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JEF-Europe >About Federalism >Federalist Files >

File 3: The Simple Guide to the Federal Idea by Stephen Woodard

(from Ventotene, Federalism and Politics, The Ventotene Papers of the Altiero Spinelli Institute for Federalist Studies, Ventotene, 1995)

The History of the Federal Idea in Brief


The need to link separate distinct political communities in order to achieve common objectives is an ancient one. Various leagues for specific purposes were created normally for short, identifiable periods of time with a clear objective such as military protection. Some of the better known examples are alliances of Greek city states or mediaeval Italian towns.


More permanent unions were not easily created. First of the modern era would include Switzerland, followed by the Netherlands (the United Provinces) but they were originally very loose unions with weak central authorities.


The United States made the key breakthrough. The states originally formed a loose relationship with weak central government (the Confederation). They replaced this system with a new constitution in 1789 creating the modern United States and defining federalism in its current sense. The arguments in favour of ratifying the federal constitution were made by Hamilton, Madison and Jay in The Federalist Papers, still one of the basic texts of federalist thought.


Following the American experience, federalism - albeit of a parliamentary rather than presidential kind - was used throughout the 19th century in the British Empire as an attempt to hold colonial territories together. Attempts were also made to reshape the Empire itself as an Imperial Federation (I 880s to 1920s). These ambitions came to nothing but the principles of these imperial federalists, particularly Lord Lothian, inspired others. After the First World War the thinking of the imperial federalists turned increasingly toward creating an Atlantic or English-speaking union. Their writings were influential in developing a federalist movement, Federal Union, in Britain between 1938-1940.


Federal Union was primarily concerned with European unity. This organisation had a major impact in the debate in London, both on the British government which proposed an Anglo-French Union and on European governments in exile. One of us most far reaching consequences was that some of the publications of its leading figures found their way to the island of Ventotene where they inspired Altiero Spinelli, confined on the island by the fascist regime, to become a federalist, to write the Ventotene Manifesto and to lead the post-war campaign for a European federal union.


Other Europeans had come to federalism by other means. In the late 18th century, both Saint Simon and Kant had seen the need to unite Europe to achieve peace. De Tocqueville brought the US federal experience into European thought particularly in Germany and France. Proudhon developed federalist thought as a decentralised alternative to the centralisation of the nation state and inspired a theory of social federalism known as integral federalism which won many converts in the 1930s. The work of Coudenhove-Kalergi, a constitutional federalist, lead to the creation of Pan-Europa and to the Briand project for European Federal Union in 1930.


Jean Monnet was influenced by his experience of the failure of League of Nations, his work for the allies in two world wars, his reading of The Federalist Papers and living in London in 1940. Winston Churchill had been aware of plans for imperial federation, had welcomed the Briand project and had endorsed plans for an Anglo-French Union in 1940. He crucially helped launch moves towards European union in a speech in , calling for the creation of a "kind of United States of Europe". These forces came together in the post war period to forge a broad European federalist Movement. This movement split in the late 1950s over attitudes to the European Community but reunited in the early l970s to campaign for its reform. Other federalists have focused primarily on the need for world government.


The Origins of the Term Federal


The word came into English via French from Latin. Foederatus means "bound by treaty" deriving from foedus: treaty and fidere: to trust.


The earliest recorded use of the word in English was by religious 17th century puritans who spoke of "federal theology" meaning a covenant between God and the settlers in America. By late 17th and early I 18th centuries the use of the word had evolved to include agreements between states. By 1721, for example, the term "federation" was being used as meaning a "united league".


Key Characteristics of a Federal Union


The key characteristics of a federal union bringing together independent states are as follows:


1. Rule of Law: Anarchic relations between them are replaced by the rule of law which is guaranteed by common institutions. The law of the union is therefore superior to the law of its member states in the fields defined by its constitution.


2. Law enforcement: To ensure the rule of law these common institutions include law-enforcement bodies such as an Executive and Courts which have independent law-enforcement powers and responsibilities.


3. Applicability: The law of the union is applicable both to its member states and crucially to its individual citizens living within its borders.


4. Independent legislative & policy-making institutions: These common institutions have their own independent legislative process which is distinct from those of the member states. Their laws do not require ratification in the parliaments of its member states.


5. Democracy: The common institutions, as well as those of the member states, are democratic.


6. Constitutionally defined responsibilities: The common institutions are asked to implement common policies where problems are shared in order that these problems may be addressed jointly, but no more. Other levels of government would do everything else. The areas to be addressed in common would normally include commercial policy, monetary union, and security issues. Other policy areas could also be included. The constitution of the union would set down these powers.


Diverse Experience of Federal Union


Some of the earliest unions were of small states binding together for mutual protection. This was the case with the Greek city states and, more durably, Switzerland and the Netherlands.


