December 1998

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European federalism opposed by the Nordic left

Defined as development towards a federal state, European federalism seems to be a difficult issue for leading politicians in most EU countries. The strongest support for the idea so far came recently from the German foreign minister Joschka Fischer in a newspaper interview. According to Hannu Reime, it has come as a surprise to many Finns that in continental Europe federalist views are being heard mainly from the left and the Greens.

During the Swedish elections last September the leader of the Left Party was asked whether her party had abandoned the traditional internationalism of the labour movement when it so stubbornly opposed European integration. Gudrun Schyman replied that democracy is possible only within the framework of the nation-state.

The Swedish Greens were even more fiercely against the EU than Schyman. In Sweden like in Finland and other Nordic countries the opposition to integration is most common in various branches of the left and, more widely, in the so-called alternative movements.

Politics makes strange bed-fellows. This is certainly true about attitudes to integration. In Finland and other Nordic countries the anti-EU front also includes religious fundamentalists and the nationalistic right. The only left-wing person in Finland who has openly supported a European federal state for a long time is the veteran Communist Party leader Aarne Saarinen, now retired.

In continental Europe the situation has always been a little different. The most favourable views on integration have been heard from the left and the Greens. However, federalism has long been something of a taboo subject which people try to avoid. The Finnish Prime Minister, Paavo Lipponen, who was partly responsible for taking Finland into the EU, refused to talk about federalism at a luncheon with diplomatic correspondents a few weeks ago.

Now the leader of the German Greens and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has spoken openly about the issue. He thinks that creating a European federation is an important task for our time. But he talks specifically about a federation, not a unitary nation-state because European nations have their own languages, history, values, loves and hates, as Fischer put it.

Similar views have been expressed by Moshé Machover, Professor of Philosophy at King’s College in London – although in Britain opposition to integration is concentrated in the Conservative Party. Machover is a life-long socialist and as a mathematician has studied the decision-making structure of the EU. He thinks that the difference between a federal state and a unitary state has been deliberately blurred.

"In Britain, there is a ridiculous misconception about the meaning of federalism. They equate federalism with a unitary state, and they use the slogan of federalism as a bogeyman to frighten the British people as though it was a very centralist concept. But federalism in the true sense is not over-centralisation. On the contrary, it means that the structure at the top is more or less loose, that it is really federal: the member countries retain a lot of their independence, sovereignty, and certainly autonomy."

Machover sees no reason why the left should oppose federalism. Capital operates globally, why not the labour movement as well. Behind such ideas there is the realisation that in a world where money moves from one country or continent to another in nanoseconds the only way to protect the welfare state and other achievements of advanced capitalism is through labour co-operation across borders. At least federalism cannot make this kind of co-operation more difficult.

This is a slightly edited translation of a commentary broadcast by the Finnish Broadcasting radio news on 1 December 1998.

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