June 25, 2015
Welcome to week II in my series on Federalism. Last week, I talked about why I, as an outsider, am in favour of a Federal Europe. I tried to escape from airy discussions of what developments of new supranational structures means to someone who enjoys textbooks like he enjoys his wine: exceedingly dry. Instead, I focused on the view from outside.
This week, I’m talking about lessons I’ve learned from living in my native land that illuminates the long-term challenges of building an effective federation.
If you’ve been following Canadian internal politics lately, you’ll know we’re having a bit of a crisis in terms of representation. While writing this, a reform act has made it through the houses and I’m hoping it will help alleviate this crisis; however, as right now, Canada has huge political problems. Since 1982, when the constitution was repatriated from the UK, Canada has undergone a huge centralisation of power in the hands of Parliament and the party bosses. Arguably, the process had its roots in the 1960’s with the drive to build a single Canadian “nation”, a project with mixed success. The 1982 constitution severely limited the power of the Canadian Senate and the Crown, with making little mention to the limitations placed on the House of Commons itself. This has lead to a situation, thirty years on, where the Senate, designed to represent the regions of Canada and give smaller provinces a voice in the federation of Canada, is appointed by the Prime Minister. The senate is, de facto, unable to oppose the will of the House of Commons because the Commons are elected. This would not be such a problem if the population in Canada was not so painfully centralised. 21.8 of the 35 million inhabitants of Canada live in Ontario and Quebec. This means that of the ten members of the federation, Quebec has 75 seats in Parliament, Ontario has 102 seats, and the rest of Canada have 127 seats between eight provinces and three territories. If you take away British Columbia from that count (36 seats), Ontario has more electoral weight as 70% of the provinces and all of the territories combined (91 seats). I’m not sure if I’m reading this map correctly, but it seems to indicate that Metro Montreal (31 seats) has roughly the same electoral weight as Atlantic Canada (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island: 32 seats).
Why is this important? Well, I’m getting there.
I’m fully ceased of the need to have representation reflecting population. However, Canada is a big country: 9,984,670 km² big. Europe, as defined from stretching from Lisbon to the Urals is 10,180,000 km². The distance from where I live, Halifax, to the Capital of the Federation, is 958 km. If you drive the distance it’s closer to 1,500 km. Even “as the crow flies” from Halifax to Ottawa, the distance would get you from Paris to Western Poland. There are a lot of differences between Paris and Western Poland. I do not imagine the average Parisian knows the realities of life in Western Poland. So if you were to construct a federal entity encompassing those people, everyone in between and another 3000 km just for laughs, you would need a way for regions with unique cultures, identities and economic situations be effectively represented in the government, regardless of their population. After all, a federation is a union of other governments. This does not stop the loyal opposition of Canada, the New Democratic Party from attempting to disband the senate and thereby entrench party rule.
Now that I’ve gotten all of that out of my system, I think my point has become painfully clear. An effective federal structure has to remember that it is, first and foremost, a federation. Canadians are, generally, much more docile creatures than Europeans and even we can chafe with resentment under heavy-handed political structures that attempt to centralise power. Judging from Viktor Orban’s comments last friday (19 Jun), this chafing can already be seen in Europe. As a Nova Scotian, I have a hard time not sympathising with the view he puts forward. I’m not a fan of Orban, but it’s a very powerful message he is sending out and it will resonate wider than just the Hungarian border; as it did with me. I’m frustrated and worried about living in a country where my people, the Maritimers, have no political say in our own destiny as the sheer electoral power of other provinces allow them to dictate terms on everything to us. In a country without an upper house, we are de facto unrepresented in the “federal” structure, which looks every day increasingly unitary.
Therefore, to avoid violent revolts in a future Federal Europe, I see it as a necessity to have a powerful upper house that truly does allow smaller countries to have a sizeable influence on Federal level politics. I think the European Council is a good model: each member state having a single vote. Consensus based government might be a bit excessive for a upper chamber of government, but otherwise I think that is a solid basis for regional balance in a federal structure.
Another lesson I draw from Canada is that exclusive political identities are troublesome. I would say that, at present, two or three Canadian identities exist. A Traditional Canada from pre-1960, a Pan-Canada from 1960 to roughly 2000, and an “Americanised” Canada from the early 2000’s. Americanised isn’t really a good term, but contemporary Canada has taken a more aggressive and authoritative tone than previous visions of Canada. The really problematic vision of Canada is this Pan-Canadianism which tried to melt down everything else and reshape Canadians into this single “national” identity. This ignored the common thread of most Canadians I talk to from outside of Ontario: we don’t identify primarily as Canadians. I’m a Nova Scotian, my friend is British Columbian, my Uncle is an Albertan. The only people who identify as Canadians, by and large, come from the historical regions of Upper and Lower Canada: contemporary Ontario and Quebec, respectively. Even then, “Lower Canada” is split between Canadians (Canadiens?) and Quebecois.
Any identity of a federal state of Europe needs to be inclusive, not exclusive. It needs to build on the myriad of layered identities that is going to come hand-in-hand with any attempt to build such a magnificently complex political structure. As I said about a month back, in being Europeans, no one is going to give up their national culture. National culture isn’t just about what food you eat or what language you speak, it is a way of thinking about and perceiving the world. That must never be squashed out. People must be free to think for themselves and express those thoughts… and have those thoughts represented in their government. Just because you may come from a historically strong region, which has a lot of clout and influence over the federation, doesn’t give you the right to dominate it. It is a government that works in partnership with the smaller governments; it’s their government too. If you want them to stick around, you have to respect them because compared to Canadians, Europeans are positively hot-headed.
In a way, this article hasn’t really been advice for the construction of a Federal Europe, but caution to those who wish to sustain one. A lot of what I wrote may seem commonplace to anyone who has put any thought into the process, but it is dangerous to forget. Once a federation is established the major powers within the EU (EF?) will have a lot of power over the smaller states. If you sideline and marginalise those states, you seed your garden with discontent.
Next week, I will bring the series to a close on an examination of lessons learned from Europe’s past for building a better federal Europe.C. Shannon