Year L, 2008, Number 3, Page 173
The Significance of the Battle for a European Federal State
Every profound transformation in the needs of society, if it is to drive the progress of civilisation, must be met by an effective political and cultural response. When such a response is lacking, there emerge contradictions and crises, often dramatic, that will go on recurring until it can be found.
Globalisation seems to be one such transformation. Mankind, in the face of an unprecedented level of interdependence, is struggling to identify and establish the instruments through which to govern the processes this interdependence has triggered. And the reason for this is that while the political culture that is today’s theoretical point of reference is able to describe the limitations and inadequacies of the current power order, set within the framework of the nation-states, it is incapable of pinpointing their root causes and thus of offering alternatives.
In actual fact, many observers can see that the fundamental challenge of our times is related to the possibility of transferring decision-making processes to international level. But, because reason is trapped by the limits of internationalism, it continues to be unable to grasp the concept of a state whose sphere extends beyond national boundaries, and thus to envisage the creation of a global government as a real future prospect: this is why the responses are always inadequate. Hence, the crisis of the state and of democracy is approached either by trying to free politics from the state framework, or by hypothesising an alternative way of organising international relations that instead of trying to rid politics of the national dimension, tries to compensate for its inadequacies.
These two approaches are present — albeit in an ambiguous and confused way — both in conservative and in progressive camps. For example, the strongly pro-economy character of so-called neo-liberal thought induces neo-liberalism to embrace a vision in which, in abstract terms, the overcoming of the state is seen as a victory for mankind. Underpinning this vision is a belief in a self-regulating free market that, through a free coming together of the forces that measure success in terms of economic competitiveness, eliminates the need for a structured, political decision-making process. In this context, civil society, in part through the methods of self-organisation it manages to implement, undermines political society completely, while citizenship becomes a requisite for the enjoyment of rights and civil liberties, and no longer a political bond with territorially defined institutions (which instead implies strictly political rights, correlated with specific duties). In the more conservative version of this so-called post-modern vision, the drastic relegation of politics to the narrow role of guarantor of non-intervention in free market processes is classed as a success, while in the more progressive version, it is presented as an indisputable fact. This vision is shared by both neocons and “new democrats”.
The United States is where this vision was born and nurtured. Ever since the Reagan era, the USA has pursued a model based on the idea that a gradual reduction of state intervention in the economy and a drastic reduction of the role played by the welfare state would stimulate an increase in collective wealth. These choices have been reflected in a substantial dismantling of the country’s welfare system and a growing trend towards deregulation. The collapse of the Soviet Union, giving rise to the idea that the free market model had overcome its historical enemy (i.e., the ideology of economic planning and public ownership of the means of production), together with America’s new position as the sole superpower in a suddenly reunited world, induced the USA to impose its model wherever it possibly could, reaping enormous benefits in the process. However, the illusion (cultivated by the Clinton administration) that this type of policy could go hand in hand with a greater level of social justice was quickly dispelled. At the same time, many countries, reduced to ruin by the contradictions generated by implementation of the Washington Consensus, found themselves paying heavily for this situation. Indeed, while on the one hand this approach galvanised the economy, allowing it, as a whole, to record unprecedented growth rates, on the other it led to a distribution of wealth that has dramatically increased the gap between rich and poor. Gradually, it became apparent that the “success” of this model was actually very flimsy, and by the start of the new century, its limits, together with its risks and uncertainties, were beginning to manifest themselves. The alarming financial and economic crisis we are currently going through, from which it is difficult to see a way out, is a direct result of it. Consequently, the proposition that there is no longer a role for politics and the state, an idea that until just a few months ago appealed to both right and left, has now begun to lose favour; however, this loss of support has yet to prompt a deep reflection on what the alternatives may be.
