Between Federation and Disintegration: Can Europe redefine Itself?

Since taking office David Cameron has been calling for a complete revamp of the European Union. Most recently he made restrictions to the free movement of people a key condition to Britain remaining in the EU. Cameron wants powers to be returned to the nation states, and for the EU to largely become what it was until the 1980s: a common market with limited political ties. His vision is tailored to a British public strongly influenced by eurosceptic views regularly expressed by the UK Independence Party and parts of the media.

Besides Britain, Switzerland is another European country the EU has a controversial relationship with. Although strongly tied to the EU economically and politically through various bilateral agreements, full membership has so far been rejected by popular vote. Moreover, a motion to limit migration from EU countries has won a slim majority at a referendum in February. Now Swiss politicians need to approach the EU and find a way to implement the will of the public without endangering the existing bilateral agreements that are vital to the Swiss economy.

The EU Commission and a number of leading politicians are highly critical of the special wishes that come out of Britain and Switzerland. They insist on maintaining the free movement of people and the degree of European integration already achieved. Many believe Britain and Switzerland should simply be forced to accept the EU as it is with all rights and responsibilities, or "get out" with all consequences. As logical this may seem to some, we need to be aware of the ramifications.

In reality "to be in or out of the EU" is not the main question anymore. The EU, the EEA,  Schengen/Dublin and the Eurozone have become four in many ways independent pan European institutions, all consisting of different member states. Any simplistic categorisation of European countries into a pro and anti-EU camp is outdated and misleading. The reality is substantially more multi-faceted. 

On the one hand, there is increasing criticism of the over-regulated EU and  the unrestricted free movement of citizens in EU-core countries like Germany and France. On the other hand the call for "more Europe" is becoming louder across the continent, not the least in regions within countries that are often considered "eurosceptic". 

In Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Yorkshire there is growing resistance to the increasingly anti-European policies of the government. Many feel badly represented by a centralist government and parliament traditionally more oriented towards the needs of South-Eastern England. For them a United Federal Europe stands for less London and the chance for more local self government. 

The situation in many other parts of Europe is quite similar. Catalonia, the Basque Country, Galicia, Brittany, Savoy, Alsace, South Tyrol, Veneto, Friuli, Trieste, Istria, Dalmatia, Moravia, Silesia, Transylvania and the Banat are just some examples. In all these regions there is growing demand for more self rule and discontent about the inflexible undemocratic political structures of the centralist nation states they belong to. Most of the autonomous or secessionist movements in those regions follow an anti-centralist but generally pro-European agenda. They do not consider the EU as the main problem, but much rather the nation states.

Even in parts of federalist Switzerland there is considerable discontent about the outcome of the referendum on free movement with the EU. In Geneva and Basel a clear majority voted against the motion and considers the new restrictions to be a "dictate from Inner-Switzerland" seriously endangering their competitiveness. An increasing number of people question the legitimacy and usefulness of national referendums on such important issues.

The question Europe as a whole needs to ask itself is how it should cope with the growing demand for more democracy as well as more local and regional power within an increasingly globalised world. Do the current political structures meet the needs of our time and the foreseeable future?

One thing is clear: Europe cannot afford to simply dump the integration process, the biggest peace project of all times. Its past and the tragic events that currently occur on its doorstep must serve as a great warning. Europeans tend to be wary of attempts to ignore their diversity, both on a EU and nation state level. The most viable way forward is therefore a multi layered "Europe of Regions". In a truly democratic and need based Europe of Citizens neither the EU should be able to force rigid structures on Britain and Switzerland nor should the Scots, Welsh, Cornish, Bretons, Alsacians, Catalans, South Tyroleans, Moravians or Genevois be dependent on decisions made in London, Paris, Madrid, Rome, Prague or Inner Switzerland. 

In the Europe of tomorrow those entities that are closest to the people - communes and regions - need to be given substantially more power to effectively manage their own affairs. The EU needs to implement more flexible entry and exit requirements for each of their institutions and agreements. The principle of subsidiarity, already anchored in the Treaty of Lisbon, must be put into practice, not only by the EU but more importantly by each of the nation states.