Democracy

More federalism, More Autonomy, More Connections!

The seemingly interminable crisis that a growing number of European citizens are undergoing reinforces their distrust of the Institutions. What we have witnessed over these past months is deeper than a crisis of confidence. There is an ever growing hostility regarding financial, economic and political systems. This hostility is understandable: social systems have been put under extreme pressure; social inequalities are exploding, in particular in countries that have been affected by the debt crisis. Nationalisms and selfishness have resurfaced everywhere. The European project is directly threatened and the future of European integration itself is at stake.

Europe does not need less federalism

What should we, as environmentalists, propose to respond to this situation? My reply is simple and at the same time complex. We must dare to have more federalism.  At European level as well as at state level and in Europe, as well as in Belgium. Even if it is more difficult to do so, in these times of crisis, we do not really have a choice. The crisis cannot be fought with less federalism. This is a self-obvious fact that we must absolutely insist upon against all demagogues.

Two recent examples have convinced me of this. On the one hand, recent industrial closures in Lorraine, in Wallonia and in Flanders, as well as in other parts of Europe show the absolute necessity of a common industrial policy. This is even more dramatic than the ECSC – the European Coal and Steel Community – which was one of the initial projects on which the European Community was built. On the other hand, the difficulties that European environmentalists are currently facing in the implementation of energy transition must be tackled jointly. We must develop a Europe of renewable energy and implement the IRENE (Infrastructure Roadmap for Energy Networks in Europe) project which is indispensable to strengthen the global legitimacy of EU climate policy.

Federalists because we’re environmentalists, environmentalists because we’re federalists

Why have environmentalists always been federalists and what does this initial association between environmentalism and federalism mean? The example of Belgium gives us an opportunity to comprehend this paradigm. We have since somewhat forgotten, but if today we enjoy successful close cooperation between Belgian green parties, Groen (Flemish speaking party) and Ecolo (French speaking party), and have cooperated since their creation at the end of the 1970s – it is exactly because they were created as federalist parties from the get go. They were not created from a linguistic schism of a national party split into two linguistic factions like the former united Belgian political parties. They were created separately and found common ground independently, united in the same rejection of destructive nationalism that provoked two world wars. For them, the Belgian unitary state of the time did not permit combining autonomy and solidarity harmoniously, decentralisation and broader democratic participation, and the respect for differences, without which there can be no recognition of any common origins. This is also why they have continued to engage in the European Green Party, as Europe is, in their eyes, the best means to overcome nationalism and to ensure the peaceful coexistence of identities and a multiplicity of roots.

Autonomy as interdependence

How should we rebuild federalism in Belgium and in Europe? The following three principles that I would like to propose illustrate with concrete institutional propositions a means as to how this can be achieved.

The first principle obliges us to strike a fair balance between the principles of autonomy, cooperation and solidarity. Indeed, in order to fulfil its role, the federal government must base its intra-state relations on full respect for the autonomy of each constituent part, balanced by the principles of both horizontal and vertical cooperation and solidarity.

This is how, in Belgium, it is important that each region finally occupies an equal place with the other regional component blocs. It is out of the question, in this renewed federalism, to see large entities (Flanders and Wallonia) decide amongst themselves for the smaller ones (Brussels and the German-speaking community). The more autonomy grows, the more it becomes necessary to develop various levels of cooperation between these different entities, in order to not disturb the balance of the federation itself. From a green point of view, there can be no autonomy without recognising these self-same interdependencies, for example between Brussels, Wallonia and Flanders.

The originality of the federal pact is thus the attempt to make autonomy compatible with cooperation, even if this compatibility is still precarious, sometimes limited, and always on show, but definitively real. This obligation requires a balanced distribution of competences, most notably economic and financial, as well as the participation of each federal entity in the development of federal law.

