European Federalism

European Federalism

This article is a work in progress. It has no structure yet. It dissolves into note form at the end. Please check back later for a complete version. Variations in terminology between EU, EC and EEC are deliberate but of marginal importance.

The European Union's particular model of European integration is not by any means the only one possible. In an ideal world, I would prefer a federal Europe, but whether or not that were possible, I would abolish the EU and start again from scratch. The EU is criticised by the right wing in the United Kingdom; much as I share their objectives of loosening the UK's ties to the EU, I cannot agree with their naïve assertion that the EU is becoming a federal superstate, or their arguments from sovereignty. ( include here introductions to the other paragraphs )

The EU is often characterised as an embryonic "federal superstate". It is no such thing, at least by any conventional definition of federalism or any reasonable comparison with federal states elsewhere in the world. Federal entities typically have a well-defined division between the responsibilities of the federation and its member states, and the responsibilities for external relations, defence and the bulk of general taxation tend to lie at the federal, rather than state, level. In these terms, the EU/EC is almost the diametric opposite of a federation: there is no effective division of responsibilities, and foreign affairs and tax are handled at the state level. The real legislative power in the EC is also held by the member state governments acting together, rather than by some sort of "European government". If the EU is a federation, it is upside-down.

The other Eurosceptic argument is the one from sovereignty: the EU undermine's the UK's sovereignty or independence and is therefore automatically a bad thing. Fair enough, if sovereignty is a wholly good thing, which it isn't necessarily. Ultimately I just don't think that national sovereignty is of paramount importance, certainly not of the importance in which it is impliedly held by the proponents of this argument. The converse position, which holds that globalisation makes sovereignty irrelevant, is just as logically flawed as an argument for EU membership. No, it is a different aspect of self-government which should be the focus of the argument: democracy.

Democracy is where the EU/EC is particularly weak. Fundamentally, there is no "people" whose collective will the EU institutions can (be said to) express. If there is a polity represented by the EU institutions, it is merely the collectivity of officials and politicians of the Commission and member states. There is no pan-European media. There is no way for European citizens to influence decision-making by the Commission, Parliament or Council. European Parliamentary elections are fought on national issues, and in most cases the electoral system does not permit the easy removal of individual parliamentarians, which significantly reduces their responsiveness to constituents. Increasing the powers of the European Parliament will not make the EU substantially more democratic. Being more distant, both geographically and politically, from their constituents makes the European Parliamentarians more susceptible to lobbying than Bnational politicians.

Of course, some lobbying is in the public interest. National parliaments have a much longer tradition of democracy (indeed in Britain, Ireland and Sweden this tradition is unbroken in living memory), and NGOs have established themselves with close links to these bodies; no such tradition of close civil society links exists in respect of the European Parliament or Commission, and the barriers to their establishment are much higher.

European directives (blueprint laws saying what member states laws should provide) are the main species of European legislation. The legislative activity is undertaken by threee institutions: the Commission, the Parliament and the Council. Nothing passes except by permission of the Council, which contains representatives of the governments of the member states, not their parliaments. Parliamentary control of executive foreign/external policy-making is often an area of weakness, but the rôle of member state governments in the Council is a new extreme. The outcome of European legislative processes is regarded as outside the scope of domestic political contestability; by making an issue a matter of treaty obligation, European member state governments may, when acting collectively, reduce the scope of permitted domestic political activity. Anyone wishing to challenge European policy outcomes must resort to the nuclear option of breaching the European treaties by non-compliance or withdrawal. The effect of the institutional arrangement is that legislative power is transferred to the executive of member states, and democratic scrutiny is reduced.


Democracy is more than a set of properties of avoting system - as a philosophy of governance it also incorporates notions of transparency and accountability. The European Council fails badly on transparency - much of its business is conducted in secret. It is not unique as a legislative body in sitting in secret - apparently this is done in North Korea as well.

normative legitimacy

If the benefit of membership of the EC is liberalised access to markets, why should the UK remain a member if the WTO achieves comparable results on a global scale? Why indeed should the EC continue to exist? The initial question perhaps presupposes a false premise, that benefits of membership are exclusively economic. A striking difference between the EU and WTO régimes is that the EU has an active social policy. The EU and and its predecessors make some effort to compensate the losers in the liberalisation/globalisation game. The original ECSC compensated the employees of inefficient pits closed due to integration, with training and relocation grants, and the principle has remained that the EU will attempt to regulate the capital flows unleashed by liberalisation. For better or worse, EC social policy now encompasses consumer and employee protection, all on the rationale of the harmonisation necessary for liberalisation of market access. The WTO does no such thing. It should be noted that EC social spending was from the 1970s explicitly intended as a panem et circenses method of winning public support.

