Europe’s Search for a Pluralist Polity:
Constitutional Corporatism and Federal Subsidiarity
di Adrian Pabst
University of Kent – Canterbury
Institut d’Etudes Politiques – Lille

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Il saggio collega la natura unica del sistema politico europeo alle nuove politiche di reciprocità e mutualità. L’articolo vuole dimostrare che la caratteristica del sistema europeo è quello di affidare ai «corpi intermedi» della società civile un rilievo più considerevole di quello che attualmente questi stessi rivestono nello Stato centrale o nel libero mercato. Il contributo vuole inoltre suggerire che i vincoli sociali della reciproca fiducia e della mutua assistenza sono più importanti nella esperienza giuridico-politica rispetto ai vincoli statale-amministrativi od economico-contrattuali.
Nella prima parte il saggio si concentra dunque sul fallimento dei dominanti modelli di integrazione europea (Francia, Germania, Regno Unito) basati sulla subordinazione della società civile allo soggetto Stato; nella seconda parte propone quale paradigma il modello cristiano come sistema in grado di garantire alcuni fondamentali e oggettivi princìpi etici; nella terza parte enfatizza il ruolo di mediazione giocato dalla società civile; infine nell’ultima parte tenta di collegare le nuove politiche di reciprocità e mutualità al corporativismo costituzionale e al federalismo sussidiario.

Over the past decade or so, the post-1945 European project of an ever-closer union of peoples has ground to a halt. The introduction of the Euro and successive waves of eastern enlargement have undoubtedly promoted further integration among some member-states and expanded the EU’s clout in the wider Europe and the rest of the world. But just as the economic turmoil has undermined the credibility of the eurozone and the single market, so too the absence of any genuine strategic vision belies the Maastricht promise of a political union. Centrifugal forces have gained in strength, as both old and new member-states have settled for a minimalist strategy aimed at making the modest Lisbon Treaty work. But without any substantive common goals, the professed pragmatism of Europe’s ruling elites is devoid of meaning. Absent a shared demos, ethos or telos however, the EU of 27 lacks an overarching narrative around which members can cooperate and defend ideals that resonate across the globe.
In fact, the failure of the Constitutional Treaty and the severity of the financial crisis highlight the limits of the two dominant models: Franco-German state centralism and Anglo-Saxon free-market sovereignty. By concentrating power in the hands of the Commission and certain member-states’ representatives, both models have exacerbated the EU’s ‘democratic deficit’ and lack of legitimacy, in terms of policy input and output as well as the wider political functioning. By marginalising local and regional economies as well as transnational civil society, both models have reinforced a growing socio-economic polarisation and an increasing disconnect between the ruling elites and Europe’s citizenry.
Yet at the same time, the Union is neither a Franco-German federalist super-state nor a purely Anglo-Saxon free-trade area. Rather, the EU is best described as a neo-medieval polity with a political system sui generis, characterised by hybrid institutions, overlapping jurisdictions, polycentric authority and multi-level governance. [*]What ultimately underpins this model is a long tradition which views Europe not as a foundation of itself but as the continuous unfolding of the Hellenistic fusion of Jerusalem and Athens, as Cardinal Scola has remarked. [2] Linked to this is the twin notion that the distinction of religious from political authority creates a ‘free space’ between political rule and society and that the Church – together with other communities and bodies – upholds this freedom from political coercion.
In turn, this gives rise to the idea that the ‘intermediary institutions’ of civil society are more primary than either the centralised national state or the transnational ‘anarchic’ market. Intermediary institutions include groups and bodies like professional associations, manufacturing and trading guilds, cooperatives, trade unions, voluntary organisations, universities and religious communities. Instead of operating on the basis of either state-administrative or economic-contractual relations, such and similar structures are governed by social bonds of reciprocal trust and mutual assistance. These bonds of reciprocity and mutuality are not limited to the third, ‘voluntary’ sector that is separate from both the public and the private sector. On the contrary, these bonds can govern social relations at all levels of society and thereby help ‘re-embed’ both the state and the market into the complex web of social relations.
The European model is neo-medieval in this sense that it combines a strong sense of overlapping jurisdictions and multiple membership with a contemporary focus on transnational networks as well as the institutions and actors of ‘global civil society’. Nor is this model limited to the sub-national level. Rather, modes of association and corporation apply to neighbourhoods, communities, cities, regions and states alike. The idea of Europe as a political union is inextricably linked to the idea that national states are more like regions within a wider polity – a subsidiary (con-)federation of nations rather than a centralised super-state or a glorified free-trade area. Indeed, the twin founding principles of European integration – solidarity and subsidiarity – suggest that even nations can uphold and promote relations of mutual giving and reciprocal help. As such, Europe offers a vision of associative democracy and civil economy beyond the authoritarian central state that seeks to regulate the transnational, anarchical ‘free market’.
[3] In its current condition, the EU of 27 must resist the double temptation of old-style centralised federalism and neo-liberal free-market fundamentalism. Both have conspicuously failed and been resoundingly rejected by Europe’s electorate, not least the double rebuff of the Constitutional Treaty by the French and the Dutch in 2005 as well as the Irish No in 2008. The recently ratified Lisbon Reform Treaty might have put an end to decades of institutional navel-gazing, but it creates new problems of coordination between the position of Council President, Commission President and the rotating presidencies. Despite the best attempts of President Van Rompuy to forge a meaningful consensus (notably on eurozone reforms and a new economic strategy for 2020), the Lisbon Treaty lacks ambition and concrete mechanisms in order to translate the EU’s resources and assets into transformative action at home and abroad.
Instead of harking back to bureaucratic statism or market liberalism, the 27 member-states should retrieve the older and more genuinely European tradition of subsidiary federalism or federal subsidiarity – a distribution of competencies between the Community institutions and the member-states in accordance with the principles of a federal rather than a unitary political system, coupled with a radical programme of decentralisation to the most appropriate level (including regions, localities, communities and neighbourhoods) and a greater sense that European nations are indeed like regions within a wider polity.

