Year XLII, 2000, Number 2, Page 79
A Call for the Creation of a Federal Core
In a speech given on May 12th at Berlin’s Humboldt University, Germany’s foreign minister Joschka Fischer, having first expressed his alarm over the stalemate that the process of European integration has reached, and over the prospect that the Union will, in the wake of its enlargement, become impossible to govern, called for a re-launch of the process of unification through the creation of a federal core. This core would be made up of a limited number of countries, “strongly inspired by the European ideal”, which would constitute the “centre of gravity” to which all the other states of the Union, including the present applicants for entry to it, would subsequently be attracted. Some aspects of Fischer’s vision are ambiguous or vague. His institutional design cannot be entirely endorsed, and the time-frame he envisages is a long one (a decade). But an examination of the text of the speech as a whole clearly reveals that its weak parts serve to usher in its strong ones. And it is this which made it an event of such significance.
Fischer has cast a stone into still waters and set ripples running through them. He declared that the gradualist approach favoured by Monnet cannot lead to political unification and that Europe must make a leap forward in the federal sense, breaking (by the very use of the word federal) a taboo in European political language that has, until now, served as a pretext for so many instances of hesitancy and hypocrisy. And by raising the question of the “vanguard”, he exposed the raw nerve of the process and placed many of his political interlocutors in the uncomfortable position of having to express views on an issue about which they would have preferred to remain silent.
The themes running through Fischer’s speech had already been touched upon by others, albeit less openly, in the weeks leading up to 12th May. But, coming from the mouth of a politician who fulfils, from an operational point of view, the most important political role — after that of Chancellor — in the Union’s most important country, the words spoken by him had the power to stir up the stagnant waters of European politics and they triggered a broad-ranging debate. In the context of this debate, nearly all those who responded to Fischer’s proposal began — if we exclude the deplorable comments of French interior minister Jean-Pierre Chévènement — with expressions of appreciation for its content. However, these dutiful preludes were, almost without exception, followed by responses that amounted to little more than lists of reservations, warnings and quibbles, whose real purpose was to burst the pilot balloon sent up by the German foreign minister and to drain it of all its innovative force.
1. Many expressed the view that the federal core is, in any case, a very long-term objective which it is right to wish for, but which must not be pursued, given that the role of politics is to deal with the here and now. And at the present time, the latter can be taken to mean the problems on the agenda of the current Intergovernmental Conference, in other words, the so-called Amsterdam “leftovers” (rationalisation of the Commission, extension of the qualified majority voting system, and re-weighting of the votes within the Council of Ministers) plus the proposed improvement of the mechanism of enhanced cooperation (the system that allows some member states to reach cooperation agreements in certain areas, without affecting the institutional framework of the Union). All this is politics, while the rest is the stuff of dreams.
It must be noted in this regard that a satisfactory solution to the Amsterdam “leftovers” — in spite of the fact that these are, objectively, problems of little import — is, within with present political framework, a very unlikely prospect, and that, once again, we are faced with a deadlock situation due, in this case, to the reciprocal power of veto that causes negotiations to break down on every single point. The truth, as Fischer made clear, is that gradualism in European politics has had its day. Europe has been moving along the road towards unification for fifty years now and in that time its every advance has been accompanied by a parallel shifting away of its ultimate point of arrival. The objective of political unity continues to be projected, by those who ought to be striving for its realisation, into a tomorrow that never comes. But the reality which now confronts us should prompt any responsible politician to recognise that it is quite impossible for the union to survive much longer in its current state, a state characterised by an almost complete incapacity to act and by a growing democratic deficit, and to realise that the only reform that can be contemplated is a radical reform of its decision-making mechanisms, even if this is restricted to the territorial framework in which public opinion, and politicians, are ripe for this development. This does not mean, of course, that a federal core might be created in the space of a few weeks; what it does mean is that the time has come to develop, on the basis of Joschka Fischer’s indications, an operational programme with a clear time-frame (not forgetting, furthermore, that the launch of a programme of this kind would also favour the reaching of agreements on the small, but prickly reform issues on the agenda of the current IGC).
2. Many seek to cloud this issue by identifying the birth of a federal core with improvement of the mechanism of enhanced cooperation. But in truth, the problem that needs to be solved in order to allow the Union to emerge from the impasse which it has reached — a grave situation that enlargement will only exacerbate — is that of the overcoming of the method of intergovernmental cooperation itself (enhanced or otherwise) and of its replacement, within the preliminary framework of a federal core, with another method: that of the democratic formation of political will, in other words, the creation of a power which, in its designated spheres of competence, will be controlled by the citizens and, with the screen represented by the nation-states lifted, will affect them directly. In the pursuit of this objective, enhanced cooperation (which, in the final analysis corresponds to what is, in other contexts, called “Europe à la carte” or the “variable geometry” model of European integration) is not only useless, but damaging because, giving rise to different aggregations on different issues, it provides those who wish to find a way into the mechanism purely in order to sabotage the birth of a federal core with an efficient instrument for the achievement of their aim.
