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Federalism? What Federalism? A European debate

By Monica Frassoni , Per Gahrton

The crisis of the Eurozone has given new arguments for a radically more federal Europe. But what does it concretely mean from a Green European point of view? An interview with Monica Frassoni, co-chair of the European Green Party and Per Garthon, former Swedish MEP.

Green European Journal: On 4th December in the “Palais des Beaux Arts” in Brussels 1.700 people attended the conference of Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Guy Verhofstadt who claim a kind of “federalist jump”, with a radical reinforcement of the European democracy. This shows a raising awareness that we are close to an historical tipping point. Everybody agrees that we are lacking a democratic basis in the European Union. But when you go further, you can meet completely different points of views.

Monica Frassoni: There is a general feeling today, which is different from what happened a few years ago, that decision making is in the hands of very few people, and that this decision making is not able to reach a solution to the crisis. On the other hand, we cannot  say that there is no democracy at European level.

But the European Parliament is not able to—or not always able to—impose itself as a herald of this democracy that we all need. The majorities in the Parliament do not allow policies which put solidarity and common welfare to the forefront.  So there is a real mixture in the perception. But this is also the case at national level, where, at least in some countries, decision-making is concentrated in the hands of few people, in a not very transparent way. But the elections give the majority to these people. So, it is very difficult to say that there is no democracy. All these elements have to be taken together.

Per, is this the same picture that the Swedes have of the European decision-making process?

Per Garthon: Well, most Swedes have accepted membership of the European Union for quite some time. There is a majority in favour of remaining a member. And as you may know, even the Swedish Green party changed its position a few years ago. So membership of the European Union is not put into question. That is completely accepted. But still, there is a basic suspicion against the European institutions, putting their noses into issues where they should be absent. Most people, especially the Greens, would like the European Union to be much stronger, even have more competencies concerning common environmental policies, and similar policies, which are genuinely trans-boundary international policies. But in today’s  major newspaper of Sweden, it is written  that a new EU proposal will ban snuff.  This is the typical example of where I would say 99% or 100% of Swedes think this should not be an EU issue, but  should be decided locally, or nationally. The discussion about European democracy is important (should the European Parliament have more power in comparison to the Council and the Commission ?) but the debate on the level of  decisions (subsidiarity)  is also crucial. There are a lot of issues that maybe should be brought down to national or even regional or local level.  But there has been a tendency in the European Parliament, and very much, among the Greens,  that whatever competencies the European Union has got once, they should never be given back.  But I think some of the competencies should be given back. People realise this as a major issue, in a state like Belgium, now in Catalonia, in Scotland and so on.

The single currency reviewed

There is one issue, for the moment, inside the Eurozone, where there is a growing agreement that we should reinforce the power of the Union. It is the so-called macroeconomic governance.

MF: Yes, but the way in which they want to introduce that is very strange. Because it is by keeping power within the intergovernmental system, with unanimity, veto rights. Today there is a little bit of an illogical development, because what the markets want, and what some federalists want, is relatively similar. If three years ago, we had had a situation in which it was very clear that Greece, and the others would not be left down, and where the central bank would be the lender of last resort,  we would have spared ourselves a lot of problems.  But a greater degree of stability on the financial markets does not mean that you are getting out from the crisis. The fact of doing things together does not mean that you do the right things.

But there has been a tendency in the European Parliament, and very much, among the Greens,  that whatever competencies the European Union has got once, they should never be given back. – P. Gahrton

PG: In Sweden we were against the common currency, because we believe that    if you have a common currency, you need a common economic policy, and a common space which is much more coherent and integrated than the current European Union.  It is true that there are parts of the European Union that are pretty integrated. But the whole of the European Union is socially and economically, absolutely not integrated enough. And we foresaw that there was going to be a crisis. We won a referendum in Sweden, so Sweden is not part of the Euro. And you can find almost no one in Sweden who is regrets not joining the Euro.