If birthplace of this cultural and political model was the USA, then its prototype was Europe, or rather the European Union, an organisation that embodies the prevalence of the market over politics and in which the idea of overcoming the old concept of state took shape. The decision, in the mid-1950s, to launch economic integration before political unification, which meant moving gradually towards a single market without having first created the supranational political institutions necessary to govern it, has in some ways shaped Europe’s destiny. Added to this, the fact that the phase in which the single market came into being coincided with the collapse of the Soviet bloc and all that was associated with that — including the affirmation of the new laissez-faire political creed — presented the opponents of the political unification project with the perfect opportunity to remove it as an option. It is easy to piece together what happened: Europe’s enlargement, accomplished in the absence of a deepening of the European institutions (even though the single currency raised, as an urgent question, the need to create a European state to guarantee effective government of the competence that many of the member states were relinquishing), was the lever that the British in particular were able to exploit in order to bring about a radical change of the whole Community structure. Until that time, Europe’s choices and partial advances in the institutional sphere had always been guided by the ultimate prospect of a federal outcome, but as the European Union became watered down into a body of heterogeneous members (heterogeneous particularly in terms of what they expected to get from their participation in the European project), this prospect disappeared. Today, most EU countries do not want to go as far as the creation of a federation. Once an isolated resistor of the unification project (a project that the founding member states of the European community, with all their limitations, nevertheless deemed inevitable), Great Britain can now simply go with the flow, given that the prevailing trend is towards a weakening of Europe’s political cohesion. The substantial strengthening of the intergovernmental method seen since the end of the 1990s (even though, formally at least, some of the reforms contained in the post-Maastricht Treaties were meant to increase the powers of the European institutions) has been, at once, both the inevitable consequence of poorly managed enlargement and the indispensable means of overcoming the inadequacy of the EU’s muddled decision-making mechanisms.
Great Britain’s victory has been made even easier by the fact that, for the Europeans, the time has come to make the definitive leap and form a European federal state. Now that the single market is complete and the single currency has been created, there are no more intermediate steps that can be taken while avoiding the question of the transfer of sovereignty. The inertia of organised power at national level is currently the real obstacle to completion of the process of European unification, and opponents of this process are easily able to impose choices that perpetuate this inertia. The EU has thus ceased to see itself as a stage in the process of the political unification of Europe and has instead begun to regard itself as the absolute epitome of post-modern organisation of international relations between closely integrated and interdependent countries, believing that it stands before the world as a model of how cooperation between states wanting to create a single market should be organised and institutionalised: by transferring the necessary competences to common bodies, yet without letting go of sovereignty. Indeed, sovereignty — i.e., the power to decide in the last instance — albeit now emptied of much of its substance, remains in the hands of the nation-states, as indeed do the democratic decision-making mechanisms (i.e., the mechanisms that produce decisions legitimated by the consensus and direct participation of the citizens). In this way, the model does not make provision for a true single economic policy (which would imply transfer of competence for fiscal policy) or for a single foreign and security policy, all these being areas in which it is impossible to transfer competence without also transferring sovereignty. Post-modern ideology celebrates the end of Europe’s post-Westphalian system of nation-states and hails the start of a new era in which the impossibility of war (deriving from the reciprocal bonds of interdependence) does away with the need for hard power and exalts the role of so-called soft power.
All this is nothing other than the application, albeit highly simplistic, of the liberal internationalist idea that enlargement of the market, and the states’ sharing of this objective, pacifies international relations. From this perspective, peace is merely the consequence of the economic interdependence and increasingly close commercial relations between liberal states, which implies that the only conditions necessary for its affirmation are the states’ sharing of liberal-democratic standards and the removal of barriers to the free movement of goods, capital and persons. The states retain their sovereignty in the areas for which they have political competence, whileinternational relations are based on the collaboration that, in this framework, derives from the natural convergence of interests.
Thus, on the one hand, the European Union has lent weight to the theory that the radical reduction of a state’s powers — it must be remembered that the state, in the liberal view, has always represented, above all, the power that has to be contained in the name of the freedom of civil society and of the individuals of which it is comprised —, even to the point at which the state loses some of its classic characteristics (in particular relating to its relationship with the territory and its exercising of sovereignty), is a good thing for development and “progress”. From this perspective, the fact that this throws into crisis the very concept of democracy, given that the states, stripped of many of their effective powers of government, become “dust without substance” (to quote Luigi Einaudi, a classic liberal) and lose the capacity to fulfil the expectations of their own citizens, is seen not as a problem, but only a by-product — probably absorbable eventually — of a new and freer reality.