Moreover, the EU actually works in terms of its stated procedures. The EU has rules, and the rules are to a great extent followed. This is not to say that the EU is a haven of rule-abidingness remotely approaching the levels of reliability and predictability which obtain in the Anglosphere, but it does have enforcement procedures which people expect to work. The structure of WTO negotiations do not permit all affected parties sufficient voice or influence, and the enforcement of WTO rules is skewed towards interests in the United States, the most egregious recent example being the labelling of cheap Vietnamese imports as dumping.


what directives really do

shared tradition of culture, but not economics and governance / cultural genocide

inability to confine itself to purpose / constantly moving target / teleology

Unlike well-functioning federal polities, the EC has no working demarcation between federal and state competences. EC law is held (by the EC institutions) to take precedence over the law of the member states. In theory, however, EC law is limited in its "sphere of competence" - it should only cover commercial policy, trade, tarriffs, free movement of persons and so on. In practice the notion of "spheres of competence" has no limiting effect on the scope of EC law, which spills out over national law as a result of the aforementioned supremacy of EC law over conflicting national provisions. This did not matter for the first few decades of the EEC's existence, until 1986, because member state governments had an effective veto on all EC legislation, so its relationship with national law was much less problematic.

mechanisms transfer power from parliaments to national governments

decisions are not reviewable, often on logically inconsistent grounds

the Directive is not reviewable because it is addressed to the Member State; the MS implementation of the Directive is not reviewable insofar as it is necessary for MS compliance with the Directive (that's from the POV of an individual through the Courts)

MS legislators are in the same boat - the policy embodied in the Directive cannot be reviewd once passed, yet no attempt is made to restrain ministerial discretion in the Council

prior national legislative restraint on EC reps would completely change EC governance

In some EU Member States, citizens may so distrust their national political (or judicial) institutions that the EU institutions may appear to constitute a preferable alternative. This is a view born of ignorance or prejudice - an alternative need not always be better than something which is bad

Articulating the view that national institutions, in general, or those of a particular member State, are better than EU ones is hampered by the fac tthat many of the MSes are nations, and nations have a bad name. Delcaring the superioritry of some national instuttion is too easily conflated with declaring the superiority of some racial, ethnic or cultural identity. In federaionts such as the US, Germany or Australia, supporting teh states (as against teh federation) is at worst a form of parochialism, and is never a coded call for organised mass murder.

The EP is a weak player in the European scene. Euroboosters point to it as a demonstration of the supposed democratic nature of the EU. Doubtless they did not bother trying to do so before the EP was popularly elected body, but claims that some democratic element is situated in the EP are largely false, at least insofar as "democratic" is not coterminous with "elected".

  • EP elections not fought on EU issues

  • low turnout

  • outcomes of elections don't matter

  • unrepresentative on EU constitutional issues

  • no pan-EU media

  • no pan-EU polity / political consciousness

EP more susceptible to lobbying than national parliaments. Remoteness and diffuseness favour concentrated interests even more than national parliaments.

The idea behind a federal system of government is that a division be maintained between two different "levels" of government. This division is normally a substantive one - which policy are federal, which one state - rather than a procedural one (you can only tax up to such and such a level, or have such an such a criminal penalty if you do it at the state level).

I'm going to take it for granted that federalism is an end in itself - that we should prefer the outcomes of a governmental system with an in-built dividsion of responsibilities - though I believe that it is possible to justify a preference for federalism over unitary ogvernment in utilitarian terms.

It is generally the case that in functioning federal systems, the following statements are all true:

  • the constituent states are geographical units

  • almost all the population lives in one or other of the States - geographical territory within the F but outside the States has only limited population

  • the reallocation of powers as between the F and the States may only be effected with the consent of both. (there are lots of States, so generally some supermajority thereof suffices)

  • the boundary between F and S power is policed by politicians and the Courts. It is a mark of a well-functioning federal system that mainstream politicians pronounce themselves opposed to policies they would otherwise support on the strength of federalism alone

Witness Governor Schwarzenegger's recent declaration of his opposition to a federal ban on gay marriage on the grounds that such a ban should be underatekn at the State level. The position of the American conservatives goes even further: a federal ban on gay marriage is not only unconstitutional, but America should not amend its Constitution to alter that fact.

The contrasts with the European political system is instructive and shocking: the generality - let alone the mainstream - of MEPs believe the federal / state boundary should be moved in favour of the federal, or should be abolished entirely. Some commentators go so far as to accuse MEPs of choosing policies on the basis of their expected effect on the F/S boundary, rather than on their individual merits.

To the extent that their opinions differ from the public at large on the question of F/S competences, the MEPs are unrepresentative of their constituents, which detracts from their democratic legitimacy. More subtly, it calls into question the processes which led to the "representation" of the public by people who disagree with them so sharply on a fundamental constitutional issue.

It is sometimes asserted that the EP constitutes some sort of democratic check on the EU legislative process (or executive). It can't introduce or repeal the law it (sometimes) has a rôle in "passing"; moreover, in practice it doesn't vote laws down, only amends them.

Analysing the changes in the division of responsibilities between F and S is to concentrate on only one relation in a two-dimensional system. The other critical relation is that between national governments and national parliaments. Participation in the European system drastically alters the balance struck [here], in favour of governments. Directives adopted by the Council of Ministers are effectively binding on national legislatures. Any powers which can be transferred to the Council thus

The logic of harmonisation