How popular is the idea of a federal Union of Europe? As part of our federalism feature, Europa United is putting the spotlight on the concept of a Federal Union of Europe and we talk to Pietro De Matteis, president of the European Federalist Party. Pietro, a native of Monza in Italy, gives us insight into the idea of Federalism and what a future would be like in a united Europe. Pietro holds a PhD in international studies from the University of Cambridge. After some experience at the European Central Bank and at the EU Institute for Security Studies, he joined the European Commission. An economist by training, he graduated from the University of Milan-Bicocca (and obtained a Master’s-level degree from the European College of Parma).
What started your interest in European affairs?
I’m from a city near Milan called Monza, an average city by European standards, but famous for the annual Formula one race which I think was one of the first things that got me interested in Europe and life outside Italy. I liked to travel around a lot in my teens, so I worked summer jobs in the UK and Spain and then when I went to university in Milan, it was my intention to get into international economics and I got my Erasmus in Paris. I first was interested in European economics, but I shifted to more European affairs for my Master’s. I lived in so many places in Europe, too long to list, but this helped me to gain experience about Europe and the world. We have to be able to engage with people from all over the world, so my wish was to develop my global citizenship. Over the past few years I have been working with the European institutions with the idea being that we can change Europe from the inside.
When did your interest in federalism begin?
It’s nearly ten years ago now. When I completed my Erasmus and returned to Milan for my Master’s, I took a study visit to the European Parliament in Milan and I thought about this idea of the federalist approach to Europe. I discovered some of the federalist movements and I stared to become really active at the local level.
When European federalism is discussed, many are against the idea because they fear that they will lose control. How do you counteract that belief?
The thing about federalism is that it’s actually the opposite of losing control. You allow the people to have control at the closest level to the people in a democratic way. Otherwise the option is no democracy at all where the decisions are taken far away from the people. Federalism is the only way to have a democratic decision making process happening for big decisions. So you ensure that the citizen is involved as much as possible at every level from the local level to the regional, national and even global one. Federalism enables the citizens to have a say in ways they would have never had before.
What about national identity?
The thing about identity is that if people fear losing their identity, I don’t think they have clear identity themselves. If you feel that as a Milanese or a Dubliner you will lose your identity by meeting people from Paris or London, that’s nonsense. Identity is like fluid and it changes every day and if it doesn’t change, then I think you are not learning anything in your daily life. So I think fearing losing your identity is a not an issue as such. Maybe the issue is that people are not sure about themselves. This century, many people are unsure, so they anchor themselves on this thing about identity. Identity as Italian, German or French is a recent thing and we shouldn’t be so aware of that. We should be more aware of losing control. This is something which is clearly an issue in the recent UK referendum and the US presidential campaign and that is a valid argument, but the thing is, do we actually have control now? Our countries themselves do not have the tools to have control. Leaders of countries say that they will reduce unemployment or increase security for example, but they do not have the financial resources or tools. The response to that is that if want to have control, then we need to work with the federal approach, because if we act together then we will be able to impact on decisions. We will be able to have more safety in transport, control terrorism and climate change. Now as an individual country, we don’t have that control. The system doesn’t work, so how do you make it work – because issues being dealt in European countries at the national level should be dealt with at a European level.
What happens to national parties in a federal system of government?
Parties come and go, everything depends on the constituency. The question is where the constituencies are. The time when we become aware that we have shared interest as Europeans and we connect on those interests as Europeans, then we will be become a constituency, then there will be parties that will be able to articulate the will of that constituency and they will be the ones elected. There may be some national parties that will be able to operate at this level, but parties that are unable to adapt to the new system at the European level of constituency will disappear. But that is part of the evolution and of course some will try to resist it.
Compared to other federalist movements, how does the EFP stand out?
The main difference is that we take part in elections. Many times we were candidates to the European elections and we were the only party to talk about Europe during the elections, as well as putting forward some federalist solutions. The federalist issue and our way of engaging would not have been present in the elections, so by being present during the debates you actually give a lot of visibility to the idea of federalism. Federalism is tool or an approach and it is not a solution per se, but it is something that allows you deliver solutions. If we have a political party that presents this idea, usually the people will agree. It’s important that at some point somebody puts this solution on the table.
If we move towards a more federal union, is it inevitable that we will lose member states?
It is possible that we can lose states, but I think now we are thinking of members states. But with the current way the EU is working, we are losing citizens. So I think what matters is that we create an approach for the EU that actually regains the trust of the people. We need to deliver on the challenges and if people understand and become part of this project and see that the project is a democracy and is getting things done, then they would join again. Frankly, I think that even if the UK leave, they will join again if we are able to get the EU working properly in the next few years.
Could we be looking at a two tier system initially?
I think initially yes, because we need to have a core of European countries. It could be the Eurozone, because we need to have a budget, central bank and an actual budget and be able to enforce the single market, welfare and fix the current weakness of the current EU, which is basically requiring a significant step forward in integration. You can only do it if you have an actual democratic federation.
So the idea would be to have a core group and leave the door open for member states of the current set up to join?
Yes, absolutely. I think it’s the most logical way forward. We should have a European Union where all countries are equal and they agree that we are going towards a direction of a federal Europe.
This political concept would be such a fundamental shift in European politics, so do you see a timescale on this?
I think at this stage it’s quite urgent, because we are unable to tackle the challenges that we have. These are challenges that we could tackle much more effectively with the federal system created. The current structure in which the European Union is working is inefficient, because we are still based on the national interest approach. I believe that if we don’t transform this in the next ten years, I think it will be very difficult to continue with the current European Union. Because the forces that are now growing at a national level will get stronger, because they have a so called solution. They say Europe doesn’t work, so they say let’s go back to nation states and they try to get their power back from the EU, but at the same time the EU doesn’t have the power to deliver on the challenges, so the situation is that if we don’t do anything, those who want to destroy the EU will win. If we want to deliver then we have to make structural reforms, such as budget, investment and defence. These are all the things we have to do, but the current pace is too slow and it’s business as usual ,and if the changes are too small, then the nationalist movement will get stronger. So basically it’s a race between two ideas, one is nationalist and the other one is federalist, so we have to see if the federalist is faster and push for the reforms that will allow the EU to be more effective, or if the nationalist is faster and get to the finish line first and dismantle the whole process.
The European Federalist Party will be joining forces with Stand Up For Europe this weekend for its annual conference. At the conference, the organisation will be working on a plan to bring together the major players in the federalist movement. Some may say that putting all your eggs in one basket can be a good idea, as it allows a movement to go forward with one purpose, but there is always the fear that with one movement, other more progressive ideas and organisations will be lost. For me federalism is a long way off; I don’t see the timeline that Pietro speaks of and while I agree with him that the EU is not equipped to deal with the current set of crises, I think it will be a case of the EU resolving its issues with some casualties along the way. We are indeed living in difficult times, but promoting a federalist cause could be a dangerous red rag to an already fuelled nationalist agenda. Federalism must continue to develop – but with patience.