Or maybe it is the other way around, it is hard to tell. In any case, it is easy to see what federalism is about in both cases – and what happens when federalism exists side by side with nation-states (as in the EU). Whereas the US federal government is and has been running amok, the EU is running hyper-amok.
One reason for this is the ongoing tug of war between the national parliaments and the powers at the super-national level. I say powers for a reason, because there is an ongoing tug of war within the EU as well, mainly between the elected European Parliament and the national governments’ representatives in the Council of Ministers.
One can easily understand that these conflicts are related. On the one hand, there is the “democratic” view of “the people’s voice” being represented by the national parliaments (keep the power “close” to the people) and the European Parliament (elected by the European peoples). On the other, there is the power motive and the aim by those currently in power to increase their influence – through overriding national parliaments as well as the European Parliament. (I don’t take sides for either side in this, as both ultimately represent centralization of power on the European continent.)
What is interesting in comparing the US federal government with the European Union is the institutional difference and how that affects the political ruling class. In the US, they are formally restricted by the Constitution (even though it is a failed attempt to limit power) and the federal powers are separated. Furthermore, the federalism of the United States is for a number of states with basically the same culture.
In the European Union, there is no constitution and therefore no formal restriction to how much federalism may grow or in what ways. The only limit is due to the fact that the federal power is over numerous bodies with distinctly different cultures, languages, traditions, and history. This is of course an obstacle to the efficiency of Rule, but it also creates a situation where people are in the hands of their rulers. The reason for this is that rulers have a common goal: more and centralized power. The peoples of Europe have different aims and different views with respect to federal power. France, for instance, seems to aim for a federalized Europe to be able to force their socialist views on everybody and become a power great enough to replace the USA as the world’s super power. The UK, on the other hand, is member but would rather not be: the Brits are against the common currency and basically any “harmonization” of policies. Whereas the peoples of France and UK cannot agree on what to do or even in what direction to go, the political elite in both countries aim for the same thing: increased power.
A recent example of how things work in the EU is the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty formerly known as the “Constitution” of the EU. This document specifies that the EU now has the right to relieve the national governments of whatever power the EU “needs” to address whatever problem. This document needed to be confirmed by all member nations, in some of which national law required decision by referendum. The people of Ireland and other countries voted No. So the EU power elite renamed the document to “treaty,” bribed the peoples with subsidies and promises and had them go through another referendum. The treaty was accepted.
Currently, the so-called SWIFT debate is the focus of attention. This is originally a request from US authorities to gain access of all European banking data; to the European power elite, this is not a problem – it is an opportunity for increased control. So the non-elected government representatives in the Council of Ministers are all for it, whereas the European Parliament is not as happy about it (since they will, in theory, be held accountable in the general elections).
According to the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament has a right to be heard on issues such as this. The SWIFT decision was made November 30, however, the day before the Lisbon Treaty came into effect. It should be no surprise that those in power are corrupt and that they take whatever chances they have to make the most of their power. But in this case the decision was made before there even was a proposal – there was only a draft of the new treaty (there is an old one that runs through January, so there is really no rush). The official reason for not involving the Parliament is that the draft of the new SWIFT treaty had not been translated to all languages, which is a prerequisite for bringing issues to the Parliament.
The obvious and real reason, of course, is something very different: the Council of Ministers could not afford waiting to let the Parliament have a say in this matter. Now the Spanish chairmanship of the EU has to work through the treaty and decide on exactly what it is to include. The decision, however, has already been made.
Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. But don’t forget that it is equally true that the corrupted seek power. Institutions may slow down the progress of power, but it will not stop the general direction. As long as we have a power elite, they will work tirelessly to gain more power. Always at our expense, of course, since power is a win-lose, winner-takes-it-all kind of game.
HT: Henrik Alexandersson.