Does it mean that if there was a real European common policy you would  you support the common currency? Can you imagine this as a Swedish Green, living in one of the best welfare states in the European level? Can you imagine the possibility that you could support a European common currency, supported by a European common welfare state.

PG: The social structures must be more integrated.  Maybe, but it will take more time, when Europe has grown together, and I hope it will grow together. We have even proposed a common Scandinavian, or Nordic, currency for Norway, Denmark, maybe Iceland, Sweden, the five Nordic countries. These countries, not for any linguistic reason, but socially, structurally, are pretty close. The Swedish Green attitude is not, in principle, against common currencies. But we think that the Eurozone was not an optimal area because we knew it would be very difficult to introduce the necessary common policies.  But it is one thing not to join, it is quite another to wish the system to break down. So we hope the Eurozone will cope with its problems and introduce some measures, and when they show that they work, there might be another discussion, even in Sweden and Denmark.  In Sweden, there is only one really anti-European party, and this is the fascist party, or the racist party.

But does it mean that the Swedish people are ready to increase the solidarity with other countries of the European Union? For example Greece or Spain.

PG: It depends on how. As you know, the Swedish Government is against increasing the budget of the EU, and that is supported by all parties.

Even by the Greens?

PG: I think, yes. Because we think a lot of money is wasted on inefficient agricultural subsidies.

MF: It is true, not because it is the Union as such, but the Member States, the regions that are responsible for this, etc. so it is not Europe, but it is some of the Member States. There is often a huge difference between the “clichés”, the perceptions and the reality. We had for example a discussion on Europe between the board of the Finnish Green Party and the leader of the Spanish Green Party Equo, Juan Lopez de Uralde. It was not obvious at all for them that Spain never had a problem of excessive public spending. Who knows for example, that Italy is still today a net contributor to the European Union, because the debt of Italy is held by Italians? Some people still believe that the European Commission is a sort of French bureaucratic system although it is mainly controlled by British or German people.

PG: In Sweden, I have not seen many vulgar opinions about Southern Europe. We have had more and more reporting on the real social issues in Spain, and also some facts showing that their budgets were not so mishandled and that the role of the banks was important.

What you are explaining is that we need time to develop a kind of European society, where the public meet, where experiences are exchanged. To go beyond the clichés.

PG: I have always been in favour of much more cultural cooperation. Sweden, maybe is extreme, but we are like a 51st state of the United States of America culturally.  We know a lot about petty details of American policy and American personalities, compared to close neighbour states, not to speak about states like Romania and Bulgaria.  When I was young, we still looked at Italian, French films. Now it is hard to find a film that is not Americanised.

Let us go back to the issue of democracy. In the last edition of the Green European Journal we published an article of Etienne Balibar. It was an answer to Habermas vision on European democracy. Balibar’s opinion is quite challenging because he says that if we want something like European democracy, it has to be more democratic than the democracy on the national level.

MF: The real question is once you have said that, to be able to indicate what you are planning to do. In Athens, at our last Council, the European Greens adopted a resolution in which they give some priorities for the reform, and some ways to open the debate. We support the idea of an inter-parliamentary conference together with national parliaments. This should be accompanied with a peoples’ convention, with a discussion about the crisis. To call for more Union, or to call for a battle for Europe can be important, but then you also have to describe what are the instruments that you have. And we have at least two instruments. The first one is the European Parliament, that is directly elected, even if I do not know if they want to play this. The second one, is the public opinion and the civil society. What do we do with the 1,700 people attending the conference of Cohn-Bendit and Verhofstadt? We also have to orientate them towards some political fallout.

A Europe with meaning

PG: I think there are two main issues where a stronger European Union, or stronger international decision-making is needed. Firstly, there is the ecological issue. Secondly, to defend the democratic system against the ‘big capitalism’, or whatever you like to call it, ‘big finance’ or ‘the market’.  The European Union has done something on certain ecological issues. Far from enough, but there has been a slight tendency.  But concerning financial powers, very little. The proposal of Tobin Tax was interesting, because it is a principle breaking into the monopoly of big finance, and I am really ashamed as a Swede that Sweden was against it. Swedish Greens are of course, in favour of it. But if there could be more credibility in the European Union, as really recovering power to the democratic institutions from financial institutions, there will be, all over Europe, much more enthusiasm for it.

