Should the EU become the ‘United States of Europe’?

European Union federalism union of european federalists coronavirus
Numéro 1

Learn the ropes

What is the European federalism?
Federalisation of the European Union is a political current which proposes a transformation of the EU from its current state of a confederation (a group of sovereign states) into a federation (a federal state). This proposal is deeply rooted in history. The formulation ‘United States of Europe’ was used first by Victor Hugo, although one of the first proposals of a federal organisation of European states was formulated by the Bohemian king Georges of Podebrady in 1464.

Federalism developed with the Pan-Europa Movement formed by Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi in the 1920s. It started to become a larger-scale movement in the 1940s with the publication of the Ventotene Manifesto by Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi. Today, the federal movement is represented by a few NGOs, including the European Movement International, Young European Federalists and Union of European Federalists.

What is the role of Member States in the EU?
The European Union as we know it today is not a federation, but a union of sovereign states. The role of the Member States makes the difference. Currently, Member States have the power to modify the Treaties, which are the source of power of the EU. They are also represented by an institution – the European Council – which gathers the heads of states and represents their interests. This institution sets the political agenda of the EU and its priorities. It also has the power to propose the president of the EU Commission and to appoint the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

Member States are also represented in the Ordinary Legislative Procedure, which is the most common decision-making process in the EU. National ministers compose the Council of the European Union, which acts like a second chamber of a Parliament, and co-decides on legislative proposals with the European Parliament.


Why are we talking about it today?
With the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemics, Europeans have rapidly experienced a shutdown of national borders and limitations of free-movement. As the virus has spread quickly on the continent, many Europeans and Member States called for an increased support from the European Union.

The EU has taken measures to cope with the economic crisis caused by the pandemics. Those measures include, among others, a 2,4€ trillion recovery plan to support national economies and new initiatives, such as SURE (to tackle unemployment) or RescEU.

Some voices have been raised to call for a further European integration and a further federalization of the EU in order to answer the crisis. Moreover, the debate on ‘coronabonds’ (which you can also find on The Rift’s website) was by some understood as a further step towards a federal Union, and therefore praised or criticized.

Sources: Toute l’Europe, EU Commission

Numéro 2

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A Federal Europe: The honest, courageous and solidary response our citizens need

alejandro cordero union of european federalists united states of europe european union

Alejandro Cordero

Policy and Advocacy Officer, Union of European Federalists (UEF)

The perceived failure of the system is not Europe’s fault, it’s its Member States; the solution is simple: federalism.

People’s applause has for months portrayed our streets every evening at eight O’clock, from Naples to Brussels, from Sofia to Helsinki, from Madrid to Berlin. The applause was not directed at our national governments; it was dedicated to simple people. Heroes of our society who have reminded everyone in the midst of tragedy of what really matters. Today honesty, courage and European solidarity must be once again at the heart of political decisions. 

Our past has proved that our national governments can only ensure prosperity and recovery by working together. The current crisis shows how the European Union needs to be strengthened in order to secure the interests of its Member States, while being more democratic and accountable to its citizens. The best formula to achieve this balance is federalism.

Contrarily, nationalism and intergovernmentalism offer an approach to the crisis which finds appeal among some European citizens in a rightful diagnose of their fears and disappointments. Yet this disappointment and lack of action have been misleadingly attributed to the EU.    

Federalism is not about the creation of a European super-state

The truth is that the solutions the EU could deliver were already very limited before the crisis. Member States have constantly denied the EU the powers and resources to make a real impact on the issues that matter the most to citizens, from climate action, security and migration, to crisis management, social Europe and health Union. This results in a series of half-cooked measures and outright failures that undermine citizens’ satisfaction with Europe and eventually with democracy. 

The current Corona crisis is uncovering this hypocrisy. Today we see how citizens are crying out for European solidarity. And not a single country in the EU believes that it can emerge from this crisis alone, not even the “frugal four”. Nevertheless, to be successful, we need a common European initiative that can rise to the challenges and needs of social and economic recovery. 

It is at this point that a federal Europe truly becomes the honest, courageous and solidary solution that our citizens need in a polarised, yet globalised, world. 

Federalism however is not about the creation of a European super-state, but about the rational distribution of competences, the reinforcement of democracy, accountability and the principle of subsidiarity. This means conferring competences and powers to the European Institutions, in those areas where a European common response is more effective.

What should Europeans do now? Firstly, the Eurozone needs to complement the monetary union with a fiscal union and with the power to raise European financial resources to sustain European recovery and support the Member States.

Secondly, Europe must take responsibility for its own security and promote and defend its values and interests in the world. Ensuring that illiberal regimes like China or Russia do not impose theirs in the course of the upcoming economic and social difficulties.

