Saturday, May 4, 2024

The federalist taboo

Wikipedia defines taboo as “a social group's ban, prohibition, or avoidance of something (usually an utterance or behavior) based on the group's sense that it is excessively repulsive, offensive, sacred, or allowed only for certain people. Such prohibitions are present in virtually all societies. Taboos may be prohibited explicitly, for example within a legal system or religion, or implicitly, for example by social norms or conventions followed by a particular culture or organization.”

People like me will be voting in the next few days in Catalan (May 12th) and European (June 9th) elections. The fact that the same citizens will be electing members of Parliament at two different levels, just above and below the state level (in our case, the Spanish level, on which we voted less than one year ago, a few weeks after we voted for our local representatives in the City Council), illustrates the federal character of our political reality. It is not that different from what happens in the USA, where voters have the right to participate in local, state and federal elections.

However, for some misterious reason, in Catalonia, Spain and Europe, we refuse to call this state of affairs “federal.” OK, perhaps there are historical reasons, or perhaps we are not a complete or a perfect federation, perhaps we lack some elements of that… but also do other realities that call themselves federal: for example, both Spain and Canada, two very decentralized countries, do not have a Senate as a powerful territorial chamber as in Germany, but Canada calls itself federal and Spain does not.

Spain today is Euro-Spain (in the EC since 1986), a member-state in the most integrated core of the EU: member of the euro-zone, and the Schengen area. It does not have an independent army, but it participates in NATO and in UN forces. The old nation state, in this very integrated region, is something of the past, but the sovereignists find this difficult to swallow.

Not only we do not call our federal features by the f word, but many of those in favor of better or more complete federal structures also refuse to call themselves federalists, or cautiously avoid the word. Just recently, two former Italian Prime Ministers, Letta and Draghi, and the French President, Emmannuel Macron, have made proposals (through reports, speeches or interviews) for a more integrated Europe, with stronger federal institutions, but in no part of their arguments does the f word show up.

It is a mistery to me why “federal” and its derivatives are almost taboo words, but sovereign and its derivatives are not. Part of it is the confusion around the term, although many other social or political concepts are also confusing and vague. If political scientists do not agree on a definition of federalism, or on whether Spain is a federation or not (certainly, it is not a unitary state or a confederation), it may be asking too much for people to have a clear idea of it.

But we live in an increasingly interconnected world, we live in a complex adaptive system that must be managed as such. Distributed but connected structures provide more stability and adaptabiblity than centralized or unconnected structures. And it is difficult to think of a better tradition and set of principles, other than federalism, to manage this complex reality.

Rodrik’s trilemma shows that in a hyperglobalized world, we may have to choose between national sovereignty and democracy. Federalism already provides stability to many regions of the world. But it is not a panacea, and there have also been failures and federal roads not taken. The nation-state remains a blueprint to solve conflicts, but it is rarely succeeding, as we see in former Yugoslavia or Israel-Palestine.

In Europe, we need to federate to defend ourselves (a typical motive for federations in history, from classical Greece to American native groups) but also to cooperate internally and externally, to harmonize taxes and fight against tax havens.

The defeat of national sovereignty is slow, as it is the victory of federalism. But there should be no doubt about the necessary winner.

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