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After the Brexit Vote: Federations, Federal States or Back to the Bad Past?

The electorate of the United Kingdom has voted for an exit from the European Union, suggesting that we may now have to rethink everything on the question of federations. Thus this follow up on my last post.

The good news for me is that nothing in my original piece requires fundamental revision, like the piece on Scalia’s death where I misunderstood the legal situation as I now see. (There was only one appeals court decision on the immigration order of the president, and it stood after the expected tie vote.) I still believe there are the same four or five reasons to federate when empires collapse (republican government, economic welfare, external and internal peace, preservation of plurality) and that federation as I define it has potentially the same four fundamental problems (design, expansion, democratic deficits of both union and states, antinomic sovereignty). These four problems all played a role in the British vote turning out as it did.

The EU was poorly designed, expanded too quickly creating some unfortunate dependency relations, had serious democracy problems both in the center and increasingly some of its states, and conflicts over sovereignty repeatedly appeared. It should also be clear however, that for a long time the same EU preserved the internal peace among previously violent enemies. It was moreover a magnet for the expansion of republican forms of government starting with Greece, Spain and Portugal and moving on to East and Central Europe, and helped to preserve the plurality of very different political communities. Only very recently did it become clear that the same federation promoted economic welfare in a very unequal manner, and allowed the emergence of populist semi-democracy or semi-authoritarianism at its peripheries.

The issues are related, and my article concentrated on addressing both in terms of the concept of homogeneity taken from Carl Schmitt, drastically re-interpreted in terms of a call for both enforcing liberal democratic norms in the units and generating much more and better targeted economic redistribution. I stand by this proposal, and hope that others who do count will make it as well. In the face of the three crises of the economy, immigration and now secession only such a combination can reliably save the union, and perhaps make it worth saving. I argued that only a renewal of the constituent process can achieve these goals, and only if the intergovernmental frame of proceeding is replaced by something like what was done in the United States when a treaty was turned into a constitution. Article VII and Article V with their two forms of qualified majority decision are the two keys, and to their credit such a solution already inspired the authors of the Penelope Proposal of the Commission in 2003. Europeans should return to a version of this type of procedure.

But which Europeans? Leaving aside the possibility that the UK will stay because of a parliamentary vote, or a veto by the Scottish Parliament, or because who knows what change of position by Boris Johnson etc., there are now 27 members. If the Scots were added, as they should be, there will be again 28. My article’s aim of liberal democracy is shared by most member states, but it is not shared by all. The situation is even worse with economic redistribution. Thus, I proposed a two track outcome, following earlier projects of many others, where the countries most committed to an ever closer union would have to first agree to a new, more democratic, more economically integrated structure, and then invite all or any of the others to join it by first achieving the necessary conditions. The others would then be in an outer circle, like the non Euro countries currently, or even a third circle with Norway, Iceland and Switzerland and maybe the UK.

Leaving aside most problems with achieving this, there is huge issue here with political will and agency. The initial core of the Euro countries has within it potential vetoes, against a closer union to be designed right now. There are sharp debates even within the six founder countries, if that were the initial set, as Marine Le Pen’s unfortunately brilliant op. ed. in the NY times indicates. Even some Republicans in France, the major right party, propose a two track formula, but with a sovereigntist core. I leave aside how nonsensical that is, since their nonsense today does not seem to stop the Trumps and the Johnsons.

There is, however, a slim chance today to begin something new, because center left governments are still in place in two of the strongest countries, France and Italy, and a coalition including the center left is still there in Germany. I moreover still hope for a left coalition in Spain, and yes there is still a Syriza government in Greece. All these will likely disappear in the wake of the British vote, unless the relevant parties and their leaders act very quickly. There should be furthermore many in the center and the center right who do not wish to see Europe collapse, as it will if the British pattern is followed by right wing victories. Compromise between these and the center left parties should not be impossible. Even if they cannot immediately agree on an economic formula, the democratization and simplification of the institutional structure, producing a more parliamentary and more responsible government could be a first step around which many of the players could agree.

So there is a very small chance that reconstruction could begin very soon. I, of course, would not bet on this happening. Yet, we must carefully watch the initial steps. If there seems to be an effort emerging to keep the Brits in after all, with new concessions, then we know the thing will fail. Calls for a new constitutional convention, if serious, would be a far more positive sign. But this time, the actors should know that the inter-governmental structure with its 27 or 28 vetoes cannot be the form of constitution making if the goal is to replace a hybrid confederation by a more consistent federal form. Whether the goal of some is a full fledged federal state now is irrelevant. Such an outcome is not in the least likely for a long time, and perhaps not even desirable in a very large, complex, multi national-cultural-religious polity. But a much more democratic and economically more equal federation is still possible, and the time to achieve it can no longer be delayed.

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Andrew Arato

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