Many federal states on the world scene are the result of smaller individual states, often towards the end of a colonial regime which organised them separately, coming together to find security and prosperity together. The United States, Canada, Australia and to an extent India are examples of this phenomenon. Some federal states are the result of a decentralisation of power within a state previously created. In this sense, to federate means to decentralise power to important regions or smaller areas of local government. This decentralisation is written into a constitution and these areas of decision-making, once relinquished, can only be recovered by the central state authorities by means of a constitutional amendment. Examples of this are the Federal Republic of Germany, Belgium and to an extent Spain. It is possible to identify basic features of a federal constitution but there is no single model. The constitutions of federal unions are a spectrum: the responsibilities of the different levels of government vary; the nature of their institutions differ; they do not all represent the member states the same way; they have different powers of taxation; some are presidential, others parliamentary; some are very decentralised; some are increasingly centralised. Federal constitutions also evolve with use: some federal unions retain strong decentralised features (Switzerland), others become increasingly decentralised (Belgium), and others become more centralised (USA).


The European Union is following an entirely unprecedented path. Whilst similar in some respects to the some of the examples above, it is in other ways profoundly different. A new kind of federal union is being created where established states, many with long histories, are trying work together in shared institutions which are democratic and effective to ensure peace between them and to provide the strength to face shared problems together.


Early Origins of the Federal Idea: the Historic Problem


Federalism developed as a response to the ancient question of how to link separate political communities together in order to pursue effectively objectives unobtainable alone, but without submerging their own identities. The most pressing of these aims were normally to overthrow an oppressor or to defend against a larger aggressor. Attempts were made to form leagues in Greece, particularly in the 3rd and 4th centuries, and in mediaeval Italy, for example, but these tended to be short-lived.


Two of the more permanent alliances were Switzerland and the United Provinces (the Netherlands).




One of the earliest successful attempts to create something more durable was the founding, in 1291, of a union of the "Waldstätte" - three forest cantons. This was a perpetual alliance: for the settlement of disagreements among themselves by arbitration; for the punishment of crime; for resort to law rather than to violence; for mutual defence.


It grew rapidly in the 14th century and was powerful by the mid 15th century. It had the "values of federalism rather than institutions" and was reformed by a new constitution in 1848 which was inspired by the American model.


The Netherlands: The United Provinces By the Union of Utrecht of 23rd January 1579, the provinces of the low countries, in order to resist Spanish control, united on a "perpetual" basis "for all time as if they were a single province". They resolved to act together in foreign affairs. Decisions on war and taxation required a unanimous vote. Some of these provinces (more or less the provinces now geographically in modern Belgium) were absorbed by Philip II's Spain and effectively left the union. The remaining seven United Provinces declared their independence of Spain in 1581. Their union had a central government, the States-General, but this was very much subordinate to the provinces, among which Holland was dominant. It had the power to carry out the war of independence but had no right of taxation except import/export duties.


This Dutch experience produced one of the earliest federalist thinkers. Johannes Althusius, (1557-1638) a Calvinist, discussed the uniting of towns and provinces in Politica published in 1603 and revised in 1610 & 1614.


The Federalist Breakthrough: the United States of America


There were various attempts to unite the English colonies in America prior to the War of Independence.


New England Confederation: United Colonies of New England


The first of these attempts was the United Colonies of New England in 1643 to protect against Indians and to settle disputes amongst colonies. It brought together Massachusetts, Connecticut, Plymouth, and New Haven. It had a body of 8 representative commissioners. Its main weakness was that Massachusetts, with 15,000 out 23,000 of its population, had only 2 of the commissioners. Within five years this state was asking for another. This made any effective action impossible. In 1652, for example, when England went to war with the United Provinces, Massachusetts opposed an offensive war in America against the New Netherlands, thereby making common action unworkable. The association went into decline after 1665 and died by 1684. Its legacy was important however. John Quincy Adams, one time US President wrote "the New England Confederation of 1643 was the model and prototype of the North American Confederacy of 1774".


William Penn's Plan


Around 1696-97, William Penn proposed a federal-type union amongst the colonies with deputies in a General Assembly. His plan gave little detail on how decisions would be enforced, however. Two Representatives for each often states would meet once every two years in a Congress chaired by a Commissioner sent by the King. His objective was to protect colonial liberties from the English government. The Congress would hear matters of complaint between the provinces, debt chasing, justice, trade, and defence against public enemies. The King's High Commissioner would be Chief Commander of the colonial army in time of war.


Benjamin Franklin & the Albany Plan A meeting of Commissioners from various colonies met in July 1754 following instructions from the British Board of Trade. Benjamin Franklin launched the idea of a colonial Union which was adopted by Commissioners. Franklin's plan involved the creation of a Grand Council as follows:


The Council would have the power to make laws, levy general duties and taxes, and to organise defence. The Council would meet once a year. Its 48 representatives would be elected by the colonial assemblies once every three years. The number of state representatives would vary between 2 & 7, depending on money contributed. The Council would be presided over by a President-General appointed by the crown. Although supported by the Commissioners, it went beyond public opinion and was rejected by the colonial assemblies. Somewhat ironically, on the rejection of this scheme, the English Parliament decided instead to tax the colonies directly to provide for their defence.


