Antifederalists can critique the EU – but only federalists have viable solutions

, by Juuso Järviniemi

Antifederalists can critique the EU – but only federalists have viable solutions
Photo: © European Union 2017 - European Parliament

Juuso Järviniemi comments on Dirk Jörke and Jared Sonnicksen’s paper “Towards an Antifederalist Theory of the EU: Democratic Federal Lessons for the European Union” (JCMS, 2019).

Given that federalists speak of a “United States of Europe”, it’s not a surprise many take cues from the American experience of consolidating a loose alliance of states into a stronger, federal union. However, while pro-Europeans still refer to The Federalist Papers (1787–1788), we’ve largely forgotten the ‘antifederalist’ critics of the US Constitution.

Dirk Jörke and Jared Sonnicksen resuscitate this 18th-century antifederalist critique and apply it to today’s EU. While some of the criticism hits the target, the antifederalist argument fails to provide viable solutions to the problems it raises. Unlike the ‘antifederalists’, the federalists can not only recognise the problems but also point the way forward.

The antifederalist criticism

Jörke and Sonnicksen write that the antifederalists’ three main criticisms of the US Constitution were the elite-centredness of the project, the threat it posed to state sovereignty, and the weakening of accountability. The new Constitution was drafted mainly by wealthy landowners and merchants; weakening state-level courts and giving powers like taxation to the central government didn’t go unopposed; and it was feared politicians in the distant capital would soon become alienated from the concerns of common citizens.

All of these are familiar concerns to all those who follow debates on the EU. 18th-century antifederalists argued, citing de Montesquieu, that only small republics can work because in a larger country the norms and customs would be too diverse – just like Eurosceptics today say European countries are too different to form a political union. Similarly, today’s criticism that bringing down economic barriers on European borders benefits the wealthy and the educated clearly echoes arguments made in post-independence USA.

Two and a half centuries make some of the critique dusty, however. Since the 1700s, democracies have grown larger, more populous and more diverse. Jörke and Sonnicksen mention concerns that politicians “would remain largely amongst themselves in distant Philadelphia”. But unlike in 18th-century USA, in today’s Europe a politician can work in Brussels whilst residing in her country of origin. Today it’s also easier for citizens to follow goings-on in the capital, and quicker for them to send a message to their representative.

Moreover, the “we’re simply too different to form a union” argument is suspect because it cannot easily be verified or refuted. The question depends on citizens’ identifications which can’t be measured easily. (Except maybe with polls, like the recent Eurobarometer which found that in every EU member state a majority feels that they’re citizens of the EU.) On this one, the antifederalists and the federalists can only agree to disagree.

The best answer to antifederalist criticisms is… federalism

Having laid out the critique, Jörke and Sonnicksen list federalist and antifederalist proposals for improving the EU. They are too quick to reject federalist proposals, while their antifederalist alternative leaves the reader disappointed.

“I find your lack of faith disturbing”

The federalist way forward would be to help make the EU work for the common man by introducing redistributive policies at the European level. However, this needs to be accompanied by genuinely pan-European democratic participation, as Jörke and Sonnicksen point out. The authors reject the federalist idea because they say the development of such Europeanised participation “appears highly unlikely” – the member states are too different.

Like above, ultimately the statement can neither be proven nor disproven. Such assertions not only describe the world, but also contribute to changing it. The more often people say pan-European debate isn’t possible, the more likely such debates never come to life – and this specific argument is one we’ve heard innumerable times.

Despite all this, and even despite the failure of the ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ system this summer, there is momentum for more. The idea of an EU-wide constituency in European elections is being debated much more seriously than ten years ago. Europarties’ lead candidates had televised debates before this year’s elections – certainly not for the last time (believe me). With Volt having gained a seat in the European Parliament, the idea of a genuinely pan-European political party has proof of concept.

Whether a European democratic space can come into being is ultimately a matter of faith – but the federalists are doing something about it, and we’re already on our way to turning our dream into reality.

An anti-federal EU wouldn’t be any better

Jörke and Sonnicksen’s preferred solution is ‘antifederal’ reform of the EU. As measures to improve the EU, they mention options already offered by the current Treaties: the subsidiarity principle, ‘enhanced cooperation’ between willing member states, and better coordination between the national parliaments of member states. However, it’s hard to see how this would make for better popular control of the EU than a federal Europe, or indeed today’s EU, would.

Firstly, federalists also subscribe to subsidiarity, the idea that decisions should be taken as close to the people as is practicable. As a side note, two people who both respect subsidiarity can reach different conclusions about what things should be decided in Brussels. For defence policy, for example, some may say that deciding everything nationally is practicable, while others say that Brussels needs to enter the picture for defence to work optimally.

In other words, proposing more subsidiarity isn’t anything new. Enhanced cooperation, for its part, is a bad solution if your goal is to improve accountability – and this despite the fact that federalists sometimes support such ‘coalitions of the willing’ as a temporary stepping stone towards bringing new necessary competences to the EU level.

Enhanced cooperation means intergovernmental agreements that are made behind closed doors, while (at least in the European Parliament) EU law is more transparent. What’s more, unlike in the European Parliament, in intergovernmental agreements the opposition parties have no say. And moreover, it will be harder for citizens to keep track of a complex web of intergovernmental agreements than it is for them to understand a predictable, regularised EU legislative process.

Finally, the proposal for better coordination between national parliaments is downright confusing. National parliaments have been elected to run the member states, not the EU. Better coordination can’t hurt, and it would help national parliaments keep a more thorough check on subsidiarity. Moreover, if we did want the EU to be an affair of national governments, the citizens’ voice would of course mainly be heard through 28 separate executive-legislative conflicts, where coordination between the legislatures would help. However, if we want directly elected representatives to have better control of the EU, surely it would be simpler to strengthen the European Parliament – like the federalists suggest.

Jörke and Sonnicksen say the model they describe would help Europe maintain a ‘firm league of friendship’, in the words of the US Articles of Confederation. However, the antifederalist proposals remain unconvincing, and it’s better for the EU to keep taking its “democratic federal lessons” from the federalists.


Jörke, D. & Sonnicksen, J. (2019) ‘Towards an Antifederalist Theory of the EU: Democratic Federal Lessons for the European Union’, Journal of Common Market Studies. DOI: 10.1111/jcms.12899

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