On the other hand, since, in this overturning of the classical categories of modern politics, demos seems to be the only concept destined to remain eternally bound to that of nation, both moreover being emptied of all meaning, the European Union becomes the demonstration that it is pointless, as well as impossible, to overcome the national framework of politics, given that mankind’s division into nation-states is unavoidable (precisely because it is considered “natural”). In this way, the EU, claiming to prefigure the organisation of the new international order, shows the world how it is possible to achieve cooperation between states pacified by economic interdependence, and also to harmonise the interests, inevitably different and often opposing, that each country expresses (in fact, the existence of these different interests, in itself, undermines the idea that their convergence is “natural”).
In truth, the European Union’s weaknesses and frailties, which no amount of rhetoric can hide, are indicative of the contradictions inherent in this theory, which lacks the instruments to respond effectively to the problem of how to revitalise democracy and how to extend it internationally. They show that what really drives this vision is not the need to understand reality (a prerequisite for finding adequate solutions to the problems it raises), but rather the need to justify it. It is not, therefore, an expression of thought, only the expression of an ideology, a reflection of the will to preserve the status quo as regards current relations of force in the world and the crisis of the European nation-state in the globalisation era.
If neoliberalism is an ideology that merely reflects the mechanisms of globalisation, without offering useful keys for understanding and tackling it, it is in some ways paradoxical that many of the movements that, in recent years, have sought to oppose the contradictions generated by the globalisation phenomenon actually employ categories of thought very similar to those of neoliberalism. Despite the wide variety of positions that can be found in the cosmopolitanism of the so-called no-global movement, these positions all seem to reflect a common theme: the rebellion of civil society, which sees itself as the only genuine expression of democracy vis-à-vis a political power accused of complicity with the interests that profit from the globalisation of the markets. This “rebellion” is waged in the name of an anti-coercive vision of politics, ultimately in the liberal mould, in which democracy is interpreted as a civic culture of associationalism, participation and mobilisation, rather than as a state’s political decision-making process. Taking this stance to its extreme, civil society, being the legitimate sphere of participation and freedom, can be seen as the alternative to organised (particularly state) power.
So, once again, we encounter a post-state vision of politics (in this case, of democracy) where the solutions that are advanced for a new, more balanced and more just international order demand not a renewal and strengthening of politics, but rather an affirmation of the culture of rights, primarily an affirmation of the priority of natural, individual rights. From this perspective, politics is seen as an arbitrary exercising of power which, as such, must be checked by and submitted to the application of moral and legal principles, while justice constitutes the proper sphere for the affirmation of these rights. In this context, then, the natural arbiters are the courts, not the governments or parliaments (unless, as often happens with the European Parliament, they are regarded not as state institutions, but as assemblies there to defend the rights of the citizens against the state powers). Cosmopolitan civil rights, indeed,refer to the legal sphere; they affect politics only inasmuch as they establish the limits of politics and the boundaries where state jurisdiction ends, so that individuals are guaranteed their freedom. In this way, since all the states transform individual rights into positive legal provisions, it becomes possible, by appealing to justice, to demand that these rights be respected even outside the state of which one is a citizen.
This vision is also applied to social policy, a sphere in which, once again, what is demanded is recognition of, and thus respect for, rights. In this case, too, the attitude towards the political power is antagonistic and the demand, with its universal and abstract character, fails to take into account the context in which the government operates in practice. Given that they believe that politics has the resources necessary to come up with (should it want to) adequate responses, and that its problem, rather, is that it uses wrongly the instruments it possesses, and acts arbitrarily and unjustly, the aim of those who support this vision is not to work out how politics can be strengthened and enabled to tackle the problems that afflict society, but rather to force politics to respect the rights of everyone.