The Articles of Confederation


The confederation formed during the War of Independence was a weak union of the states. Each state had the same number of representatives which met in the Congress. There was no effective Executive. As a result tension amongst the states grew, particularly over trade issues, and states failed to provide their contributions to the common budget for common services such as defence.


The Annapolis Convention Madison urged the Virginia state legislature to invite stales to meet in Annapolis "to consider how far a uniform system in their commercial relations may be necessary to their common interest and permanent harmony." This Convention failed. Only 12 delegates from 5 states attended. But it called for a new convention: to deliberate on all measures necessary to cement the union of the states and promote their permanent tranquillity and security"'; to assemble on the second Monday in May of the following year [1787] in Philadelphia".


The Philadelphia Convention


At Philadelphia the delegates in the convention agreed oil Madison's analysis of their common problems but disagreed about the solution. Some had vested interests in the status quo. Others had t belief that republican government, i.e. free and democratic, could only be secured in a small state and that any larger state must inevitably become imperial and tyrannical.


The constitution of the USA was therefore, somewhat ironically, simply a compromise between two groups of supporters of unitary state. Men like Washington, Hamilton and Madison wanted to replace the several states with a strong national government and others, like Patrick Henry, wanted to defend the rights of the states. Their thinking on unitary government was shaped by their own experience of British politics They knew the rights of representative assemblies which the colonies had used and they had an understanding of the British constitution This under standing was influenced by the explanations of Montesquieu who had tried to describe how it worked A single figure the King was in charge of the Executive; a representative House of Commons and a more senior House of Lords formed the legislature; and a separation of powers between the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary was imposed. These features were used as the basic format of the US constitution.


The Compromise: the Birth of the First Federal Union


The compromise between the supporters of a national government and a loose league of states involved characteristics of both systems: a President, a Court and a House elected by the people for the supporters of national government, the limitation of powers together with a powerful Senate based on equal representation of the states for the supporters of states' rights.


On completion James Madison could only describe the new constitution, which does not mention the word federal, as partly national, partly federal as the document had some characteristics of both. After this point though the term federal shed its previous meaning as a league and was redefined to give it its modern meaning. The supporters of the new constitution seized the word federal to describe the new arrangement in order to emphasise the decentralised nature of the union rather calling it national which would have done the reverse.


So the new constitution made the key break-through in empowering this league to be the first to overcome its institutional deficit, i.e. the union had the powers to match its responsibilities. Although much remained from the Articles of Confederation, the new text made the changes necessary to define a new system of government. Perhaps above all others, it linked the union's institutions to its people: the direct applicability of its laws to the individual and the accountability of its central government to the individual. As Tocqueville would write over forty years later: "This constitution, "which at first glance one is tempted to confuse with previous federal constitutions, in fact rests on an entirely new theory, a theory that should be hailed as one of the great discoveries of political science of our time. In America, the Union's subjects are not states but private citizens. Former federal governments had to confront whole peoples, the Union confronts individuals It does not borrow its powers, but draws them from within. It has its Own administrators, courts, officers of justice and army".


It is worth noting incidentally that this compromise almost went too far for many and almost failed to be ratified, with close votes in several states:


Massachusetts: 187-168 New Hampshire: 57-46 Virginia: 89-79 New York: 30-27 North Carolina and Rhode Island actually voted against.


It was for the purpose of winning support in New York that Hamilton, Madison and Jay wrote The Federalist Papers as a series of short tracts subsequently collated together. It is worth noting that the constitution of the USA has since changed in its operation becoming more centralised, as the result of formal amendments and changes in the environment in which it is used:


the civil war in the 1860s nationalised US politics, for example: instead of referring to the United States as they it became common to say it; in the early 20th century the Senate ceased to be appointed by the states' assemblies but became directly elected; income tax was introduced which substantially increased the potential powers of the central government.


These changes in attitude and Constitution led to new powers being placed in the hands of the central government during the twentieth century by specific crises and policy decisions such as the depression and the subsequent New Deal, two world wars and the Great Society programme of the 1960s.


Early Federalist Thought in Europe


Many had argued that the states of Europe should unite to keep the peace amongst them such as, for example, King George of Podebrad, King Henry of Navarre and his minister Sully. Essentially they had in mind a league of monarchies to keep the peace and defend Christendom against external threat from primarily the Turks.


In the eighteenth century the idea started to grow in political substance. This process was boosted by the American experience. For example, in 1779 Saint Simon wrote: "Europe would be better organised if all its nations, though each ruled by its own Parliament, recognised the supremacy of a general Parliament; standing above all the governments and invested with the power to decide on their disputes."


After the French Revolution European thinking on federalism focused on two concerns: first how to unite Europe's states for peace and secondly how to avoid the dangers and threats of centralised governments.