1. The Failure of Europe’s Dominant Models
Traditionally the question of federalism has divided Europe. Since the rule of Margaret Thatcher, Britain and her new allies in eastern Europe have repeatedly denounced continental attempts led by France and Germany to build an integrated European super-state. They have also championed an apparently alternative vision based on further enlargement and more free trade. But since both the Franco-German and the Anglo-Saxon model have embraced economic liberalisation (albeit to varying degrees), each has suffered the neo-liberal fate of a growing concentration of wealth and centralisation of power that has characterized most European nations and regions over the past thirty years or so.
Though each is thought to be opposed to the other, the Franco-German and the Anglo-Saxon model have more in common than they admit; not least because both seek to fashion Europe in their own image. And insofar as each is equally unilateral and hegemonic, both alternatives are certain to be rejected by European voters in future. Not only are the rival visions for the future of Europe equally unilateral and hegemonic, they are in reality complicit. This is nowhere more visible than on the convergence of the central state and the free market – to the detriment of localities, regions and the intermediary institutions of civil society.
The dominant shape of the EU’s single market is a case in point. For all the Franco-German talk about European social models that supposedly set Europe apart from both US ‘free-market’ capitalism and Asian state-centralised capitalism, the single market has led to the extension of both state and market forces into previously self-regulating sectors, intermediary institutions and social relations. But extending economic-contractual relations – backed by state-administrative interventions – has undermined and sidelined bonds of mutuality, reciprocity and fraternity. Of course there is of course no golden age to which we could return when these bonds were perfect and universally shared. It is nonetheless true that late (or post-)modernity has seen an increasing fragmentation and atomisation of society and the decline of civic activity, linked as they are to the erosion of social relations. [4] It is also the case that this has dissolved bonds which exceed the logic of utility and contract in the direction of gratuitousness and gift-exchange, as Pope Benedict suggests in his encyclical Caritas in veritate. [5] As such, Franco-German statism is at odds with the notion that civil society is more fundamental than the state and the market which it embeds within social relations.
And for all the Anglo-Saxon talk about flexibility and equality of opportunity, the dominant mode of the European single market provides the conditions for an inexorable drive towards uniformisation, homogeneity and centralism. By reducing substantive notions of justice to matters of procedural fairness, the Anglo-Saxon model unwittingly promotes the commodification of both social and natural relations that is diametrically opposed to its discourse about family values and the importance of local community.
Far from inaugurating a shared European politics, the subordination of civil society to the joint forces of state and market epitomises the complicit collusion of the two dominant approaches to Europe which are now collapsing under the weight of their own inner contradictions. The Franco-German model is unable to extend the shared commonality to new member-states or preserve the specificities of Europe’s socio-economic settlements in the face of globalisation. Likewise, the Anglo-Saxon model is incapable of upholding the diversity of European societies or enhance the productivity of its economies.
New challenges like financial regulation, societal cohesion or climate change will not be addressed by handing over more control to the unelected Commission, as the Franco-German model has so far prescribed. Nor does the Anglo-Saxon model offer an alternative. It seeks to strip the EU of some of its powers, only to repatriate them to the national level which suffers from bureaucratic centralisation and therefore also lacks accountability and transparency. The Anglo-Saxon mantra of preparing the EU for globalisation and the blind belief that nation-states are the sole repository of legitimacy betray the primacy of economics over politics and national self-interest over a common political project. This vision can neither deliver a Europe greater than its parts. Nor can it protect national cultures from the worst excesses of statist bureaucracy and the anarchic global free market.

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