Thus, this great opposition movement, which has widespread support in public opinion, and which tends to set itself up as the main opponent of the current power framework, is in actual fact trapped by the same old categories that sustain the existing system. And even though this is not usually spelled out, the condition underpinning the alternative international order it envisages is, once again, the maintenance of the current division of the world into nation-states, given that it is held that the only thing needing to be changed is the organisation of the reciprocal relations between them. Indeed, it is still the states, albeit conceived of as institutions with extremely limited powers, both internally and externally, that govern; moreover, even within this vision, “the people” exists, as such, only within the confines of the nation-state, which, for this reason, remains the only subject that can legitimately make political decisions.
Thus, it is believed that the problems of global proportions that exist at world level and affect the whole of the earth’s population should be solved through recourse to specific policies; in other words, not through the creation of a political power equal to the scale of the problems, but through forms of governance. People (not citizens) and populations (not peoples) should associate with one another and organise their efforts on the basis of the global problems they share (which may, for example, be linked to the environment, to the phenomenon of emigration, to the exploitation of natural resources), and to get answers it is not to governments that they should turn, applying forms of direct pressure, but rather to international institutions that, as super partes bodies, can assert their rights.
In accordance with this vision, then, the answer to the contradictions generated by the current international power order lies in reform of the international organisations (in order to bolster the framework of cooperation between the states, mainly through the introduction of forms of popular participation and consultation) and in the creation of international courts with the capacity to control the actions of the states. In this way, however, the states would be operating not in the ambit of a balance of powers defined by the fundamental law of a political community upheld by popular sovereignty, but rather in a self-referential framework whose legitimacy is linked to the idea of the abstract existence of universal laws that the courts themselves must incarnate and interpret. This, together with the idea that rights would be guaranteed simply by the spontaneous organisation of a civil society that regards power as extraneous and hostile (rather than by the creation of a democratic decision-making mechanism capable of establishing laws to govern the life of the global community, which would presuppose the existence of global state institutions), makes this kind of approach extremely dangerous for the future of democracy. Indeed, it would create the conditions for a further dwindling of the already poor level of participation in democratic political life in the existing states and for the emergence of oligarchies (political, economic or even springing from the spontaneous associationalism of civil society or from the judicial power), which, being self-legitimising and subject to no democratic control, would exercise enormous, and ultimately arbitrary, power.
This danger is now highlighted also by those — their view is a minority one in the global political scenario, but it is important because it raises the question of the need to create supranational institutions capable of submitting global processes to democratic control — who want to see the political sphere adapted to the scale of today’s economic processes, and thus view the situation not from a liberal perspective (the desire to contain power), but from a democratic one (the desire to extend the mechanisms of political participation).
Democracy is a system of rules and procedures which ensures that those required to obey laws are included, directly or indirectly, in the decision-making process that produces them. But nowadays, the term also implicitly acknowledges the crucial role of public action and public criticism in the formation of political will and political decisions (that which Habermas calls deliberative democracy). The first of these characteristics — irrespective of the scope for improvement of the mechanisms that bring together those who govern and those who are governed — constitutes the very essence of democracy, the cornerstone of the principle of popular sovereignty; indeed, to envisage political systems devoid of it is to step outside the realm of democracy. But the second characteristic, too, is crucial to the proper functioning of democratic institutions, because the formation of an advanced civil consciousness and the spread of the liberal-democratic culture allow the citizens to make conscious political choices and to monitor the organs of government, and thus give substance to democracy as an institution and to democratic procedures. The growing inefficacy of this process of public formation is, indeed, one of the most serious reasons for the current crisis of our democracies, and the main cause of this involution is surely the states’ loss of crucial powers (due to global processes), which has left the concept of public sovereignty hollow and meaningless. This is why it is essential to succeed in raising democratic public life to an adequate level once again, which ultimately can only mean to a global level.