3. Some use the expression “Federation of Nation-states”, first coined by Jacques Delors, to indicate the institutional form that the federal core should have. Even though this is a formula that Fischer himself felt compelled to acknowledge, en passant, in his speech, it nevertheless remains a verbal fudge that serves to transmit the idea that it is possible to have a federation without actually creating one, thereby emptying the idea of a federal core of all its real meaning. The expression nation-state has a meaning (and the supporters of the Federation of Nation-states formula are well aware of this) only when it is used to denote a “sovereign” nation-state. This, after all, is the original historical significance of the expression and the meaning with which it is commonly used. Differently, the foundation of a multinational federal state (which, being such, no longer bases its legitimacy on its identification with the nation) would cut the ties that bind all the member states to the idea of nation, restoring a spontaneity of character to the latter and freeing it from the mystifications and distortions that were generated by its enthralment to a sovereign power. It is important, therefore, to underline that a true “federation” is a sovereign state (where the sovereignty belongs to the federation, understood as a complex institutional system made up of a central level and a number of peripheral, or regional levels), while a union of states that hold on to their sovereignty (in Europe’s case, the nation-states) is, just like the present European Union, a “confederation”.
4. A concern often raised in the politicians’ responses to Fischer’s proposal is that a federal core would discriminate between the member states, splitting them into two groups of unequal standing and thereby bringing into play, in Europe, a division that could lead to the disintegration of the Union, and a strengthening of the anti-European feelings and the attitudes of eurosceptics in the countries excluded from the core group. This is an insidious objection which in fact masks a desire to prevent the process of European integration from taking the road of federal unification. In truth, the federal core proposal is born, first, of an awareness that the intergovernmental method as a force for unity has now entirely run its course and is, in fact, now leading the Union to the brink of its own dissolution into a simple free-trade area, and second, of the fear that failure of the European project will lead to a rebirth of nationalism and a crisis of democracy in Europe. It is precisely the persistence of the present situation that is sowing, progressively, the seeds of division across Europe. In order to reverse this trend, the present intergovernmental institutional structure needs to be replaced with a federal institutional structure. But since it cannot be expected that the political will needed to make this leap forward will emerge contemporaneously in all the states of the present Union, to say nothing of the Union after its enlargement, the only direction — however difficult — that can be followed is that of the foundation of a federation within a smaller framework (that would nevertheless remain open, and be destined to enlarge rapidly to embrace any states that wished to join it). It is also important to add that the federal core would not be set up as an alternative to the present Union, but would continue to be part of it, on an equal footing with all the other member states. The birth of a federal core would not only be entirely compatible with the continued existence of the Union, it would also provide the EU with the sense of cohesion needed to prevent it from moving inexorably towards its own disintegration (and this is why Fischer talked of a “centre of gravity”). The aim of the federal core proposal, therefore, is to set the dynamics of unity in motion once more. And its realisation would not serve the interests solely of the states that will be part of it from the outset, but those of all the countries of the Union, present and future. It should thus be a primary objective of all truly pro-Europeans active in these countries, regardless of the positions adopted by their governments.
5. A final objection that has been raised repeatedly concerns the compatibility of the federal core with the Union’s institutions. It is clear that this compatibility could be achieved only through a series of adjustments, like the duplication of some institutions and the acting, of others, in a dual capacity, with partial differences in composition, procedures and spheres of competence. Many remark that this would mean the development of a structure so complex that it would prove impossible to realise. This objection is unfounded. As far as the federal core is concerned, the really complex problem is that of forming the political will needed in order to establish it. Once the political will exists to create — among several states — a democratic power, then there is no technical difficulty that can frustrate it. The task of legal experts is to find appropriate technical solutions for the problems that politicians put to them, and never yet has a political project, supported by a sufficiently strong will, failed purely as a result of the legal difficulties it posed. If you want an example of how skilled the experts are at overcoming technical difficulties (when it is a question of safeguarding the sovereignty of the member states), just think of many of the constructions worked out by the current treaties and by the other provisions that regulate the working of the Union, such as, to cite a few examples, the division of the same into three pillars, or the decision-making procedures in force within each of these pillars, or the regulation of relations between the Union and the eurozone countries and between the Union and the countries of the Schengen area. And it is certainly not worth considering the detrimental effect that a complex institutional system would supposedly have on the transparency of relations between the Union and the citizens. Today, there is no such transparency because there is no democracy in the Union, in other words, no possibility of ascribing clearly, to any one, the responsibility for decisions. The purpose of a federal nucleus would be, precisely, to introduce democracy into the process. Its working would thus be perfectly transparent, regardless of the greater or lesser degree of complexity characterising its institutions.
