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The classic account of European integration derives from Federalism’ (Hill and Smith, 2005, p.20). Federalism is an often misunderstood theoretical perspective and is often thought of as an ideology or political philosophy rather than a theory. Its meaning is understood in terms of the situation in which it is being used. In the case of the European Union, it is unusual as it transcends state and state structure. Wiener and Diez (2004, p25) use the commonly heard ‘ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’ to describe the idea of Federalism in Europe. It is a complex mix of institutions, structures and procedures which arguably is looking more federal. The federal school was constructed as ‘a way of bringing together previously separate, autonomous or territorial units to constitute a new form of union’ (Wiener and Diez 2004, p26). The original state was autonomous, sovereign, centralised and indivisible. After the War of Independence, America created the first Federal state and challenged the traditional idea of state. Federalism comes from the Latin foedus, literally meaning the act of forming of a covenant, contract of bargain (Wiener and Diez 2004 p28). This means that over centuries this has evolved to mean the ‘voluntary union of entities, be they persons, a people, communities or states’ (Wiener and Diez 2004 p28).



Key Thinkers


Preston King, in 1982, introduced the idea of federalism into literature where he argues that federalism is the original and persistent driving force of federation (Weiner and Diez 2005, p29); he identifies three trends in the ideology of federalism (centralist, de-centralist and balanced) showing the broad range of federalist thought (Rosamond 2000 p24). Federalists who have produced influential work which has affected the course of modern federalism include Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi who drew up the Ventotene doctrine; Alexander Marc, henry Brugmans and Denis De Rougemont who devised integral federalism. Spinelli was Secretary-General of the Italian Movimento Europeo and had a strategy called ‘democratic radicalism’ which involved creating a parliamentary assembly for Europe. A great rival of Spinelli was Jean Monnet who was the first President of the High Authority of the ECSC. He believed that ‘the political strategy of small, concrete, economic steps would culminate in a federal Europe’ where Spinelli believed that you must start with political institutions and this would lead to a European constitution (Weiner and Diez 2004, p32). Arguably, Monnet’s approach has been the most successful political strategy. He wrote in depth about the construction of a federal Europe saying it would be created by ‘avoiding issues which might conceivably call national sovereignty directly into question...[and]...by adding institutional pieces to a larger jigsaw in incremental fashion’ (Weiner and Diez 2004, p35). Spinelli argued that Monnet’s Europe didn’t address the realities of political Europe so the central institutions would remain weak.





For Federalism the aim of the European Union is to integrate different entities but not to assimilate them. Within the Union, although bodies are working in partnership, difference and diversity is acknowledged. In practice,

 ‘previously discrete, distinct, or independent entities come together to form a new whole- a union- in which they merge part of their autonomous selves whileretaining certain powers, functions and competences fundamental to the preservation and promotion of their particular cultures, interests, identities and sense of self-definition’ (Wiener and Diez 2004 p29).


It is about finding the balance between self rule and shared rule, about being a unified entity and maintaining diversity and difference.  This is one of the greatest appeals of Federalism; it formally acknowledges these differences which as so vital to a pluralism political system and society.

Federalism focuses strongly on ‘high politics’, major issues of violence and political order. It is interested in unification, believing that this will tackle international anarchy and the conflicts which arise from them. Federalism establishes two tiers of government, ‘the parts and the whole and distributes specific functions to each’ (Hill and Smith 2005, p21). They believe that a federation must control instruments of violence or the else the smaller parties may fight with each other or the supranational power. Therefore the central aim of a federalist project is to have a common security and defence policy. Another strain of federalism, known as integral or personalist federalism is based on the idea of a European society and ‘the spread of federalist values across the established boundaries of European states’ (Weiner and Diez 2004, p33).





Federalism has had a great impact on the growth of the European Union in terms of its values and purpose. After the Second World War, there was an emphasis on European States working together to prevent the issues re-arising which had led to the war; it was an anti-fascist movement with many political strategies being drawn up as new conceptions of Europe leading ultimately to the European Union. Before the European Union, federalist pressure and ideas contributed to the attempt to launch the EDC and the EPC projects of the 1950s. Federalists believed these projects were the only way to counteract interstate anarchy and were sceptical about the usefulness of diplomacy and other commonly used methods. They influenced the legalities that were placed upon countries by the European Union such as forbidding the use of arms against each other. They emphasised the need for a supranational government to ‘regulate relations among states as governments do internally among citizens’ (Hill and Smith 2005, 20). In practice, no federation is the same; they adapt and adjust based on unique current and historical features. The European Union is a completely unique type of federal system;


Federalism in the context of the EU is the application of federal principles to the process of European integration where the term integration refers to the sense of a coming together of previously separate or independent parts to form a new whole (Weiner and Diez 2004, p31).





A strength of the Federal idea is that under its formation, different types of union can be reconciled and accommodated. Originally formulated as a general theory, Federalism in now only really used in context to the European Union as the European Union reflects its ideas to a greater extent than anywhere else in the world, thus it is often criticised for being too Eurocentric. It is also teleological in nature, believing that total integration will be eventually achieved; however it ignores the potential resistance of states or other forms of integration which do not result in a super state. The Federalist theories are rooted in political philosophy so they are more normative than analytical and often focuses more on why states should form a union rather than why states would voluntarily surrender their sovereignty (Hill and Smith 2005, p21). Even in the closest example to the Federalist model, the EU- the voluntary union has not been fully achieved. However, the European Union’s perceived need for an effective foreign policy remains the strongest argument for federalism. Federalism is frequently criticised for being ambiguous, leading to it being hard to understand; it is often used to describe both the ‘process of political unification and the diffusion of power within a unified state, or the process of disaggregation’ (Weiner and Diez 2004, p29). Its ambiguity has led to much misunderstanding through different interpretations, in Britain the meaning is very different to that of some of the continental European states leading to disagreement during the Maastricht European Council in 1991 (Rosamond 2000, p24).

Some thinkers believe that Federalist thinking flared up during and after the Second World War but did not have a great or lasting impact. O’Neill (Rosamond 2000, p29) argued that ‘the federalist prospectus barely dented the European political establishment’ but the ongoing influence on the workings of the EU show this is not the case. Ben Rosamond (2000 p30) argues that the biggest mistake of federalism is to advocate the reproduction of state organisational structure at a European level. He claims this is unachievable because it creates distance between the governed and governing and the potential for interstate rivalries.





  • Hill, C. and Smith, M. (2005) International Relations and the European Union. Oxford University Press: Oxford.


  • Rosamond, B. (2000) Theories of European Integration. Palgrave Macmillan: Hampshire.


  • Wiener, A. And Diez, T. (2004) European Integration Theory. Oxford University Press: Oxford


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