Andrew Duff: The eurozone crisis has accentuated the need for federalism

Andrew Duff [Wikimedia]

“I’ve always been a federalist,” Andrew Duff told EURACTIV in a wide-ranging interview. “The eurozone crisis has accentuated the need for the federalist argument to be put.”

Andrew Duff is president of the Union of European Federalists. He is a former MEP for the Liberal Democrat party in the UK, representing the East England region in the European Parliament. He is also former Vice-President of the Liberal Democrats.

He spoke to EURACTIV UK’s Mark Briggs.

Why do you back a more federal Europe?

If we fail to move forward in a federal direction, the present construction of the EU will fall apart. It isn’t working, and it isn’t working primarily because of the lack of a government.

If there is to be a government, it has to be a federal one.

Will the idea of a federal Europe do more harm than good to the idea of the EU in the UK?

I don’t think it is possible to do more harm to the idea of the EU in the UK.

One of the systemic problems is that pro-EU (forces) have failed to engage with political thought or discourse on the mainland. They argue membership is alright for trade and the single market, but they fail to grapple with the political dimension of integration. That has always been the case.

There have been very few British politicians who have grasped the political nature of the beast. Winston Churchill and Roy Jenkins did, Ted Heath and Harold McMillan to some extent.

There is a lot of dissembling in speaking about Europe in Tory circles. Labour is a little bit of a mess on the matter, and the Lib Dems have been very weak. We have to begin to speak with more frankness about the scale and scope of integration, and how necessary it is that Britain thinks of itself as a European country, as part of a European political system.

One of the reasons behind calls for a UK referendum on membership is that the Union has changed from an economic to a political entity. You don’t recognize this shift?

No, I don’t think that’s true. But I understand the argument.

If there is to be referendum, if the argument isn’t pitched in significantly political terms, then it will be lost.

To grind on that Britain is influential in the EU, I’m not sure that’s true. But anyway, it is only part of the benefit of British membership. If we go on with that line, we will lose.

Why has Britain remained a reluctant European partner?

After the war, politicians were extremely complacent about Britain’s place in the globe. All the other continental countries that experienced defeat, occupation or fascism were provoked into a radical reform, almost a revolution, following the Second World War. I think the Brits thought they’d won, and they sort of dozed off.

How has the eurozone crisis shaped your views?

I’ve always been a federalist. The eurozone crisis has accentuated the need for the federalist argument to be put. Partly because the technocratic nature of the union has increased as a result of the crisis management measures, which tried to resolve the crises.

You can (view) the Greek election result as a counter to the growing technocratic character in the Union. I think Alexis Tsipras is correct in analysing the democratic problem of the EU, but it isn’t an absence of parliament. The European Parliament, for all its complexity, works extraordinarily well.

I think the true problem is an absence of government. In the absence of government, what we have is the over centralisation of the efforts to co-ordinate the national economic policies.

So how do you answer the fears that federalism will result in unwieldy one-size-fits-all policies from a centralized power base?

Common economic policy combining monetary, fiscal and economic measures would not be a single policy for the whole of the EU. It would obviously be tuned to regional and cyclical varieties, but it would be accountable and representative and responsible, whereas the present set up is essentially driven by national prime ministers on a part time and intergovernmental basis. This has proven not to work.

We have to strengthen the executive authority of the Commission. Of course we have to improve the Commission and reform it, but the essential shift in powers is quite clear, I think.

If you are going to have localised policies, why not just stick with national government?

I didn’t use the term localised. We have a problem in the north of a drop in aggregate demand and in the south of excessive public spending. A common policy conceived and driven by the Commission, with an established treasury and extended budget, would be able to stimulate demand in the north.

At present it can’t. Quantitative easing is the final weapon in the armory. If that doesn’t work, stagnation will become circular. The occasional crisis meeting of prime ministers who are generally  ill-informed on European matters and pre-occupied with domestic electoral politics isn’t going to work.

It isn’t going to produce the caliber of policy that will produce public goods for the EU.

What affect do you think the Greek elections will have on the European project?

I think it will be a rather good thing.

When Tsipras turns up on 19 March at the meeting of the European Council, he will find that he isn’t on his own. There are several others, like Matteo Renzi, who will say “We can’t go on like this.”

The Lisbon Treaty is being stretched to breaking point. Are we going to drift into disintegration, or do we try to rethink and complete the logic of banking union and fiscal union? If the answer is positive, that should mean without any shadow of doubt: treaty change.

And it will need to be an extremely radical one.

Finally, on domestic politics, as a former Lib Dem, what does your party need to do to avoid an electoral catastrophe in May?

I think we’ve got to prepare for a coalition with Labour.

If there is an agreement pact, we’ve got to include European policy as an important part of that. Britain needs a government that will be part of the solution for Europe rather than part of the problem. The Lib Dems can help provide that if they are sufficiently bold and agile.

Electorally, the party will survive in the places we are strongest. Then it is a case of chance – because of our crazy electoral system – if the Lib Dems emerge as a power broker.

Further consorting with the Tories will destroy the party and probably result in Brexit. 

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