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The only real problem, therefore, is that of forming the necessary political will, and all the objections and deliberate misunderstandings listed earlier are nothing more than expedients, designed to mask the absence of that will. This is not to say that the task is not an extremely difficult one. On the contrary, the transferring of sovereignty from a group of states to a sole federal state, together with the relinquishment by a number of governments and machines of bureaucracy of the power that is so closely bound up with sovereignty, is the most difficult task there is. Hence, the obstacle to the achievement of the objective must be sought not within the societies of the countries involved, but rather in their very power structure.
Clearly, the political will to found a federal core must be accompanied by a very clear awareness of the nature of what is at stake, and of what the institutional implications are, namely, the transformation of the Commission into a democratic government answerable to the European Parliament, the transformation of the Council of Ministers into a High Chamber of the Union which would no longer hold executive powers, but would, on an equal footing with the European Parliament, be equipped with full legislative powers, the conferment upon the European Council of the role of collective Head of State of the Federation, and the transformation of the Court of Justice into an out-and-out Constitutional Court. The government, and the two branches of the legislature must have the power, in collaboration with national, regional and local levels of government, to fix the ceiling of the federation’s budget and to mobilise, through the imposition of taxes, the resources needed to realise their policies. The institutions of the federation would have to be invested — possibly after a transitory period, whose duration must nevertheless be predetermined — with responsibility for the areas of foreign policy and security.
The question to be asked at this point is, who are the actors most likely to develop the political will to found a federal nucleus like the one just described ? Any answer to this question must be based on the inevitable premise that the political will to form a federal nucleus cannot be born in a void, but only in a political setting that is ripe, and ready to receive a radically innovative message. The task of those wishing to favour the formation of a federal nucleus is thus to put pressure on all the political forces represented in the European Parliament and in the national parliaments, both of the countries that would presumably be part of the core from the very beginning and of those that presumably would not be included. But, having said that, the fact remains that an initiative which, in Europe’s current situation, proposes to change the fundamental elements of the power situation, to oblige the political forces to align and to direct the expectations of public opinion, cannot be born of anything other than an agreement between the highest-ranking politicians of France and Germany, in other words between the heads of state or of government of the two countries whose bloody conflicts it was that first put the question of European unification on to the historical agenda and which have, ever since the Schuman declaration, been the driving force of the process of European integration. It is from them that the proposal must come, and by them that it must be addressed both to the other European Community founder member states — where politicians and public opinion are more aware, open and mature — and to the other EMU member states willing to accept its fundamental lines.
The proposal must be shown to be open — provided that countries intending to join the core are part of EMU and accept the fundamental lines of the institutional structure set out above — and the compatibility of the federal core with the continued existence of the Union must be explicitly provided for; in fact, the core would become one of the Union’s member states. To this end, the design for the formation of the federal core must be accompanied by a series of link measures that would show clearly how the core could be made to function within the Union without affecting the rights of its other member states, or undermining the acquis communautaire, in other words, the level of integration reached by the Union and the benefits that derive from the same.
But it is important that this openness, and this need to eliminate a priori every element which could give rise to the fear that the creation of a federal core reflects a desire to split Europe, are not allowed to weaken the resolve of those promoting this initiative, or to provide countries opposed to a federal solution with a means of entering into the negotiations purely to make them break down and to drain the project of all its innovative value. This is why the chances of success of a design of this kind, providing it really comes about, will depend on the absolute determination of its initiators to consider non negotiable all the features of the proposal that are crucial to the preservation of its federal nature, and on their readiness, openly declared, to proceed alone should no one else accept these features. No federal core will be born without this level of resoluteness, because the announcement of its birth will produce countless and very harsh reactions and dogged resistance, both among the countries that will not be involved, and in many sections of the political spectrum in the countries that will be called upon to form part of it, including those taking the initiative.
It is easy to imagine that the temptation to reach compromises on fundamental points, and thus to distort the project, will be very strong. But if the initiators of it prove steadfast and able to resist the pressure and threats with which they will be faced, then not only will a federal core be born, it will also cover an area much greater than that of the Six, and will expand rapidly to embrace the whole territory of the present Union and that of its prospective members.
It is natural to wonder, at this point, whether it is realistic to think that a political will as aware, determined and exacting as this can, in a reasonable space of time, emerge at the highest levels of government in France and Germany (and subsequently in the other founding countries of the European communities). In the short-term the answer to this is clearly no. But there is another question that we should, at the same time, be asking ourselves: how long can the European Union continue to survive without profound modification, through the planting of a federal germ in its very bosom, of its decision-making mechanisms? The answer to this question is that it is not destined to survive very long at all. The era of normal politics is drawing to a close. The time is coming in which Europe will have to choose between federation or extinction. Today, therefore, failure to face up to the dangers that the future, even the near future, holds, and to act accordingly, through the development of a plan of action, is not indicative of a realistic approach, but only of blindness, cowardice and hypocrisy. Joschka Fischer has played his part, with courage and clear-sightedness. Now it is up to others to play theirs.