Europe must embrace federalism with or without the Brits

David Marquand
18 June 2008

This is a response by David Marquand to John Palmer's article on Ireland's "No" vote on the Lisbon Treaty.

David Marquand (Oxford): The real issue goes far deeper than our blinkered political class and media commentariat seem to realise. The post-cold war world, with a hegemonic US as the only super-power, is dying if not dead. An infintely more complex and more dangerous multi-polar world is coming into existence, with China, India and perhaps a revitalised Russia as super powers alongside the US. The US will for the foreseeable future remain the strongest of these super-powers, but it will not be the only one. Economically it has already ceased to be a hegemon: as the dollar falls, the Euro climbs. The crucial question for Europeans is whether we want the world to be run by the Americans, Chinese, Indians and perhaps Russians, or whether Europe should get its act together and become a quasi-super power as well. Europe’s political elites have either funked or fudged that question, and in Britain virtually no one has so far faced it. But the answer Europeans give to it will determine the shape of global and European politics as the 21st century proceeds. If Europe wants to hold its own in the multipolar world now taking shape it has to make a qualitative leap towards federalism.

On present form, Britain won’t be willing to make such a leap; and assuming the Irish referendum result means that they seriously want to opt out of further integration (I doubt if it does, as a matter of fact) nor will Ireland. How the rest of the member states would go if they were confronted with that question is unknowable at present. But I don’t think there’s much doubt that over the next twenty years or so the core countries of the EU will effectively federate. Of course that will mean a two-speed Europe, with the UK in the slow lane along with some (but by no means all) of the new member states in East/Central Europe. This would be a disaster for the UK, certainly politically and probably economically. But it would be far better for Europe (and the world) for the European core to move decisively towards federalism and leave the Brits behind than to bend over backwards to keep a lot of sulky Brits on board. On past form, the Brits will mutter and grumble if and when core Europe does make a qualitative jump towards federalism, but in the end, after a long delay, they will clamber aboard. What Britain does or doesn’t do, however, matters very little in the long perspective of European history.

What about democracy, you may say? Well, the fact is that the infamous democratic deficit is a product of the cumbersome, opaque intergovernmentalism of the proto-federal Europe we now inhabit.In a properly federal structure, with a clear separation of powers, each level of government would be accountable to the appropriate constituency or constituencies, as happens in the US, Canada, Australia and other federal states. Those who rail against the democratic deficit, and then do everything they can to maintain the intergovernmentalism that causes it, are the enemies of democracy not its friends.

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