TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

What Happened to Europe's Federalism?

It is unlikely that the present EU will ever become politically unified. However a reduced number of member states could constitute a European Federal League designed to become, as such, a new member of the EU in place of the federated states. It could consequently operate separately on a number of issues. Other members might join the new Federal Union later, under certain conditions.

All of the old and new European federalists are either dead or have nearly disappeared. Eminent politicians and scholars like Schumann, Spinelli, La Malfa, Ruffini, Albertini, Spaak, Coty, Chaban-Delmas, Delhors, Lord Lothian, Keynes, Robbins, Adenauer, Mann, Kohl, Genscher, and many others are forgotten. The younger generation that during the 1960s, under the banner of the European Federalist Movement, enthusiastically distributed engaging leaflets in the universities in favor of a federalist Europe is curiously absent in the heated debate about the future of the Union. After the humiliating failure of the constitutional tentative (1994–95), elaborated after the Maastricht Treaty (1992), which was rejected by all of the European citizens that were summoned by referendum, no one seems to have acknowledged the meaning of that blunder. The pieces were picked up in the Lisbon Treaty (2007), now governing the Union, which fosters at each paragraph of its complex narrative an “ever closer” Union. The general feeling today is that the Union has chosen an institutional path that risks neither unifying the continent politically nor making European citizens “ever closer.” The enormous endeavors in support of the most important geopolitical project of the post–World War II world had been very successful up to the year 2000 and the political humus thereof seemed to promise a leap forward different from that brought about by the Lisbon Treaty. In the preceding years the Union’s policy was always open to discussion and experiment, but during the following decade, after the constitutional downturn, no one seemed to have “climbed on the giant’s shoulders” so as to look further into the Union’s future. On the contrary the Union’s Council and the Commission insisted on imposing on its 28 members a complex constitutional project. This began to be perceived as a straightjacket by many Europeans as it became increasingly evident that only a few of the member states were capable of abiding by the new rules.

The 1957 Treaty of Rome rested on two postulates: first, that whatever happened Europe would remain a liberal democracy; and second, that an open market economy would be beneficial for all. The Lisbon Treaty introduced a new postulate: that the increased affluence, welfare, internal peace, a new common currency, and adequate European institutions would naturally, if gradually, lead to some form of political unification. The indications of the institutional model for such unification were not provided, but the general ideas seemed to be that in the actual confederation, already functioning on so many common issues, the states would end up surrendering more of their sovereign prerogatives to the EU Council, Commission, and Parliament at Strasbourg and Brussels.

Design Failure?

Enumerating the EU’s blunders, thoroughly listed in these years by an army of critics, from the right and the left, is easier than pointing out the many advantages obtained by almost all of its members. Much of the criticism is probably due to intellectual snobbery and its impatience with bureaucracy, and some of it is fueled by crude populist and nationalistic instincts. But there are many serious objections that represent a challenge to the very legitimacy of the Union’s authority: the most serious concerns the democratic legitimacy of the European Parliament (democratic deficit); another concerns the role of the European Central Bank (ECB) vis à vis national Central Banks and the imbalances in the euro zone banking system. Last but not least, there is the lack of an effective response to the ever-growing number of dramatic world crises that would require an authoritative and decisive policy by the EU. The remedies that are suggested are not encouraging; they seem to focus mainly on internal economic problems such as the revitalization of the public sector, further monetary action from the ECB, and the so-called fiscal compact. To successfully tackle the complex problems facing the EU would require a much greater political stature. The wave of immigrants arriving in Europe, the definition of European borders, European cultural and social relations with the Islamic world, the development of an effective military defensive system, and the problem of dealing with illiberal positions by some of its members all require a more authoritative and decided action than the EU can afford. As things stand the question is whether the combination of these ills amounts to a design failure of which the European leadership is totally unaware.