The interesting thing with the USA is that the federal state came from a pragmatic compromise between the people who wanted to have centralisation and the people who wanted to have decentralisation. Afterwards, it became also a theory. – M. Frassoni

It means that before reinforcing democracy, you have to recover sovereignty of the politic against the financial system…

MF: You have to win the majorities at European level.

PG: Absolutely, I mean, that is what the EU is for. I have never been in favour of the breakdown of the European Union that works, because as I’ve said before, to break down the Union that you have already, that is really dangerous.

A conversion to Europe

Maybe a last question to Per Garthon. Why did you change your point of view on the European Union? On the membership of Sweden inside the European Union?

PG: I think the most important explanation was enlargement. When the issue of Swedish membership arose in the early ‘90s, there were only 12 members of the European Union, then with Sweden and Austria, and Finland, it became 15. It was still quite a small group from the whole of Europe, so we were figuring alternatives still. You had the EFTA, which could have been another kind of confederate association. So we had other projects for that, but with enlargement, and finally in 2004, with the enlargement to 25 states, then all alternatives were gone. In my notebook, I noticed that I changed my mind already in 2004. But then for some kind of political reasons, I waited for others.  And then, just a couple of years later, the leaders of the Swedish Green Party came to the conclusion by themselves. They called me and asked, ‘will you support us or will you go against us?’ And I said, “I will support you 100%”.

MF: Also there was a big evolution of the Swedish Greens that we see it today in the European Green Party. Their role in discussion on the future of Europe is extremely constructive. OK, they keep their own views, but they really participate, they table amendments, and we work together really well.

Because they feel they are part of the same movement?

PG: The Greens are not an anti-EU movement, they are a Green movement. For some reasons, call them tactical or whatever, the Swedish Greens were for some years against the membership of the European Union, because it was the wrong body for this cooperation. But we never wanted to have that as our main vision. We were Green. And Greens have always been, and must be, internationalist. We cannot be nationalist. It must be very clear.

If you are not nationalist, what does it mean for you to be a federalist?

PG: To me, federalism, and this is a very formal definition, is a unit which is considered to be one unit in the international arena. That is one member in the United Nations, like the federation of India, the federation of the United States of America, or whatever. A confederation like it is more or less the case of the European Union can have very close links, but its constituent parts, are, if not sovereign, in their own right, members of the international community.

What is Federalism?

Monica, what is your definition?

MF: My definition of federalism is different layers. On some issues you have one voice, which is actually composed and created by the other layers of power.  In the christian origin of federalism, the decentralisation is more underlined than the centralisation. Whereas in the Nordic countries, or in the UK, when you talk about federalism, you actually insist on the single system. But in the normal discussion, it is really the articulation of different levels of power, according to what is needed. For example, when you discuss the single seat in the UN, everybody said, ‘ah, the EU was divided on the question of Palestine’. Well it depends, because if you see the European Parliament, they had a big majority. If you count member states, there were 12 in favour, 10 abstained, and one (the Czech Republic) was against. The European Parliament voted with a very big majority, including the centre-right EPP, and then you had more Member States in favour than against. So what does it mean?  It depends really much on how you count the majorities, and which institutions you count in the majorities.

PG: One difficulty for the European federalism is that most, as I can remember, many federations have been created from a more or less unitary state which has divided up itself.

MF: The interesting thing with the USA is that the federal state came from a pragmatic compromise between the people who wanted to have centralisation and the people who wanted to have decentralisation. Afterwards, it became also a theory. Even if we need some strong idealist elements (no wars, opening to other cultures…) politically, there should also be a pragmatic endeavour, and if there is something to give back to Member States, just do it.

PG: That last thing you said was very important.

MF: I have no problems. We accepted the Swedish amendment in Athens.

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Federalism? What Federalism? A European debate

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