Federalism is but a mirage


National leaders cooperate without conviction, manage problems jointly without vision, a state of deep slumber awaiting the right motivation to awaken.

The story goes that when their throats are parched and they are desperately in need of the shade of an oasis to shelter themselves from the sweltering sun, the Bedouins begin to see mirages. The same thing appears to be happening in the course of pursuing a deeper European integration. The more urgent and necessary a federal solution seems to become in response to the Union’s current economic and political crisis (if the threat of the complete disintegration of the Union is to be avoided), the closer and more inevitable a solution appears. But as the forces pushing for integration reach out to grab it, the federalist solution recedes into the distance or even disappears altogether, like an optical illusion.

Everything should be in place to promote a new era of deeper European integration. A greater sharing of power and costs would make it much easier to confront the terrorist threat, the refugee emergency, the economic crisis, upheaval in the banking sector, social distress, international instability and even the political tensions triggered by the British referendum through which the United Kingdom has announced its outrageous desire to leave the European Union.

And yet the European political establishment seems to be caught like a rabbit in the headlights, at times even being drawn towards piecemeal and nationalistic responses. In recent months, the founding member nations have been meeting in various constellations in an attempt to breathe new life into the process of European integration, but national differences have continued to carry the day. Both Germany and France publicly support each other, but the relative strength of the Federal Republic compared to its French partner is weakening the traditional alliance between the two countries. Even more surprising is the chasm that has opened up among the Benelux countries. Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg have traditionally met before the convening of any European summit in order to hash out a common position on the current issues facing the EU. But in February, the three countries chose to cancel a meeting devoted entirely to Great Britain due to a lack of common ground. In another attempt to strengthen European Unity, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi met in Berlin on 27 June, a few days after the British referendum. But the meeting only managed to produce a very meagre communiqué which underlined the importance of guaranteeing “internal and external security”, “a strong economy and strong social cohesion”, and “ambitious programs for the young”. The more delicate issues – such as the possible transfer of sovereignty from member states to European community authorities which might, among other things, lead to a mutualisation of public debts – were swept under the rug. They are still considered to be too divisive to discuss openly. Similar concerns influenced the final statement issued following the European Union summit at the end of June, thus enabling the UK’s trading partners to meet informally in order to discuss the future of the Union.

At the moment, there are three factors that appear to make any step towards a truly federal European integration unlikely. The first factor is the British referendum that took place on 23 June. As things stand, it is not clear if the vote will strengthen or weaken the more nationalistic and Eurosceptic parties. A potential political crisis in Great Britain, along with doubts now raging in the minds of the British public regarding the choice that they have made (or which has been forced upon them), may induce many continental voters to reassess the value of the European project in the long term. That said, most European leaders view the vote in favour of Brexit primarily as a defeat for the former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who had called for the referendum as far back as 2014 and then went on to campaign for the remain camp. The Brexit appears to suggest that European policies are not addressing the real concerns of local populations, thereby indirectly reinforcing the more radical and Eurosceptic parties. The former Swedish finance minister, Anders Borg, recently noted in an article for Project Syndicate that: “Moving toward deeper integration or centralized control would be a dangerous path to take for it would increase the risk of other members choosing to leave the EU”. He added that “there is no political support for the higher taxes and spending cuts that would be necessary with a common fiscal policy”. In such a context, a nationalistic response is likely to win out.

The second factor, closely linked to the first, revolves around the political calendar. Both France and Germany have elections coming up in 2017. France and Hungary will be voting for their president, while Germany, the Czech Republic and Holland will be holding parliamentary elections. Elections will also take place in Italy, Finland, Sweden and Cyprus in 2018. Threatened by increasingly belligerent nationalist parties – the National Front in France and the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany – it is easy to imagine that the political establishment will attempt to employ what the Germans call Politik der ruhigen Hand (steady-hand politics). Mindful of the British lesson and concerned about putting forward solutions that might be constructive in the medium term but controversial in the short term, European leaders could choose to stick to the status quo, or even promote nationalistic responses, which may appear more reassuring to voters.

The third factor is the relative weakness of the European Commission. Since his first months in office in 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker’s aspiration to lead a strongly political Commission has not sat well with many national governments who feel they have been left out in the cold. A few bold legislative proposals (including the compulsory relocation of refugees who arrived in Italy and Greece and the establishment of a European border control force with the authority to enter member states by force) have produced criticisms and tensions among the 28 member states. This excessively federalist approach has triggered nervousness and discontent, especially as it has been associated with what some believe to be an exceedingly discretionary application of the rules governing the Stability and Growth Pact. The necessary trust between the community’s legislative body and national governments appears to be unravelling.

Many leaders are now saying that the European Council should prevail over the Commission and foster an inter-governmental approach rather than a communitarian one. Thus any move towards a deeper federal integration, along with the previous considerations, also risks being influenced or even prevented by the tendency within the Council to adopt the lowest common denominator and easy compromise solutions. Federalism risks remaining nothing more than a mirage until a new jolt or a bold new approach inspires the more reactive countries to form a hard core of member of states which are inclined to pursue the federalist path with the necessary amount of determination.