In a federal state like Belgium, it also requires the strengthening of solidarity between people, through interpersonal transfers carried out by taxation and social security. As Phillippe Van Parijs explained, these interpersonal transfers – albeit to a lesser measure than what exists on the European scale – also form a logical extension of the European Monetary Union.

Federal districts to debate a common future

The second principle is based upon a reflection about how to best live together within the federal project. What sense does this project bring for the entities that form it?  And what is the defined project overall? Who defines it? How? It is essential that each entity finds its own specific place in the federation. Where the power of the components is based upon an identity of rejection and of defiance, we can legitimately fear the emergence of separatist impulses. Binding, here, is very important.  Work and the division of labour between the different components, but perhaps the different political parties is essential. This is what takes place at the Belgian level, with the two parties, Ecolo and Groen!, which are the only Belgian political parties to have  formed a common group in the federal parliament, able to overcome our differences to propose new solutions together.

Almost since their inception, Belgian environmentalists have advocated for the creation of a federal district from which part of the Belgian federal parliament would be elected. They would then be better able to build the joint common federal project that we need to renew in Belgium, based on a frank and open discussion of what we wish the country to become in the 21st century in an ever more federal Europe. The Ecolo party in Wallonia pursues the same goal at the Wallonian level where the greens, with certain other progressives, advocate for a Wallonian constituency, more conducive to the production of an overall vision for the future of Wallonia than the current system, which leaves far too much room for sub-localism and egoism.

Similarly, at the European level, environmentalists are fighting for a portion of the Members of the European Parliament to be elected from a common district, from Sweden to Italy and from Ireland to Poland. They think that this would be a very good way to bring European democracy to life. Moreover, they are pursuing the same idea in the organisation of ‘primaries’ to select their candidate for the role of President of the European Commission by the European Parliament. 

Arbitrate conflicts

Thirdly, federal loyalty has to be based upon trust. Trust in institutions, both federal as well as regional, allows for each individual to feel like a citizen of their own country, with trust between different levels of partners, which allows for each entity to feel respected and understood with their own specific differences. Trust again, finally, in consensus and in democratic compromise, which both are indispensable for conflict management. Regulatory mechanisms for the former still have to be found. Also, a system of proportional representation truly protects the interests of minorities much more than a majority system does.

These three major areas must be applied both on the European as well as the national level. Belgium is this wonderful soil where we can create this new federalism.  Skills will be assigned to the level where their management will be most democratic, efficient and appropriate for dealing with them. A strong Belgium must therefore embody four components defined on a territorial basis, linked by declarations of interdependence and solidarity. Each entity would face its responsibilities while maintaining close ties with each other and remaining connected by defining what is more akin to common interests, and a common desire to work together, and to provide for the necessary expertise to do so. This shared common desire allows for new clear and strong voices, advocating for the federation, essential to face emerging global issues. This would also make the rest of the system much more understandable for all citizens. 

History is not a one-way street

Belgian and European federalisms are at a crossroads. Their overhaul is imperative, even if their two stories are different. One is of a nation-state inherited from the 19th century which itself created the very centrifugal forces that today threaten its future. The other is of an almost unique historic construction, born of the rejection of nationalism, which is confronted with their resurgence at the heart of its very operation. In both cases, we have not yet dedicated enough energy in identifying our common interests and reinforcing them. Above all, we have not yet managed to find the happy medium between the respect for differences and necessary strengthening of solidarity.

Democracy itself is the construction of a power – and power comes when men come together, as Paul Ricoeur taught us. We must therefore reinvent democracy, renew the ethical vision we have of power and its organisational methods. Unquestionably, this enchantment requires a federalist pact that will allow for both the development of dialogue between chosen communities to give a new direction to our society. This is what Maurice Schuman already stated as far back as 1950, at the very origin of the European project, when he declared that ‘”Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity’. Never before has any community managed in the long-term to make its wishes respected by coercive measures. We, the greens, are obliged to restore the colours to this project which is part of our origins.

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