As a consequence of these differing viewpoints, for the subsequent history of federalism there are three strands of federalism to be followed:


Constitutional federalism: Anglo-Saxon thinking Constitutional federalism: Continental European thinking Social or integral federalism


There were many links between them, particularly in the early 19th century. All three would come together in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War before the integral federalists largely left the European federalist movement, which remained a movement of a united constitutional federalist.


Federalism in Opposition to the Jacobin state


One of the earliest references to federalism in Europe appears in 1793 during the French Revolution when Robespierre condemned attacks on the state as "la guerre civil et le fédéralisme". Federalism had become a rallying point for opponents of the centralisation of the Jacobin regime leading some regions to reject the power of the Jacobin National Assembly. The federalists were brutally suppressed.


Kant - Peace and Decentralisation


Kant touched on both of these themes of peace and opposition to centralised states in his 1795 essay On Perpetual Peace:


"Federalism, from the Latin word 'foedus', means contract, pact, treaty or convention; it implies an agreement, thanks to which one or more heads of the family, one or more local communities, one or more groups of communities or States commit in equality themselves and each other to reach one or more particular objectives; the achievement of these objectives belongs exclusively and particularly to the delegates of the federation.


In substance, the federal system is the opposite of administrative centralism, a system which characterises... the unitarian democracies.... In a federation, the competences of the central authority are limited. ... On the contrary, in the centralised governments, the competences of the supreme authority multiply, become larger and more direct, and the supreme organ is finally empowered to intervene in the affairs of the region, the community and each individual citizen. From this derives the oppression of centralism, under which disappear not only the regional and communities' liberties, but also those of the individual and of the nation."


Social Federalism


Winkelbech, 15 years before Proudhon, discovered the social potentials of federalism. Winkelbech regarded federalism as a kind of social organisation with basic units as nineteenth century versions of mediaeval guilds. As a consequence, decisions would be the result of consultation, conciliation and consensus.


Winkelbech inspired Constantin Frantz. He argued that for people to act in a federal manner meant that they were able to decide on joint action without losing individuality. Constantin Frantz wrote that "Federalism allows its elements to administer themselves" and enthused about social federalism rather than its constitutional form.


Proudhon developed federalist thought as a decentralised alternative to the centralisation of the nation state in his book Du principe fédératif. He too was interested in the social aspects of federalism and in its application to local communities and groups. This thinking inspired personalism in 1930s and developed into the integral federalism of Alexandre Marc, Denis de Rougement, and, to a lesser extent, Henri Brugmans. Integral federalism was opposed to both individualist philosophies and collectivist philosophies. Every individual was a Person free and responsible. Self-administration in local communities such as neighbourhood and workplaces would be the basis of this social federalism.


Constitutional Federalism: Continental European Thought


During the 19th century


Madame de Stäel suggested that federalism represented the next stage of representative government. Benjamin Constant in Principles of Politics (1815) wrote about "new federalism" as a system in which communes and provinces would control their own affairs leaving only matters of general concern to central government. He left the constitutional means unclear. The American federal experience was brought to the fore in Europe following the publication of De Tocqueville's book De la Démocracie en Amerique.Others focused exclusively on the constitutional version of federalism.


In Italy Mazzini, immediately after founding Giovine Italia, founded Giovine Europa to advocate European unity. He believed that if nationality was organised, supranationality must be as well. Carlo Cattaneo opposed the nation-state and supported European unity. He sought to transform the Habsburg empire into a democratic federal union on the US model and also argued that "we shall never have peace until we founded the United States of Europe."


In France, inspired by Victor Hugo, the International League for Peace & Freedom had been founded with a magazine Les Etats Unis d'Europe. Somewhat oddly it became a champion of the idea of the League of Nations in 1917.


In Germany, Bismarck used tactical support for a version of federalism to strengthen the central bodies of the state. Many federalists were opposed to centralised rule but were out of step with public opinion. Bismarck was in fact able to use public opinion to centralise the state, by backing the popular Reichstag, rather than the elitist and remote Bundesrat. Prussia dominated anyway. Ironically, Bismarck came to see the benefits of federalism as a means of controlling nationalism too late after his loss of power.


After World War One


In the post-war period, particularly as enthusiasm for the League of Nations waned, the idea of uniting Europe in a federal union was reasserted.


Sir Max Waechter, a German born British industrialist, had taken up the federalist cause in 1909. In 1924 he published How to Abolish War: the United States of Europe in which he wrote: "Europe is gradually losing its position in the world. My starting point is the absolute impossibility of Europe being able to hold its own against American competition". Japan, he wrote, "may soon become one of Europe's most formidable rivals in the field of trade and technology". Waechter saw European federation as being based on a common market and founded the European Unity League to advance these ideas but it never really became a going concern.


Count Coudenhove-Kalergi launched Pan-Europa (1926) to campaign for a European federal union. His work would influence three key events:


the French Prime Minister Briand's plan for such a European union in 1930; Winston Churchill's speech in Zurich in 1946; the European Movement's support for a European Assembly in the 1940s.