In the last twenty years many of the West’s hopes for the development of a new world order after the fall of Communism have been disappointed: the disastrous outcome of the ironically named “Arab Spring”; the failure to reach a peaceful settlement in Palestine after the Oslo agreements (1993), indirectly fostered also by the EU; the savage butchery in Bosnia (1995) in the absence of a firm action by any of the EU’s bordering member states; the financial crisis, originated in the United States, combining with the contradictions that had emerged immediately after the untimely introduction of the euro-zone; Greece’s entry into the Union (disregarding Helmut Kohl’ s caveat), which was disastrous for the Greek people and government, as well as for the Union, the Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank (ECB). The list is not complete. While the EU was sanctioning the Russian Federation for its illegal occupation of Crimea, Europe’s problems were aggravated by the biblical wave of immigrants arriving from the Middle East and Africa in flight from local conflicts and especially the civil war in Syria. In that bloody scenario a new actor emerged: the so-called ISIS or Daesh, state, which is not a state but a sort of medieval sect of assassins, led by a bloodthirsty mountain holy man identified by the media as caliph, but is not a caliph, who proselytizes young potential murders and suicide bombers, whom the media does the honor of calling foreign fighters. The EU is also confronted with the possibility of losing the United Kingdom, one of its most valuable members, an event that would seriously diminish its international standing. The Brexit referendum issue could have been used as a great opportunity for redesigning the entire Union’s institutional legal structure (for example, in the form suggested below). On the contrary it looks like either the UK will leave the Union, a disastrous outcome for the Union and for the British people, or the UK will renegotiate the conditions for its membership, setting a dangerous precedent for the Union. Last but not least, the Europeans will have to deal with many menacing world problems while the single states move at random in a world spectrum almost abandoned by the Americans whom they never cease to criticize.

European Initiatives

In spite of the series of world crises that have emerged in recent years, no specifically European policy has emerged that would allow member states to feel adequately represented and/or individually involved in these matters of international policy. In the case of ISIS, for instance, neither has the EU encouraged, nor a few member states have even mentioned, the possibility of joining forces (Art. 42-3 of the Lisbon treaty) and establishing a reinforced cooperation that would make it possible to immediately deploy a military force when necessary. Nor has the EU, or any group of member states, launched the project of a conference involving Islamic political and religious authorities in order to ask for a solemn condemnation of terrorism that would provide the basis for acting in those cases where such condemnation was not forthcoming. The EU could arrange for the establishing of a European School of Government in Saudi Arabia; or it could launch the idea of a sort of Marshall Plan for Africa, encouraging economic development, creating new job opportunities, promoting joint ventures, increasing and expanding the efforts in the EUROPE-AID programs, as well as other Erasmus-styled initiatives that could improve existing educational programs in Africa. Financially, it could facilitate and finance cultural and economic exchanges in the form of the Angel Non-Profit Programmes. Though the EU deserves credit and respect for the huge work of its diplomatic missions in the world’s key areas, it is however a slow and cumbersome machine when it comes to other aspects of international policy. European authorities are of course aware of the criticism they receive but all they seem to offer in the public debate is the demand of strengthening EU’s Parliament, thus expanding the very machine the critics want to change. In this picture the present lack of bold initiatives might lead the entire complex construction to a dead end.