This, then, is the point on which it emerges clearly that democratic thought, struggling to find concrete solutions to the problem of the need to extend the sphere of democracy, is in difficulty. Expressions of popular sovereignty are, indeed, possible only within the state framework, but democratic thought lacks the instruments to conceive of extending the sphere of the state to world level. First of all, democratic tradition is not equipped to envisage the concrete functioning of a state too vast to be managed through a simple arrangement of citizens (electors) at ground level and representative institutions, legitimised by the popular vote, at government level. Federalism is, in reality, the only system in which extending the sphere of the state becomes conceivable; in fact, the co-existence of many levels of government, independent and coordinated, makes a large-scale state structure possible. But federalism as an institutional model, albeit already characterising the internal organisation of several states that have had to reckon with a heterogeneous social fabric and reconcile differences that, in the course of history, have arisen between the territories they embrace, is not yet readily accepted as the solution through which a number of states can be united in a single state. If we exclude the example of the USA (on the grounds that its case is unique and thus not generalisable), then it is true to say that history has never witnessed a unification of established states that have voluntarily chosen to merge into a single state entity. Furthermore, in history, the concept of people has yet to be divorced from that of nation. However ambiguous or varied the meanings given to the term nation — the way it is interpreted in the English-speaking world is quite different from how it is understood in Continental Europe —, it nevertheless always indicates a collective identity stemming from a sense of common membership of a community, the latter thus definable precisely because it has borders (an inside and an outside), and because it can be defined by its contraposition, however “peaceful”, to “other” state communities.
It is now a widely held view that the nation is an artificial concept which became affirmed after it was exploited, during the French Revolution, as a means of justifying the transfer of sovereignty from the monarchy to the people, and of conferring an identity on this new political entity which was making its first appearance on the historical stage. The different meanings it has since assumed are linked to the states’ different histories. The concept of nation has, indeed, proved to be a strongly unifying force in continental countries which, for geo-political reasons, have tended towards a marked centralisation of the state, whereas it has given rise to a more open system in areas whose objective situation did not necessitate the development of a centralised state. But the fact remains that, everywhere, the nation denotes (and has denoted) a community of destiny that commands the first loyalty of its members; furthermore, it is practically universally acknowledged that it is this identification with the nation that makes social solidarity possible and explains the sense of duty citizens feel towards their country, for which they are even prepared to make personal sacrifices. Eliminating the link between the terms people and nation — whereby a people is a people in proportion to the existence of other peoples —, like cancelling out particular identities within the concepts of global citizenship and world people, would effectively empty both terms of all meaning. Sovereignty would lose its defining requisite (essentially, what defines sovereignty is the acknowledgement it receives from the other states present in the international setting). In the absence of external borders, and thus of particular characteristics, the concepts of people and sovereignty would no longer mean anything at all.
Now that, because of the global processes in progress, the idea of nation appears too closed and restricting in relation to the heterogeneous reality of modern society, the view that the concepts of people and sovereignty cannot exist at global level should be unmasked and decried as an attempt to present as an inescapable fact what is really just a descriptive analysis of current reality. And yet no democratic theory, not even the most advanced, manages to interpret people and sovereignty as universal concepts. One might think, for example, of Habermas’s theory of constitutional patriotism: this is an idea that makes it possible to conceive of a new form of collective identity that, no longer linked to ethnic values, cultural values (in the sense of traditions), or to any values that might somehow be deemed closed, finds that its meaning is instead based on adherence to the universal political principles enshrined in the constitution of the country of which one is a citizen. A sort of open identity, then, appropriate for a rapidly evolving multiethnic society, and above all founded on a sharing of universal principles.