Briand in a speech to the League of Nations produced a vague plan in a diplomatic overture to Germany for European unity in 1929. He had been interested in the possibilities of European union for several years and had been in contact with Coudenhove-Kalergi since 1927. Indeed he had asked the French Ambassador to report on the first Pan-Europa meeting in 1926 and had agreed subsequently to stand as honorary President of the French section. He acted on his beliefs for practical reasons in 1929 in order to meet certain political and above all economic needs such as responding to US protectionism. His speech to the League on 5th September 1929 was vague. He argued in favour of "organising Europe". It was May 1930 before he published his Memorandum on the Organisation of a System of European Federal Union by which time any momentum had been lost. Several states had by then taken positions either indifferent or hostile to the idea. The result was that the European members of the League of Nations formed a Committee of Enquiry into European Union but this was little more than a face-saving device.


The idea of a European federal union, nonetheless, inspired many others in this period. Edouard Herriot, for example, wrote The United States of Europe (1931). Many others argued this case: Luigi Einaudi, Giovanni Agnelli, Andrea Cabiati, Maurice Renoult, Bertrand de Jouvenel, Roger Manuel, Herman Kranold, Sobei Mgoi, Edo Fimmen.


Although these ideas were in the background, the birth of modern European federalism had to a large extent different and somewhat paradoxical origins: the belief in federalism in the British Empire.


Constitutional Federalism: The Anglo-Saxon School




Following the American experience, the British became increasingly interested in the federal idea during the 19th century.


John Stuart Mill in On Liberty put federalism in the context of individual's struggle for freedom against authority. Federalism offered the advantage of being a dispersal of power. Edward E. Freeman wrote a history of Federal Government in Greece & Italy published in 1863. Seeley wrote that federal union is the "most efficacious and the most congenial of all the checks on centralised oppression of minorities".


By the late 19th century, work on American federalism and federal solutions to British imperial and other international problems was becoming substantial. In the second half of the century more academic research was being undertaken into federalism and the American constitutional experience. Writers such as Freeman, James Bryce, Lord Acton, John Morley, John Dymond, Charles Donald Farquharson, Brooke Foss Westcott were looking at problems of war and peace.


British Imperial federalism


This takes two forms:


the need to unite certain colonial territories, and the need to retain the unity of the Empire.


uniting Colonial territories Many adjacent colonial territories were linked to Britain but not to each other. This was the case in America prior to the War of Independence and it was the case in Canada and Australia too.




The first proposal to unite British North America was made by Chief Justice Smith in 1791 and it was reiterated by Lord Durham during his 1838 mission to investigate the possibility of linking the two Canadas -upper & lower (roughly speaking modem Ontario and Quebec). Following the Quebec Conference of 10th October 1864 and the consequent British North America Act of 1867, a federation was established.




Progress in uniting the Australian territories was painfully slow. It was first proposed in 1847 to unite the four separate Australian territories in a federal union as the various states were imposing hostile tariffs on each other. The debate continued throughout the 1850s and 1860s. At an inter-colonial conference in 1883 a federal Council with legislative but no executive powers was proposed. The British Parliament did in fact pass an Australasian Federal Council Act in 1885 but this was not implemented. A National Convention which met in Sydney in March 1891 wrote a constitution, but the state legislatures did not ratify it. They did however eventually pass legislation to enable directly-elected persons to meet in a convention which took place in 1897. This broke the deadlock. In 1898 a bill was put to the popular vote, subsequently revised, then sent to London for approval. This was given by Parliament on 3 July 1900. Australia was born on 1st January 1901.


South Africa


In South Africa discussion about federating the country in the aftermath of the war between the British and the Boers failed, but the consequences of this debate were important.


The British leader in South Africa, Lord Milner, assembled a group of young men, known as the Kindergarten, to work on the proposals to federate South Africa. This group included Philip Kerr, later to become Lord Lothian.




The idea of devolving power to Ireland, to reconcile its people to membership of the United Kingdom, was discussed frequently during the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was first taken up by Daniel O'Connell in the 1830s and picked up by William Sharman Crawford in 1839 and the 1 840s. Isaac Butt argued in the 1 870s that federalism was required as "only an application of the general principle of freedom, which maintains local privileges against the despotism of central power".


Between the 1880s and 1920 various schemes for 'home rule' for Ireland were discussed. Some involved Scotland, England and Wales ('home rule all round'). Some were even endorsed by the House of Commons. They all failed as, at different times, the nationalists thought they did not go far enough, the unionists felt they went too far, some did not want Ireland to be treated differently from Scotland and Wales, and others argued that the Scots and Welsh showed no dissatisfaction with the status quo. The issue of Irish representation in the UK Parliament was never resolved; no solution achieved a consensus support.




Lothian, who knew India well from visits, became attracted to idea of all-India federation. He was a delegate to the important 1931 Round Table Conference and became Under Secretary at the India Office. A federal plan, put on the statute book but never implemented, was influential on the post-independence constitution.


