With his call for a 'federation of nation states', European Commission President JosÚ Manuel Barroso has pleased neither Eurosceptics nor federalists. The term is meaningless, but how else can you unite a group of 27 member states that wants to spin apart? PublicServiceEurope.com analyses the State of the Union address
What on earth is a federation of nation states? We know that a federal state brings together regions under strong institutions, as in the case of Germany or the United States. Nation states, meanwhile, are synonymous with the sovereign governments that have ruled Europe - on and off - for centuries. So when Barroso called for the creation of a federation of nation states in last week's much-hyped State of the Union address, to what exactly was he referring?
Barroso's definition was vague. It was not he said a "super-state", but rather a "democratic federation" capable of tackling "our common problems, through the sharing of sovereignty in a way that each country and each citizen are better equipped to control their own destiny". The reaction was not positive. Eurosceptics such as UKIP leader Nigel Farage predictably associated the word "federation" with the "fanaticism
" that reigns in Brussels. "The federalist's fanaticism is out in the open," Farage tells PublicServiceEurope.com.
But neither were the federalists happy. "We are not enthusiastic about the term," says Pauline Gessant, president of the Young European Federalists - a body that boasts 30,000 "militants" under the age of 35; all of them lobbying for true European federalism. "Barroso talked about a federation of nation states without explaining what was behind it," Gessant tells this website. His choice of expression was probably designed "to please everyone", she says. The Liberals and the Greens in the European Parliament also mumbled their discontent.
While used without attribution by Barroso, the federation of nation states idea is associated with Jacques Delors. He presided over the commission between 1985 and 1994. And in an interview published on the day before the state of the union address in Italian magazine Il Mulino
, Delors used it again. "I have never been a federal fundamentalist," he said. "If I use the formula federation of nation states despite its ambiguity, it is because I am anxious to propose elements of union within diversity. We should never neglect the nation as a factor of reference and as an element of motivation throughout history."
European leaders still consult 87-year-old Delors when the European Union is in crisis, as if he were the Oracle at Delphi. The Frenchman was the last commission president to bring the office gravitas. Given this, it is quite possible that Barroso simply lifted the term. True federalists desire common institutions to which national counterparts are clearly subordinate. The European Court of Justice arguably already meets this criterion. Given the latest proposals for supervisory powers, the European Central Bank is well on its way. A true federation would however probably require another attempt at drafting a European constitution - this is one of the main objectives of the Young European Federalists.
Barroso could have called for a federation of nation states in a valiant attempt to keep all 27 member states on board. By nodding to both federalists and neo-realists - a more appropriate term for modern-day supporters of the nation state - he was in reality signalling that the commission's policy is unchanged. There will be more attempts to pool sovereignty in areas Brussels deems to be in the common EU interest. The commission will inch towards federalism without ever getting there.
There are signs that this policy is doomed to failure. On one side, member states such as the United Kingdom have little desire to move forward. Indeed, some politicians flirt openly with renegotiation or withdrawal. On the other, as this week's statement
by 11 foreign ministers has shown, there is a bloc of countries willing to accelerate towards the brink of federalism itself.
Barroso made one reference in his speech to "enhanced cooperation" - the process enshrined in the treaties by which a group of at least nine countries can forge ahead with closer integration. Enhanced cooperation might be necessary to establish a financial transactions tax, the commission president said. This is probably the future path of the union. Groups of member states will break away to form tightly knit units, leaving stragglers in an uncomfortable outer orbit. But how will relations between the inner core and the stragglers be governed?
Decision-making processes would become even more complicated. "Wouldn't it be appropriate to turn Economic and Monetary Union into a genuine enhanced cooperation within the framework of the Lisbon Treaty?" asked Delors in his interview, though he too warned that the EU has already attained a "complexity which distances us from our citizens and handicaps the system". Barroso and all leaders in Brussels are now struggling to find a message around which the whole EU can unite. Until they can, they will have to fall back on meaningless terms such as a "federation of nation states".