Yet even Habermas himself does not accept that this kind of identity can have a universal character. Even though his efforts to conceive of something new are imbued with the idea, and the hope, that this mentality and this new way of relating to one’s own political community might spread to all countries, thereby creating an area of common political awareness that would make cooperative and peaceful international co-existence possible, there persists the preconceived idea that state communities should nevertheless continue to be multiple — even though a state community of continental dimensions could be formed in some cases where the current state framework is clearly inadequate (Europe for example), — and also the view that a global state is quite inconceivable. This is because, in order to create a global state, mankind would have to be perceived as an absolutely moral entity, whose action, without the stimulus of external competition, is driven solely by rational and ethical considerations. And this is seen as going against common sense; after all, our historical experience shows us that even social solidarity cannot develop and endure without a sense of common membership of a community potentially under threat.
Leaving aside his philosophical arguments, which find no support in Kant — Kant, when he envisages a new dawn of history coinciding the creation of a world federation, is not saying that this new historical era will change human nature, only that it will create the conditions for eliminating violence from human relations and will thus free mankind to do good —, Habermas seems to remain basically trapped by the traditional idea of the people as an entity that is defined by its contraposition to those who do not belong to the same community. This, however, is only the historical root of the concept of people, in part linked to the events of the French Revolution and the history of the European system of states. Intrinsically, the idea of people has always had a universal value, and for this reason it will not be able to reveal all its characteristics and potential until it reaches global dimensions. And here, once again, it is the categories of federalism that make it possible to envisage an evolution of the idea from national to world level, through the formula of the federal people. And applying this formula means building a sense of identity on a number of levels and in a concrete way, starting with the creation of institutionalised bonds between the citizens and their local area, where collective responsibility for managing social and political life can be exercised tangibly and the most immediate forms of social solidarity allowed to develop. Furthermore, the unity in diversity guaranteed by the federal institutional structure, made up of several levels of government, fosters an open sense of identity, which sits perfectly with membership (based on a sharing of principles and values that the institutional architecture has rendered solid) of progressively larger ambits, and ultimately of the global community.
Without the principles of federalism, a global state is impossible to imagine, yet without the prospect of the unification of mankind through the institution of a federal state, even the intermediate steps become impossible to identify, with the result that only unsatisfactory and contradictory solutions are advanced. Therefore, those who, in the ambit of democratic cosmopolitanism, suggest that the process of democratisation of international relations should culminate in a form of global citizenship and in a supranational power that controls the states only end up formulating an anti-democratic institutional architecture, very similar to that of the League of Nations, which results in an arbitrary power incapable of applying the key principles that allow a bringing together of those who govern and those who are governed — principles that can be realised only within a sovereign state (i.e., one founded on popular sovereignty). Even Habermas finds himself forced to consider the evolution of international relations in terms of a “constitutionalisation” of international law, hypothesising that the states might find forms of structured cooperation that somehow eliminate the division between domestic and foreign politics. Except that he then has to admit that although the successful creation of an organisation of the international system in which all the states respected common rules of behaviour would allow the safeguarding of individual rights, for which coercive actions can be all that is needed, it would not make it possible to conduct politics (i.e., to tackle problems linked to the environment, to energy resources, and so on), hence, the fundamental issues would still have to be debated between the powers.
Without the categories of federalism and the model of the federal state it is thus impossible to imagine extending the sphere of the state, and thus of democracy, to the global level at which human relations are now conducted. The fact that, today, these categories are largely ignored constitutes an obstacle in the path of social and civil progress. But it is crucial to underline that their scant recognition is due to the fact that they are not yet historically established: nowhere in the world has a federal state ever been born of the voluntary union of a number of nation-states. This objective was the starting point for the process of European integration, which was meant to show the world that such a union was possible, and the fact that the Europeans have so far avoided realising it seems to demonstrate its impossibility, or futility. At this point, only a new and tangible development, like the creation of European federal state, can refute this point of view. At the same time, it is only by gaining a real understanding of the historical value of this enterprise that the Europeans will acquire the capacity to undertake it.
It is an enormous responsibility, which so far the Europeans have refused to shoulder. But the fact is that the progress of civilisation in the current historical era depends on the capacity of our continent to find a real solution to the problem of extending the sphere of democracy to supranational level, given that Europe is the only place where there exist the necessary conditions. This, ultimately, is the significance, today, of the battle for a European federal state.