The Oblivion of Federalism

There is a preliminary historical explanation for the disappearance of the federalist option from the European political scenario. Federalism was whole-heartedly defended by a large number of eminent politicians, scholars, and most of the young generation until the 1960s and 1970s. In 1943, Altiero Spinelli launched the Federalist Movement from the Italian isle of Ventotene, were the Fascists had confined him. It was a liberal-radical manifesto that enjoyed an immediate success among the intellectuals and the young. The movement did not become a political party in Italy due to the opposition of the Communist party, which had other ideas in mind, as well as of the Christian Democratic party (in spite of Pius XII’s federalist convictions). When the European founding treaty was signed Rome in 1957 and the EEC (European Economic Community) assembled the founding member states, the reaction of Communist parties in Italy and France was hesitant and ambiguous and their commitment only arrived in 1971. As to the UK’s conversion (after De Gaulle’s repeated refusals), it came about only in 1973, and it seemed to most European intellectuals and political commentators that the sole reason for the UK’s entry was to collect its prize, in a new and flourishing open market, for having fought alone in Europe against the Nazis. It was completely disregarded that the English had always had a strong federalist movement initiated in the 1920s by Lord Lothian, and which is still alive today. Other supporters included John Manyard Keynes, Clement Attlee after the war, and major liberal economist Lionel Robbins, who (with Lord Lothian) strongly influenced Altiero Spinelli as well as Mario Albertini through his lectures at Balliol College, Oxford. Even Winston Churchill in the 1950s often spoke publicly of the possibility of creating the United Stated of Europe.

The second reason is cultural: a number of the Europeans scholars in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have extensively studied federalism as a historical political phenomenon, and/or as a utopian political dream following Kant, Cattaneo, Frantz, Proudhon, and others, without however understanding the federalist approach and legal mechanism. For three centuries the European political legal endeavors were totally concentrated on the development (initiated in the seventeenth century by legal philosophers) of the principle of sovereignty and how, after the Treaty of Westsphalia (1648) it was being molded into the modern national state model. In this political framework European political thinkers saw federalism as a possible menace to the sovereignty, freedom, and independence of the newly formed national states. A federal state is a sovereign state made of the stuff that a number of other equally sovereign states is made of. A federal state therefore must ensure that its own sovereignty, while pursuing common ends, does not conflict with the other sovereignties, and must be structured accordingly. A federation state is not a confederation (such as the EU probably is today). For this reason, U.S. president Alexander Hamilton, a giant of federalism, always opposed the exclusive sovereignty of a United States Confederation. “The trouble with a Confederation,” he wrote, “is that the federal legislation affects the single state but not the people.”[1] Considering that the federated states while pursuing their own national interest can conflict with one another and/or with the federal government, the legislature is obliged to be structured so as to maintain an equilibrium between national and the federal legislations. For these reasons the founding of a federal state does not only require favorable historical circumstances, but a complementary economic system, shared legal practices, a certain social integration, a similar fiscal responsibility, and, last but not least, respect for the principles and values of a given tradition. Thus the more single states diversify their policies the more cohesive and stringent the federal authority must become.

A third important reason that discourages a Europeans change towards federalism is that all states and all large organizations are bureaucracies; as such they are constitutionally reluctant to change, let alone be dismantled. They feel endowed with a special and necessary technical expertise, which only they have: the legislators may decide “what” to do on a certain issue; but the bureaucracies usually have control on “how” to do it (or not to do it!). The European bureaucracy is no exception. Recent experience shows that, while a general crisis of the EU is in full swing, most of the initiatives leading to change have been turned down from within, the idea of redesigning the Union’s institutions is considered unacceptable[2] and the only acceptable strategy is reinforcing the institutions that should be changed.

The last obstacle to a creative change in the EU is the long-lasting European economic quandaries and the reaction to the present vicious combination of negative internal factors such as: unemployment, industrial decline, public debts, doubts about the euro’s future, increasing fiscal pressure, the unsustainable wave of immigrants, and the (non-)reaction to a number of world military conflicts menacing European borders. Some possible solutions could be adopted if only their psychological, and ideological, implications did not constitute a further problem. The so-called anti-European populist movements seem to flourish, obsessed with globalization, the stateless wertfrei financial turmoil, economic inequalities, the rampant corruption, and lastly terrorism. Moreover in a déjà vu wave, echoed by the media, it invokes a totally social Europe concentrated on relaunching the public sector, cultural diplomacy, welfare, multiculturalism, relativism, and neutralism. Neo-liberal economic policies are under attack, and its blunders (such as those occurring in the 2007–8 U.S. financial mess) are referred to as evidence of “the failure of the free market” rather than to the abrupt betrayal of the liberal rules, prompted by the lack of awareness that the free market requires certain legal conditions; “the work of Adam Smith’s visible hand,” as Robbins wrote, “is really the work of a legislator.”[3]


