System error: FEDERALISM.EU is missing. Try reinstalling to fix the problem

European federalism has lost direction and is wandering in search of an identity. This is the feeling I have when I see that federalists’ ideas of what Europe should become are vague and focused on the means, and that different concepts are concealed behind the same, in some cases even wrong, “federal” label.

While euroscepticism is re-emerging, boosted by the crisis and the unpopular answers given to it, federalists are not updating their recipe to face the new challenges and, most decisively, only unveil few of the ingredients that they believe are needed. Or maybe, they don’t know them all.

Politicians supporting European federalism – and here I mean political personalities that influence public opinion, not any MEP in Brussels – are not clear about what they propose to the people. The webpage of the Union of European Federalists listing the “federalist outings” offers useful insights: except some references to the need for a fiscal union, the supposedly federalist statements of these politicians are rather general, even ambiguous. In Italy we had an interesting case few weeks ago, when the newly appointed Prime Minister Letta, during his first speech to the Chamber, declared that we should move towards the “United States of Europe”: what he actually has in his mind is still to be understood.

The aura of uncertainty surrounding federalists’ utopia works against their own cause: eurosceptics have too much of an easy task in portraying the federalist project as the dystopia of a European super-State that wants to erode and eventually replace national democracies and identities, imposing undemocratic and technocratic rules from abroad. They strategically exploit the common people’s fear of the “unknown”, whereas federalists’ political incompleteness and vagueness fuels this fear.

If federalists want to have at least some chances of inverting the current trend and obtaining the support they lack, they need to propose a concrete and realistic political project and, in the first place, converge on a common and comprehensive vision of what a future federal Europe might be. Considering the political heterogeneity of federalists, it is not going to be easy and probably this is the reason why it hasn’t happened yet. But blurred projects are doomed to fail because the people need and want to be well-informed, and rightly so, before granting democratic endorsement.

The federal vision, as I said, should be comprehensive if it wants to have a chance of being successful. It will not be enough to propose an attractive institutional shape, or to determine the repartition of competences between the federal and the federated levels. The project will need to identify the human, social and economic aims – a European model – to pursue, putting forward radical choices when needed, solving the problem of democratic representation, finding the right synthesis and balance between established and emerging principles, without falling into the trap of the race to bottom towards the minimum common denominator.

Although there is no shortage of arguments in support of a federal solution, popular “demand” is weak and political “supply” is not up to the expected standards yet. In this context, the way towards any form of federalism can only be “supply driven”, politicians have to explain to the people what it is good, in which form and when. Some would call it elitism, giving it a negative spin; I think this would be political courage, the same that few charismatic political personalities have had in history. Probably a similar profile does not exist in today’s Europe, I hope one is in the making in the “Erasmus generation”.

The federalist project will hence need the commitment of major national political parties, as these are the ones able to influence public opinion, while federalist movements and parties have a limited political agenda and support. Considering that any federal choice would affect the fundamental principles and the constitutional organisation of the society, it cannot be a partisan exercise but will need the convergence and agreement of different political forces, a sort of thematic Große Koalition. A change may occur when federalism will be mainstreamed in the agenda and narrative of leading national political parties.

I acknowledge that all I say is difficult to happen in the short or medium term, but the emergence on the European political scene of the “Erasmus generation” may help speed up the change. In any case, I would not despair: the petit pas approach is still alive and has delivered impressive results over the last decades. However, once and if the step towards a fiscal union will have been done, its propulsive role will probably reach the limits and the grand pas be needed. Or maybe not, if the renewed Union will be capable of providing the answers people need without reaching the federal rank. Because at the end of the day, are results – and not the means – that count.

Mauro Gagliardi (

3 thoughts on “System error: FEDERALISM.EU is missing. Try reinstalling to fix the problem

  1. Luis Bouza García (@luisbouzagarcia)

    Thanks my Machiavelian friend (results not means). I think you put the finger on the main problem of today’s EU: to keep the engine going and make a federal step we need a big bipartisan consensus, but in order for the narrative – today’s catchword – to make sense we need more political contestation. I think however that these are not necessarily opposite and that both require political mobilisation. The federal consensus needs to become popular. There’s no point in agreeing to an EU constitution if it’s to be rejected by the citizens. And probably we cannot have mass mobilisation without politisation.

  2. Pingback: System error: FEDERALISM.EU is missing. Try reinstalling to fix the problem | Prossima fermata: Europa

  3. Mauro Gagliardi (@MauroG_EU) Post author

    Come on, I’m not being that Machiavellian… 🙂 Results count more than means, but not any means is acceptable for achieving results!

    I agree with you, politisation (constitution, direct election of high political posts, etc) is important, but alone is not enough. If federalists believe (and some unfortunately do) that it is actually enough for doing the big step and for convincing people that Europe is good, then they are fooling people and can jeopardise the whole project. Hollande’s 4 points – particularly the fourth one – are interesting (, let’s see how Merkel and other leaders react.


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