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How I was convinced we need a federal EU

It appears that a massive wave of heat has hit the European political scene in these first weeks of summer. The EU faces unprecedented turbulence shaking its core and undermining its relations with traditional partners.

We seem helpless towards the migration challenge, which shook the foundations of the so-far stable German coalition and brought to power or strengthened populist and extremist forces.

We are also faced with an American president who takes one-sided decisions with harmful consequences to the EU, threatening a global trade war. A president who questions the role of the US in resolving global security and climate threats.

For the first time in history we are faced with the exit of an EU member from the Union and we are called to limit the systemic effects of Brexit, especially the risk of this dynamics spilling over to other members.

Not to talk about the challenges caused by globalisation and the 'Fourth Industrial Revolution', with its wave of automation, robotisation and AI. As a consequence, the working middle class, the traditional bastion of the capitalist economy, fear for their uncertain future and are drawn to populism.

Finally, we struggle with the narrowmindedness of certain national governments, which refuse to share the heavy burden of migration with the most affected countries and at times do not fully respect the rule of law and liberal democracy. Why are we unable to face this multifaceted crisis, and what can we do about it?

'Clumsy, indecisive and paralysed'

I think we are failing because we are unable to take fast and effective decisions. Our Union is clumsy, indecisive and paralysed, and therefore loses respect and authority every day. No political entity can stably survive without wielding authority and commanding the respect of its citizens.

The solution, therefore, is for the EU to develop effective mechanisms to take swift decisions, especially in the existential fields of security and foreign policy. The establishment of the European External Action Service was a recognition of this need, yet not a sufficient step to effectively tackle challenges in the EU's neighbourhood – whether in the east or the south. Not to mention global developments.

I think that our current predicament can only be successfully overcome if the EU takes steps towards a key strategic decision: transforming itself into an authentic, functioning federation – a union of states based on a strictly enforced subsidiarity principle. This would mean that the central, federal level would manage all competences related to foreign and security policy, the single market and a strong single currency.

All other competences, such as fiscal policy, pensions, social policy or issues pertaining to the sphere of culture and ethics, would be the exclusive purview of member states.

An EU of this sort would directly elect its president, who would then form a government fully-empowered to decide within the remit of its conferred competences. Such a Union would finally possess the one telephone number that Henry Kissinger already inquired about many decades ago.

Lessons of Czechoslovakia

Until recently I was unwilling to seriously consider this option, not least because of my experience of the Czechoslovak 'federation', which we Slovaks do not remember fondly. I have now come to realise that the problem with Czechoslovakia was not the federal idea as such, but its deficient realisation. That state might have called itself a federation, but it was not one in practice. Subsidiarity was not a concept we were ever familiar with. The consequent centralisation spelled doom for Czechoslovakia, provoking its eventual collapse.

I have been reluctant to think about any type of federalism for Europe due to a simple conviction: as a Brit will not serve under any flag other than the British one, a French or a German will never give up their sovereignty to create a true common foreign and security policy. The current crisis, however, is so threatening that it should encourage us to creatively re-think many old paradigms.

Even countries like Germany and France cannot face current pressures in isolation, or even in loose coordination with European partners. In Italy, even a Eurosceptic populist government came to realise that the migration challenge can only be solved within a solid European framework. Besides, the US pressure on the EU to handle its own security and defence will only increase.

If France and Germany could agree to truly pool sovereignty in security and defence, also endowing the Union with the necessary resources, the project of a European Federation could suddenly be on the table and have a real chance of success. I am more and more convinced that this is the only way to give the EU and its members a real hope for the future.

Only a strong, united, respected and secure Europe can protect us, thus becoming a real political community to which its citizens are attached.

This article was originally published as an op-ed in EUobserver.