It was not only for a whim that Altiero Spinelli signed his articles as “Publius,” the same name famously adopted by Hamilton, Madison, and Jay in the Federalist Papers (in honor of the ancient Roman consul). Spinelli (who had been a communist) with his friend Ernesto Rossi and many others, while enjoying the favor of liberal economist Luigi Einaudi,[4] had very good reasons to peruse the Federalist Papers. The Americans owe much of the successes of their Constitution to those farsighted and determined personalities, though the political situation in America at the times was described as disastrous and the federalist project, as Hamilton wrote “was on the edge of a precipice.” [5] The three prominent men had carefully studied the functioning of the ancient Greek democracy and the Roman Republic, and they understood that the new federal state, made of various large and small states, including their more remote centers, geographically and culturally distant, would not survive without adapting the principles of sovereignty and democracy in ways that differed from those characterizing the contemporary European Enlightenment model. As for sovereignty, the American federalist model was designed to integrate as much as possible a vast continent so as to guarantee to a vastly diversified society: internal peace, defense against tyranny, development and the respect of the American Constitution, ensured by the jurisdictional authority of the Supreme Court. Thomas Jefferson even offered a visionary forecast of how state sovereignties would ultimately reinforce the new federal state. In spite of the vicissitudes of the American political history, the forecast proved to be right. “If our vast country were not already divided into states,” he wrote, “it would be a good thing to operate anyway such a division, allowing each state to operate on its own account much better than a distant authority could.”[6] As two Italian renowned scholars put it, “the American was an entirely new concept of non-Westphalian and exclusive sovereignty founded on the systematic combination of various centers of power, allowing the full realization of the principle of popular sovereignty in each single state as well as in the federal government”[7] As to democracy, the American federalists could not adopt Montesquieu’s idea of the a national division of political power, nor could they conceive a troubling revival of Rousseau’s then fashionable volonté générale. The American federalist legitimacy rested on the principle of a republican democracy entirely centered on the legislative equilibrium between national and the federal states ensuring that the Rule of Law and justice be the supreme guarantees of liberty and equality before the law. Legislative balancing is obviously the most important aspect in the democratic era and the most difficult. This why it was only in the 1970s that the National Conference of State Legislators was created, inspired by the ideas of Louis Brandeis,[8] who considered state legislation as the real factor that held the United States together. The Conference, a major political event, includes about 1600 specially selected state legislators who meet every year in Denver.

A Road to a Federal Europe?

Given the present state of European affairs, the question that should arise is whether a reduced group of members states, in politically and constitutionally feasible ways, could create a new federal political entity, named for example European Federal League (EFL), becoming in its own constituency a new member of the EU (in place of the newly federated states). The EFL would become the new idea in action,[9] a new sovereign entity that could use its decisive force to put in place a number of initiatives, presently impossible for the EU, tackling major international problems that directly or indirectly affect all Europeans. The new Federation, for example, could foster the definition of European borders; it could take up and improve the 1919 practice of the Nansen Passports invented by the Norwegian Ambassador Fridjof Nansen, which guaranteed the identity of over a million of displaced individuals after World War I.[10] The EFL could “inherit” the 1954 European Defence Treaty ( EDT) and build its own proper military defense system and perhaps, in case of necessity, support single initiatives of so-called reinforced cooperation[11] with other EU non-federate members; it could also stipulate special agreements with NATO and establish military armaments, hierarchies, costs, and responsibilities. It could deploy its own foreign policy, with a more expedient and decisive capacity than the EU can; it could act with authority in the Middle East and in Africa, encouraging new job-generating activities and strengthening existing ones in agriculture, commerce and industry, also by influencing the EIB (European Investment Bank). Furthermore it could improve the quality of education and launch Erasmus-styled programs, integrating third-world university students with the European system; it could finally restore the (abandoned) Italian project of a School of Mediterranean Police.[12] Apart from these examples many other initiatives of the like are necessary if African and the Middle Eastern nations are to be put in condition to tackle the staggering problems that lie ahead in the twenty-first century. A new EFL would be attractive for a huge number of young Europeans who have not fled Europe (due to the crisis), have greatly improved their professional capacities, have become cosmopolitan and much more ” European” than the previous generation. This younger generation could reverse what Massimo d’Azeglio famously declared after Italy’s unification: “We have made Italy, now we have to make the Italians.” In these years, we have made many Europeans¸ now it is time to make Europe.