Finally, Europe needs real democracy and capacity to take crucial decisions in the difficult times to come. National Governments should leave the governance of the Union to its own institutions. A federal Government replacing the Commission means an efficient less numerous Executive, which should truly reflect the results of European elections and is accountable to the citizens through the European Parliament. A reformed Council, transformed into a second legislative chamber, would balance the representation of Member states. A powerful European Parliament, co-deciding on all matters, would make Europe a full parliamentary democracy, strengthening peoples’ voices and participation. 

National Governments should leave the governance of the Union to its own institutions

Nationalism has prospered because of the weaknesses of today’s Europe. Their solutions appeal to democracy but hide an inward-looking Europe of hate and divisions. Intergovernmentalists often plead for a different way of cooperation in Europe: “We like Europe, but not the EU” – both say. The twisting of arguments intends to sustain that the EU does not effectively use its conferred powers – from the migration crisis to the coronavirus response – and tries to neglect the need to strengthen the Union. However, they deliberately disregard that unanimity can be invoked to hinder true solidarity, damaging citizens’ expectations and trust. For them is never the time to reform Europe. Is it unreasonable to put the destiny of Europe in the hands of its citizens?

Then again, if the objective is not to leave anyone behind while ensuring recovery, we need to strengthen European cooperation and we need to make Europe more resilient and prepared to address all issues which now outstrip the capability of its Member States. To achieve this, we need to move beyond cooperation among nation states. We need another Europe indeed: a better European Union, a federal one.

Es lebe Europa – Vive l’Europe – Long live Europe !


Why the EU should remain an association of sovereign states 

richard bellamy UCL london european union united states of europe

Richard Bellamy

Professor of Political Science, UCL

Let me start by saying a little about where I am coming from, and what I think this question involves. I approve of the EU, and regret the UK’s decision to leave it. But I consider a United States of Europe, conceived as a federal state, would be a mistake.

In an interconnected world, there are good functional and normative reasons why states should come together to form an association such as the EU. Globalisation can undermine democracy and social justice within states. For example, the democratic decision of the citizens of one state to have stricter environmental regulations to mitigate climate change and improve the well-being of their citizens, can be undercut by the democratic decision of a neighbouring state to free ride on their measures and to continue to adopt cheaper but less environmentally friendly production methods and traffic regulations. Likewise, power imbalances between states can lead poorer states to be dominated by richer ones, and accept trade deals that consistently disadvantage them. As an association of democratic states, the EU provides a valuable framework for states to collectively tackle global issues such as climate change and negotiate their trade relations as equals and in mutually respectful ways. However, while such an association resembles in some ways a federation of states it is not a federal state, on the model of the United States.

As an association of democratic states, the EU provides a valuable framework for states to collectively tackle global issues

Why is that difference important? The goal of an association of democratic states is to support democracy within each of the associated states, along with the different ways their respective peoples have shaped their political and socio-economic systems over time. It seeks to obtain the advantages of cooperation while maintaining diversity. One of the key ways it achieves that balance is through granting transnational rights, such as those associated with EU citizenship. These allow freedom of movement across the association, offering equal opportunities within all the associated states to all citizens within the association, regardless of nationality. Moreover, when moving to another state they have the same legal duties as well as the same rights as the citizens of that state, with the exception of the right to vote in that state unless they are prepared to naturalise and become a citizen of it. That exception provides a guarantee of the pluralism between the different states.

A EU so conceived does not seek to supplant certain functions of democracy at the national level by empowering democratic decision making at the EU level. Those who advocate the EU becoming a federal state tend to imagine that making this move would be more efficient and egalitarian than the current arrangement. One would have a directly elected government of Europe that could respond to the needs of EU citizens. Yet most member states that contain significant national minorities find themselves adopting forms of political decision-making every bit as complicated as the EU, and confront claims for the devolution of ever more central powers along with demands for independence. Why would the EU be any different? On the federal state scheme, a EU citizen would be stuck with a federal European government in which they most likely had very little say in electing. As now, EU citizens would be motivated by national concerns when voting in EU level politics. But that level would only be responsive to these concerns to the extent they are directly represented in and can constrain federal concerns. So people would vote for national parties and demand national representatives in a coalition government. As in many multinational states, they would seek to diminish cross-EU transfers, perhaps even more than now, and seek enhanced forms of self-government at the national level.

A United States of Europe, conceived as a federal state, would curtail the possibilities for both national and individual self-determination

The right of all peoples to self-determination forms article 1 of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The EU currently performs a major role in realising that right. In the process, it supports the self-determination of EU citizens far more than participation in a supra national, European system of democratic government ever can. For, at present citizens unhappy with the opportunities or government of their member state can move to another state they find more congenial. A United States of Europe, conceived as a federal state, would curtail the possibilities for both national and individual self-determination that have been the EUs greatest achievement.

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