Security and Foreign Policy

To Federate Or Not To Federate

There are no robust arguments to skip federalism, argues Ambassador Jose A. Zorrilla. A federal Europe does not imply that states will lose their identity, but would save the continent from its crumbling nation states.


The whole story of the federation in Europe is kind of puzzling. Many people believe their countries would disappear if we go this way. I remember having read that no less than in Houllebecq, of all writers. But it is not true. Would the Germans stop having their Oktoberfest or speaking their fifty something dialects if, say, their professional soldiers were under European command? It seems as if anything happening inside a nation state is ethnic and common but that is not true. States do contain a lot of ethnic values, but not all of them are national. Try to order a Bordeaux wine in Burgundy or a paella in the Basque country- if you survive let me know. Sometimes to be ethnic and non-national is even compulsory inside a nation state. You can´t sell French or Italian wine. It has to be Sancerre or Chianti or bear the name of any other region; no politics involved. There is nothing more contrary to the European values than ethnic nationalism. And yet, no need to have ethnic spaces as enemies of the European Union- we already have the states.

There is a lot of confusion around the idea of state in a continent. A state is the new modernity of the old polities brought about by the French Revolution. Before that event, loyalty did not go to the people but to the King. No needed to be a national to fight for King and country. Remember Velazquez’s Surrender of Breda; the general receiving the keys of the city happens to be Italian. Richelieu ruled in Odessa, stormed and conquered by the Spanish General de las Rivas. We could go on and on. Then came the Bastille Day and nobility ceased to be of the essence. National origin took over. Some polities did not survive the national onslaught, like Austria and Hungary, for that principle broke the back of the Empire. Their intellectuals knew only too well the bleak future that nationalism was to bring home. If they respected the principle of nationalities the Empire would explode. If they did not, there would be war leading to a loss of nationality. And so, after World War I and President Wilson, nation states took over Empires in Central Europe with a vengeance. If the desire of Bosnia to join Yugoslavia caused 10 million dead, the vagaries of the different “national” minorities in Central Europe caused around 50 million after having brought havoc to the heart of the continent in no less than six mini wars. It seems that finally, after the Second World War, states came to accept that cooperation was better than hostility. In Western Europe the Common Market was under the protectorate of the US. In Eastern Europe the system of security took the form of Russian (oops!, Soviet), occupation. Not to be proud of any of the two alternatives, to be honest. Europe is still waiting to recover.

The next logical step after the demise of the USSR seemed to be to go federal. No enemies to the East meant we could do away with the American protectorate. But here is where the problems began. Leaving aside the question of “national” identity, thornier questions started to show up. Should we accept laws and bylaws written by non-elected officials? Before answering, ponder the following question- is the President of the Bank of England an elected authority? Again, should we act as told by courts of Justice not our own? Well, the World Trade Organization tells you what to do and if you depart from the norm you have to pay a fine. It is not the only court passing sentences. In fact, there are no robust arguments to skip federalism. If you want to be something in world affairs that is. Unless you consider that to be the spokesperson of a foreign power is the best alternative to true greatness. This is the British persuasion. Odd indeed to consider strategy of what other nation states have decided what is best for you. I understand that in a country where accent continues to be a brand of class and class a barrier, to be a global butler may be inspirational. After all, only the butler is allowed to talk to the masters. But my idea of greatness is not vicarious but real. I will offer as an explanation that Brits, liking to see themselves as masters of deception, from Kim to James Bond, have decided to go for the whole hog and fool themselves.

Not that France is free from guilt. They pose as the defenders of the European faith, whatever that means. Then Juncker had a good idea. To blend the President of the Commission and the President of the Council into one single dignity and offer the post to the most voted political party. Who said no? The Jean d´Arc of Europe: France.

Of course, the mother of all doubts came with Putin. Was Russia to be trusted not to invade Western Europe? Was NATO our shield before the Bear? Believe it or not, it is the proper question that should be asked nowadays. According to the answer you are in or out the fold. Not so different from the thirties of the 20th century, where Hitler became the litmus test of a true gentleman. If you were for you were in. In our days if you think Putin is an evil incarnate, you are one of ours. Beware to dissent if you have a career to nurture.

Back to our subject, we have to begin seeing the so called nation state as what it is. Something relatively modern and far from the container of a heavenly identity whose immutability justifies even the sacrifice of life. It is more precise to see it as the container of different ethnic realities that happen to be together by historical logic, or if you prefer, by serendipity. In the case of Europe as the brake to more rational forms of political organization, there is no need to mythologize our states. They were instrumental, right now they are dysfunctional.  Karl Marx put it very well when he discussed peasants. He compared them to potatoes in a sack. They may be as close as they can be. Yet they do not blend. Picture the states as the potatoes of the European dream. And counting. For as the denominator of world affairs continues to grow, our European polities continue to shrink. It is as inevitable as death and taxes.

I will end by sharing with you a couple of perplexities. One- the most ardent defenders of a political federation are the most ardent defenders of the US and the Atlantic link. Yet, when I urge them to extend this recipe of greatness to Europe they say no, no. Alright, I reply. Let´s go the other way round. Advise the Americans to turn their 52 states into sovereign entities. Say, New Jersey, Vermont or Dakota would be great additions to the cluster of nation states, don´t you think? Well, second perplexity, they call me nuts. But I am not insane, believe me. Just playing by the rules of elementary logic.

An additional argument in favour of federation is to build a barrier before regional aspirations. Most of these would-be polities, say Corsica or Catalonia, want to become states true stock and barrel. As if we did not have enough of that in Europe! Call it the syndrome of keeping up with the Joneses fostered by the crumbling of the classic nation state, far from the days of hope and glory. Now picture yourself in a federal Europe. What would be the sense of all these regional fancies? None whatsoever. As I see things, both inside and outside our sovereign states’ federation continues to be a good idea. It is not going to prevent Spaniards from taking naps in summer or Germans from drinking beer. It could, however, prevent other not so innocent behaviours and drive international events in a direction more to our liking.

Ambassador Jose A. Zorrilla is a career diplomat from Spain with postings in Milan (1989), Toronto (1993), Shanghai (2001), Moscow (2004), and Tbilisi (2009). He has published a book on the rise of China “China la primavera que llega” (China, the spring that arrives) and shot two documentary films (“Los Justos” (The Righteous) and “El desierto y las olas” (The Desert and the Waves)) and one full length film “El Arreglo” (The Deal) that won the Opera Prima Prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival in 1983.  He has just published a novel “El espía en Saratov” (The Spy in Saratov) (De Librum Tremens) and “Historia fantástica de Europa” (An Imaginary History of Europe). He is a frequent contributor to El Mundo with articles focusing mostly on current affairs.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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