Imperial Federation


It was against the background of interest in federation and the debates over federating various colonial territories that thinking about federating the Empire took place. This occurred in two waves.


Firstly, the Imperial Federation League was launched on 29 July 1884 to "secure by Federation the permanent unity of the Empire". It was supported by many senior and prominent British and colonial statesmen, but it collapsed in December 1893 following the rejection of a detailed federal plan by Gladstone's government.


Secondly, members of Lord Milner's Kindergarten including Philip Kerr (subsequently Lord Lothian), Lionel Curtis, Leopold Amery, FS Oliver (biographer of Hamilton), and Edward Grigg formed around 1909-10 The Round Table whose aim was the "organic unity" of the Empire. This avoided specific plans and stuck to arguing for the principle. This effort was reinforced by discussion in Britain about abandoning free trade and creating a protected, united imperial economy. But history was moving away from them. The white colonial territories were gaining in self-governing responsibilities with "Dominion Status". They saw no need to support an imperial federation. After the First World War the idea faded, and the Statute of Westminster of 1931 killed it once and for all.But the significance of the principles of imperial federation lay in the diverted efforts of their supporters after its collapse. They turned their attention to other applications of federalism.


Imperial Federalists Become International Federalists


Lord Lothian' 5 thinking moved on from imperial federation to international federation, primarily amongst English-speaking countries. He had picked up on some of the late 19th century British imperial federalists such as WT Stead who believed in the wider applicability of federalism. Stead had, for example, written that "as an empire we must federate or perish" but he had also published a book: The United States of Europe on the Eve of the Parliament of Peace in 1899 (The Hague Peace Conference was the Parliament of Peace be had in mind). By 1915 Lothian was arguing for "an organic union of the world". Lord Lothian gave a lecture in Williamstown USA in August 1922, entitled The Prevention of War; on the need for federalism to end the anarchy prevailing in international relations. He developed this theme in Pacifism is not Enough, nor Patriotism Either, the Burge Memorial Lecture, on 28 May 1935.


Federal Union


Three young men from Oxford, Charles Kimber, Derek Rawnsley, and Patrick Ransome, felt desperately that the threat of world war could be averted if the states of Europe united. Kimber and Rawnsley had initially known nothing about federalism but believed that a European league with a supranational parliament, law enforcement capability and common defence was required to maintain the peace. When they approached Ransome, it was he who understood that what they sought was in fact a federal Europe. To this end they began in 1938 to seek help from others to establish an effective campaign. They contacted Lothian and Curtis who helped introduce them to others including the Astors, Beveridge, Bevin, Morrison, Robbins and Sinclair. Lothian wrote Federal Union's first substantial pamphlet, The Ending of Armageddon "War is inherent in the relations between sovereign states. For when agreement falls the only instrument by which the sovereign state can defend its existence and its rights or promote its ends, legitimate or illegitimate, is by a resort to force A second consequence of this anarchy of sovereignties is that every state is inevitably driven to sacrifice the rights and independence of its own citizens in order to increase its own strength in the struggle for existence. ... A third consequence of sovereignty is its effect in producing poverty, unemployment, social frustration and despair. Sovereignty inevitably leads to economic nationalism, whereby each state tries to be self-supporting, promotes the interests of its own nation regardless of the economic interests of other nations and erects ever-increasing interferences with international trade, migration and the movement of capital.


The only final remedy for this supreme and catastrophic evil of our time is a federal union of the peoples so that while every nation is completely self-governing in its own internal affairs all the people are united into a single Commonwealth for their common affairs.


The Americans, confronted with the problem of uniting states which, in separating from Great Britain, had already established their own sovereignty, discovered the federal principle whereby the powers and functions of government were divided between states and commonwealth. This discovery made possible the development of a system of federal union which combined complete state autonomy with democratically controlled reign of law on a continental scale.


The task today is to create a constitutional construction which represents a step beyond the present federations of states or provinces, to bring into being a federal union of nations which will give free play to national differences and feelings and at the same time organically unite all their inhabitants under constitutional law which itself will end war, preserve liberty and make prosperity secure. The essence of federal union is to unite the peoples under a government of laws and principle rather than of men. Differences existed however. Kimber, Rawnsley and Ransome were above all interested in European union whilst Lothian and Curtis were attracted to Atlantic federation, particularly as expressed in a hook by Clarence Streit, Union Now!, published in 1939. This argued for the creation of a union of 15 democracies which would include a common citizenship, a defence force, a tariff-free market, a currcncy, and a postal system. Lothian himself had supported European federation in an article in Christian Science Monitor in 1938, but did not think Britain should be part of it.


The membership of Federal Union rose by 1940 to 10,000 with 227 branches and important Council meetings. It launched a research body called the Federal Union Research institute which continues to exist to this day as the Federal Trust for Education and Research. It won the support of The Times, Guardian, and New Statesman, and created a broad establishment consensus in favour of federal union. It was the background to Churchill's offer of an indissoluble union with France in 1940 about which Churchill's Assistant Private Secretary, Sir John Colville wrote: "We had before us the bridge to a new world, the first elements of European or even world federation."