Due to the particular legal status that the EFL would acquire as a member of the existing EU, the here suggested quasi-revolution would require an accurate strategy to address complex political and constitutional problems: difficult but not insurmountable, if dealt with by a task force of prominent political scholars, jurists, and farsighted historians, and supported by a new generation of young Europeans.

  1. The would-be federated states would have to hold constitutional referendums entailing the approval of the new EFL constitution.
  2. Such a constitution should not be in contradiction with the principles contained in the preamble of the 2007 Lisbon treaty.
  3. The EU Council and the Commission should preliminarily approve the EFL and its membership in the EU Parliament.
  4. The newly formed EFL would submit formally its membership to the EU Council Commission and Parliament.
  5. The EFL should create its own federal Parliament and its electoral system as well as the necessary operative regulations, while withdrawing their existing MPs from Strasbourg.
  6. The EFL could maintain the present EU insignia.
  7. Legal controversies could be deferred to a special section of the European Court in Luxemburg.
  8. The EFL would launch a yearly three-day seminar in preparation of a Federal legislative Conference
  9. The EFL could regenerate the ECD defense treaty (1954) and identify the proper political and military arrangements thereof.

Internal Objectives

  1. Increased cohesion between the EFL and the EU members through an exchange program of itinerant MPs within the Union;
  2. Development of a new fiscal model and establishing of its implementation schedule;
  3. Development of a common energy policy;
  4. Development of a Federal European Defense (FED).

External Objectives

  1. An increased international status of the EU;
  2. A vigorous EU foreign policy;
  3. Innovative EU/ EFL political arrangements with third-world countries, stipulating more stringent agreements on human rights and civil liberties.

In conclusion, the EFL, or a similar entity, could become the initial focus of a gradually expanding Federal Europe, capable of influencing a tumultuous and unpredictable world in the direction of the civilized, liberal, and democratic principles that have inspired the best of Europe’s recent history.

This essay was originally published in Nuova Storia Contemporanea (May- June 2016). The English translation appears here by permission.


1 Alexander Hamilton The Federalist Papers, no. 15.

2. For example the French proposal to create a second Parliament composed of national member was turned down. Prof. A. Padoa Schioppa wrote that ” the project would disastrously delegitimize the existing EU Parliamnent.” A. Padoa Schioppa, Verso il Federalismo Europeo (Il Mulino, 2014), p. 518.

3. Lionel Robbins, Economic Planning and International Order (London: Macmillan, 1937), pp. 9–10.

4. Luigi Einaudi (1875–1961), Italian President (1948–55).

5. Hamilton, The Federal Papers, no. 15.

6. Thomas Jefferson, in Federalismo e Democrazia (Milan: Biblioteca di Libero, 2005).

7. Mario d’ Addio and Guglielmo Negri, preface to Il Federalista, p. 20.

8. Louis Brandeis was law professor at Princeton, called to the Supreme Court by President W. Wilson.

9. Alexander Hamilton’s definition of federalism.

10. Fridjof Nansen (1861–1930), Nobel Prize laureate, was High Commissioner for Refugees in the League of Nations in 1919.

11. Art. 42-3 of the EU founding Lisbon Treaty (2007).

12. The Limenform project was initiated by the Italian Ministry of Interior in 2006 and thereafter abandoned.

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