Federalism: the source and antidote to Euroscepticism?

Federalism: the source and antidote to Euroscepticism?

Simon Bransden

The UK votes on 23 June on whether to continue to participate in a political system that has federal characteristics, and which for Michael Burgess, a leading scholar, is firmly rooted in the ideology of federalism. This ideology, in seeking to accommodate crisis where a group, or member state (in the case of the EU) feels so strongly about an issue, or issues, that it seeks to leave the system, can be seen as an antidote to the phenomenon of Euroscepticism. The problem, as I understand it, is that federalism can, and has been, understood to be a centralising ideology – and thus acts as a source of Euroscepticism.

A closer examination of the evolution of the European integration projects so far reveals that where the member states (MS) had agreed to pool sovereignty in tackling common problems together, the Union had been conferred with the necessary competencies, and had sought to execute these through the institutions. Where, however, MS had been reluctant to participate, the competencies had either not been conferred (the 1954 attempts at a Defence Community, and Political Community), or alternative agreements between MS had been made (Schengen, Euro, Social Chapter).

Moreover, where the direction of the processes of European integration, described by Monnet as towards a Federal Europe, might imply an end result of a federation, with extended competencies that include those traditionally the preserve of MS (Defence, Education, Fiscal & taxation) such a development could only take place with the express agreement of all of the MS. The idea of the EU having the potential to grab power is, as far as federal theory is concerned, impossible, as is the idea of the Union extending in numbers without the express accord of all the MS.

The argument that is not being made clearly enough in the debate on Brexit is that as a political system underpinned by federal ideology, there is no a priori destination of the integration project, as Burgess makes clear in his interpretation of Friedrich’s concept of federalism as process. However, and this is the most difficult point in terms of countering Eurosceptic’s fears of federation in Europe, such a destiny is indeed one of a possible range of outcomes, but although only if MS so decide.

David Cameron returned from Brussels on 21 February with an agreement on reforms that he felt worthy of support, and within the official conclusions of the Council session, was the declaration sought by Cameron on the UK’s exemption from participation in the ‘further political integration’ of the EU. With such exemption to form the part of the Treaties at the time of their next revision.

However, as well as this confirmation of the pre-existing conceptualisation of the development of the EU as an asymmetrical federal system, the statement went further, in the clarification of the meaning of ‘ever closer union’, that has formed part of the preambles of the Treaties since 1957. Here, and with language that should be a clear rebuttal of Eurosceptic claims of the inexorable direction of the EU towards a ‘Superstate’, the 28 MS agreed that this phrase gave no legal basis, for ‘extending the scope of any provision of the Treaties or of EU secondary legislation’, but also gave no grounds for an ‘extensive interpretation of the competencies of the Union or of the powers of its institutions as set out in the Treaties’ (EUCO 2016 p.16).

The second part of the section of the statement is of particular interest to those who seek to understand the federal underpinnings of the European  integration process – for it is here that references to ‘ever closer union’ are qualified by a clear reference to federal principles. For these do not ‘alter the limits of Union competence governed by the principle of conferral’ – which requires unanimity and treaty change, and do not imply that the Union will either have further competences given to it, or that competencies might be removed from the Union and returned to MS.

Effectively, in countering Eurosceptic’s fears of a federalising EU, the fundamental federal principles that underpin the Union can, and should be used. The difficulty, as discussed in this piece is that the message – that the EU can either gain further competencies, remain in the current position, or return competencies, is entirely within the scope of the MS, and not with the EU itself. In many ways, for federalists in Europe, who foresee greater integration, taking the ‘other’ federalist ideology of federalism as a decentralising process can be anathema – with the attendant fear that such a process might result in the break-up of the union. But this too, in federal theory, is a potential outcome of this process.



This post is based on a lecture given to the Young European Federalists Hamburg Branch at Siggen, Holstein in April 2016.


Simon Bransden is a Ph.D. Candidate at Canterbury Christ Church University, where he is in the final stages of completing a thesis on the dynamics of federal political systems in times of crisis – with emphasis on a deeper understanding of the mechanism of instrumentalities as discussed by W Livingston. His research interests are in federal theory, federal political systems, crisis, and the UK/EU relationship.


This entry was posted in brexit, European Union, Euroscepticism, federalism and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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