The Birth of Modern European Federalism


Altiero Spinelli and the Ventotene Manifesto


Altiero Spinelli was sent by the fascists into internal exile on Ventotene in July 1939. Spinelli had broken with the Communists in 1937 and had been thinking about the problems of democracy when he came across work by Einaudi criticising the League of Nations and arguing for European federation. It was as a result of this enquiry that he became a federalist as he writes in his memoirs: "When asked by Rossi, who, as a Professor of Economics, had been authorised to correspond with him a long time before, Einaudi sent him two or three little books on English federalist literature which flourished at the end of the thirties thanks to Lord Lothian' 5 efforts. Apart from Lionel Robbins's book The Economic Causes of War, which I translated and which was published by Einaudi, I do not remember either the titles or the authors of other books. But their analysis of the political and economic perversion to which nationalism leads and their reasoned presentation of the federalist alternative have remained in my mind to this day as a revelation. Since I was seeking clarity and precision of thought, my attention was not attracted by the contorted and hardly coherent ideological federalism of the Proudhonian or Mazzinian type, which throve in France or in Italy, but by the clean, precise and anti-doctrinaire thought of the English federalists... who proposed to transplant into Europe the great America political experience."


As a result of this revelation, Spinelli wrote, with Ernesto Rossi, the Ventotene Manifesto as a call for a new Europe after the war. The Manifesto was smuggled out to Rome in 1941. Walter Lipgens, the historian of post-war European unity, describes how it caused "a considerable stir in the many opposition groups during the following months and became one of the basic documents of the European federalist movement". These federalists in the resistance movements started organising federalist meetings from about 1943 onwards and together with representatives of Federal Union were the principal creators of the European Union of Federalists (EUF or later UEF) in 1947 and the Young European Federalists (JEF) in 1948. Initially these movements were broad, uniting supporters of both integral (social) and constitutional federalism and supporters of European and world federal unions.


In the event the integral federalists gave way to the constitutionalists and the world federalists created their own organisations.


Winston Churchill Propels the idea of European Unity Forward


Winston Churchill had long supported European unity as a way of ending Europe's decline. He had, for example, supported the Briand plan for "European Federal Union" in 1930 writing in the Saturday Evening Post of 15th February 1930: "The mass of Europe, once united, once federalised or partly federalised, once continentally self-conscious, would constitute an organism beyond compare ... We see nothing but good and hope in a richer, freer, more contented European commonalty".


In 1939 he had advocated a supra-national peace keeping force in Europe. In 1940 he proposed an indissoluble union with France. Between 1942 and 1944 he had spoken several times of the need to unite post war Europe under a "Council of Europe" with power to enforce its decisions. In July 1945, in an address to both houses of the Belgian Parliament, he said: "I see no reason why, under the guardianship of a world organisation, there should not arise the United States of Europe, which will unify this Continent in a manner never known since the fall of the Roman Empire, and within which all its peoples may dwell together in prosperity, injustice and in peace".


It was in a series of speeches and articles between 1946 and 1948 that he articulated in more detail his vision The starting point for this was a speech given in Zurich on 19th September 1946 In this speech Churchill stated the objective as follows it is to re create the European family or as much of it as we can, and provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom We must build a kind of United States of Europe."


He went on to call for a Europe based on a partnership between France and Germany" The impact of the Zurich speech was enormous. In the words of Lipgens, "then suddenly, in the last week of September 1946, almost exactly a year after the subject had been despondently abandoned, the idea of a United States of Europe again hit the headlines on account of a single speech by a famous man, and politicians in office found themselves obliged, or able, to take notice of it once more That this plea for European unity "was not a cry in the wilderness from some unknown member of the European resistance, but came from of the 'Big Three' leaders of the victorious coalition" reinvigorated the movement for European unity. It lead to the creation of the European Movement as a broad church, rallying all organisations, including the federalists, in support of European unity. It first success was in calling for the creation of the Council of Europe. This proved, however, a disappointment and lead to federalist ambitions being furthered by another body.


Jean Monnet and the First Supra-national Communities: a Federalist Bridgehead


Jean Monnet had seen the Council of Europe fail to live up to federalist expectations. He decided that the way forward was to take a specific need and to design a solution with the institutional power to meet the need. In effect this meant using federalist principles to create a supranational body. This approach, often described as functionalist, is frequently contrasted with the federalist which wanted a full blown federal constitution at once. In fact the main difference was the speed and methodology rather than the objective. Monnet persuaded Robert Schuman, Foreign Minister of France, to launch a new initiative to create a supra-national organisation to deal with the problems of the European coal and steel industries and the necessary revival of German industrial power. In the words of the Schuman Declaration of 9th May 1950 proposing the idea: 'The pooling of coal and steel production should immediately provide for the setting up of common foundations for economic development as a first step in the federation of Europe... By pooling basic production and by instituting a new High Authority, whose decisions will bind France, Germany and other member countries, this proposal will lead to the realisation of the first concrete foundation of a European federation indispensable to the preservation of peace".


