Juncker supports a federalist agenda is seen as a negative thing in the UK, and indeed many other countries such as France and Greece.
The UK may have never fully bought into the concept of a federalist Europe, perhaps seen as an idea borne out of the obvious cultural differences between the provincial identities of continental powerhouses France and Germany, as well as Italy and Belgium. One should also consider that the federalist concept may well have been hijacked by Jose Manuel Barroso et al, who have made no bones about the contempt they show for nations such as Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland who have entered into bailouts and endured genuinely savage cuts to public services and welfare. However, I maintain that the positive impact of such political restructuring would be significant and should be defended where possible. While I risk sounding totalitarian, there are rare occasions when the people must be protected from the perils of democracy, and though it feels like a losing battle I hope the dream of a federalist Europe is not dead yet.