Why is Europe not yet a federation?

A Wake-up Call for Europe

November 2014

Robert Verschooten
President Europees Studie- en Informatiecentrum (ESIC) vzw, Antwerp-Belgium
Policy adviser to UEF-Belgium

in cooperation with

Leo Klinkers, director Klinkers Public Policy Consultants (KPPC)
Herbert Tombeur, manager Tombeur Training & Consulting (TTC),
co-authors of the European Federalist Papers

1. Introduction

Since a few centuries political philosophers advocate the creation of a European federation. From a formal and legal viewpoint this plea was worded in the well-known Schuman Declaration of May 1950. This Declaration expressed the desirability and necessity of a federal Europe. However, European leaders choose purposely an intergovernmental instrument, i.e. a treaty between Member States. This type of cooperation among Member States is diametrically opposed to the idea of a federal Europe. Ever since, European federalists try in vain to transform the intergovernmental system into a federation.

In order to stop these futile efforts, the following question shall be answered first: Why has in sixty years time no breakthrough in the pursuit towards a federal Europe been achieved?

A first but incomplete answer to this question reveals two main reasons:

  • federalism is not yet accepted as being the proper answer to the inherent deficiencies of the current intergovernmental system of the European Union;
  • in sixty years time the European federalists did not succeed to shape a representative movement able to materialize a breakthrough towards a European federation.

These two observations, whereby the latter is undoubtedly causal to the former, are the very base of following analysis.

2. Why is federalism in Europe not yet accepted as being the proper answer to the many deficiencies of the intergovernmental system of the European Union?  

Few politicians and media understand the very principles and advantages of federalism or even do not consider them. Furthermore those who do understand federalism omit to steadily stand up for this system of government. If they do so, they revert too much to the outdated intergovernmental frame of reference. Pro-European respectively anti-European representatives and decision-makers have, each to a different extent, omitted to adjust their political responsibility to the real needs of European society and of European institutions.

The European public opinion cannot change course without example setting. Moreover ongoing criticism by national politicians on Brussels feeds euroscepticism among people.

Therefore, the perception prevails that a federation for Europe generates a detestable centralism and a super state. Federal dynamics are unknown or still being misjudged by many people in Europe. A critical and hostile attitude towards a European federation enjoys more understanding than a positive attitude, which is considered naïve or utopical.

An insufficient number of influential national and European policy-makers, respectively opinion-makers point out that:

  • a limited number of assignments for Europe differ quite a lot from centralism or a European super state;
  • federalism has the potential to offer proper alternatives to the centralist and undemocratic working of the intergovernmental system.

Not enough of these key men rectify this erroneous perception.

In 1950 the positive message of Schuman, inspired by Monnet, yielded negative consequences: member states (1) kept full control; (2) maintained the small steps approach without a final goal; (3) never wanted to formulate an European project.

The intergovernmental approach is institutionally hampered by vetoes, unanimity and minority blockades. This approach is utterly unable to meet important and urgent needs in a completely changed multipolar world.

The national state is unjustly considered the ultimate guardian. The European Union is not yet considered to be the solution, rather the problem. Obviously cause and effect are mistaken. The EU has not met the expectation of durable employment, growth and stable prosperity throughout Europe.

European federalists militate in particular for the institutional side of the European project. However, socio-economic solutions at European level, profitable to many and largely out of reach at national level, do appeal to people. Well-understood individual self-interest is missing in the plea for a European integration project. This void is fatal to the acceptance and credibility of a federal European project.

To people at large Europe failed to address the actual problems. The European Union is blamed for being unworldly, aloof, and pursuing the wrong objectives, such as savings-driven efforts without corresponding solidarity, a monetary union without an economic, fiscal and banking union, lacking an overarching political union, as well as missing focus and initiative. Hence, many people consider Europe redundant, unknown and expensive.

People's aversion to politics has never been deeper. This is obvious since political parties refuse to answer fundamental questions. They continue to focus on the short term.

Nothing should encourage people to lose faith in change and in emerging expectations. Following question is important: which values, attitudes and skills do meet the 21st century prerequisites?

3. Why did European federalists in sixty years time fail to shape a strong and representative movement able to materialize a European Federation?

European federalists are divided and therefore bring to bear little influence. Fractions in the federalist movement oppose and neutralize each other the last sixty years. This attitude drove the larger federalist movements in the defensive.   The semblance of unity towards the public is upheld by evasiveness, slowness and a lack of focus. A too small number of innovative federalist projects were formulated and broadly circulated. The federalist organizations are not quite representative yet.

The larger federalist movements are headed almost exclusively by reputed and influential politicians who, in spite of their federalist convictions, still maintain an important national agenda. These politicians persist to believe that the intergovernmental system can be transformed gradually into a federal system. The assumptions of both systems are too contradictory to enable such a successful transformation. A resolute changeover from the intergovernmental polity to a federation shall have to take place. As soon as possible, otherwise the past will disrupt Europe's future.

The general secretariats of the federalist movements act in a too soft, too discontinuous, or too limited pro-active manner. Setting a good example and true leadership is still missing. Financial resources are limited, but this should be no excuse. Much can be done on a non- or low-cost basis provided there is a firm will for close cooperation.

No deep exchange of views occurred recently between the leading European federalist movements. A comprehensive analysis and interpretation of the line of thought of all movements and projects is still missing. A partial attempt was made in nos. 48-49 in the Series ‘Which Europe?’ by ESIC, ‘Twelve Visions for a Federal Europe’, illustrating diversity in political options (http://www.europadebat.be/esic_pub.htm).

Decision-making in the leading European federalist movements has been and still takes place in backrooms and by a limited number of intimates. Internal democracy is being used sparingly. External advise and diverging opinions are often disregarded. Jointly shared assumptions, objectives and methodology are being steered clear of. This is why so-called common proposals lack support and implementation by local sections.

The causes of federalist movements' failure are not scrutinized. Improvisation, shallowness and lack of coherence in action or incomplete objectives generate a poor outcome and a lack of confidence in order to foster common action. Federalist action shall be much more than an internal intellectual exercise. In the absence of adequate external action such exercises are politically irrelevant and superfluous. The absence of a joint methodology is fatal to the effectiveness of action or to a significant breakthrough of European federalist thinking.

Many European federalists only value their own approach. These visions mostly lack a well founded context. An answer to the questions ‘what, how, by whom and when’ is frequently absent.

The majority of European federalists enjoyed academic education. Many of them are interested in a systematic, well founded line of thought or a professionally inspired methodology. These federalists are hardly engaged in European action. They take satisfaction with hasty formulated opinions and feel little need towards alternative suggestions. This passive attitude can partly be explained by resignation or denial of the state of urgency. Perhaps federalists wrongly believe that the formulation of ideas is the exclusive domain of specialists. Active involvement by the majority of European federalists is generally weak. However a dynamic example setting by the organization and its leaders can motivate and inspire supporters.

Positions taken by the European federalist movements are often spelled out in an awkward and long-winded jargon that creates repulsion with people at large or with an interested public. What about specific communication with different target audiences? What about professional advise? How to properly reach out with these ideas?

European federalists convey simultaneously too many different messages to their audiences. The federalists react too timidly and too late to current events. Right correlation with current business is often missing. Action is frequently interrupted or is not purposeful enough. As a consequence the European federalists' way of thinking remains remote from the political agenda.

The idea of feasibility should be given a new meaning. Most of the time it covers what can or cannot be done in view of what other people believe. In a positive way feasibility can spur people to choose a consistent attitude and action, enabling them to overcome real or supposed resistance. Hence a dynamic attitude should be created that can help achieve the federal project for Europe.