To advance this idea, on 20th June 1950 France convened an intergovernmental conference (ICC) chaired by Monnet. For Monnet the key was not to burden the new organisation "with the shortcomings of traditional intergovernmental agencies: insistence on unanimity; national financial contributions; and executive subordinate to national representatives."


Once the European Coal and Steel Community was agreed, ratified and launched, Monnet described the breakthrough as follows:


"According to the methods of the past, even when the European states have been convinced of the necessity of a common action, even when they have set up an international organisation, they have kept their full sovereignty. Thus the international organisation can neither decide, nor execute, but only address recommendations to the States... Today, on the contrary, six Parliaments have decided after mature deliberation and by massive majorities, to create the first European Community which merges a part of the national sovereignties and submits them to the common interest. Within the limits of competence confirmed by the treaty, the High Authority has received from the six states the mandate to take, in complete independence, decisions which are immediately in force on the whole of their territory. It is in a direct relationship with all firms. It obtains financial resources, not by contributions from states, but from levies imposed directly or indirectly on production... It is responsible, not to the states, but to a European Assembly... The members of the Assembly are not bound by any national mandate ... The Assembly controls our action. It has the power to withdraw its confidence from us. It is the first European Assembly endowed with sovereign powers. The acts of the High Authority are changeable in the courts... not before national tribunals, but before a European tribunal, the Court of Justice".


Spinelli was working with Monnet at the time and helped him prepare the speech when this was said on 10th August 1952. In short they had created an organisation in which: "The sovereign powers delegated to common institutions are exercised by a set of bodies which are the first European federal structures. There is a system of balance and control which ensures democratic control of all decisions".


Federalist Directions for the Communities: the Contribution of Spinelli


It is not the purpose of this paper to describe the history of the European Communities and Union but we should note two further initiatives in which Altiero Spinelli played a major role in shaping the Community system.


European Defence Community


This was suggested by Monnet to the French Prime Minister Réné Pleven. It was to be a method of incorporating Germany into a European defence system. Its weakness was that it did not provide for democratic political control. Spinelli proposed in a memorandum to the Italian Prime Minister de Gasperi: that an assembly write a charter for a European Political Community. This was agreed by Government leaders who inserted provision for this in article 38 in the EDC treaty. In 1952 they went further by asking the Parliamentary Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community to propose the creation of ~ federal or confederal structure founded on the principle of the separation of powers and including, in particular, a bicameral representative system". The enlarged ECSC assembly, called the Ad Hoc assembly, approved a text on 10th March 1953. It provided for a European government responsible to a directly elected Parliament, a senate of national parliamentary representatives, plus a Council of Ministers, a 12 person Executive Council, and a President of the Executive Council elected by the senate who would be able to choose others and dismiss them. The EDC Treaty was ratified by 4 member states and would have been ratified by Italy had not the French Assembly rejected it by 319 to 264 against. The EPC project then also fell by the wayside.


Instead the European Economic Community was formed. The federalist movements split over attitudes to the Community: should they seek to reform it or should they reject it? It was not until the 1970s that the federalists re-united


Draft Treaty on European Union


Spinelli then began work on perhaps his most significant project. The Heads of Government had agreed in 1975 to direct elections to the European Parliament for the first time in accordance with the Treaty of Rome. Spinelli had always felt such an assembly should write a constitution for Europe. He was elected to the first new Parliament in 1979 where he set to work. The result was the Draft Treaty on European Union, approved in 1984 in the European Parliament by a large majority. The Heads of Government felt obliged to respond. As a consequence they decided, in Milan in 1985 with many thousands of federalist demonstrating outside, to convene the first significant IGC since the l950s. The conclusion of the ICC was the Single European Act. It was not as radical as the Draft Treaty but it reintroduced majority voting in the Council of Ministers, enhanced the status of the European Parliament, established the programme to complete the single market by 1992. and improved methods of foreign policy cooperation. Above all it reopened the debate about Europe's structural future and lead the way to the Treaty on European Union (the Maastricht Treaty) in 1991 and the scheduling of the 1996 IGC.


The Future


With the implementation of the Maastricht Treaty Europe is close to completing its federal union. The process should in fact be completed by the establishment of a European monetary union as foreseen by this Treaty, and the reforms envisaged by many: i.e. the democratic reform of the Union's institutions, and the development of common foreign policies particularly in the field of defence. Once this is done a constitution linking all the components should be written and the Union will need to be enlarged to include many new members from all of Europe.


But the conclusion of this process is not inevitable. Europe has come a long way but the fact that the end of this process is in sight does not mean it is certain to be completed. It is to achieve this that the federalist movement must continue to work.



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