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On the Origin of Species (Federalists specifically)

Where is the concept of European federalism in this modern era of fast running politics? And who exactly is it trying to appeal to? Brian Milne gives a funny, brutal but honest assessment of the movement and finds that it is long road ahead before we may see any united Europe.

From time to time Charles Darwin’s most famous book title is useful. As a text we now know that because it was researched before then being published first in 1859 it is with time extremely dated and very imperfect. It is a starting dichotomy though that was not the first but most influential examination of the theory of evolution. Over recent weeks my fellow Europa United colleague, Ken Sweeeney and I have been looking at one particular species. I shall name this species, or perhaps better said a ‘sub-species’, of the species Homo sapiens of the genus Homo, which is part of the order Primates, foederati hominem (which is masculine, although also generic, so I shall add the feminine form mulier foederati to avert controversy). It is a truly old creature, so what my colleague and I are observing that thinks it is new, is also a rather self-deceptive beast.

Into the federal wilderness

We should look at this in the environment in which foederati dwell, federalism. That is derived from a Latin word, foedus, that means meaning ‘treaty’ or ‘contract’. Foedus is a late Latin word though, coming from an older word, fides, meaning ‘trust’ that gives us ‘fidelity’ that means faithfulness to a person, cause or belief, which is demonstrated by continual loyalty and support. So far, so good. Foedus in Ancient Rome, the republic especially and its empire broadly, normally referred to treaties with other parts of the Italian peninsula during the period of the Republic unromanised barbari who still lived at the Marches during Empire. The concept survived well into the Middle Ages as treaties of alliance between ‘political’ entities, thus mostly peace treaties. There was a linguistic switch from foedus  to confoederatio that has been commonly used to refer to alliances, the perhaps best known example being the creation of the Confederatio Helvetica.  That should not be confused with the precursors of Switzerland as we now know it, the loose alliance between three cantons, Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, which established a protective alliance in 1291 that continued for centuries as it grew into what we now know. The formation of the modern federal state came in 1848, although its name recalls the Napoleonic Helvetic Republic when in 1798 revolutionary France conquered them and imposed a new unified constitution that was largely retained after independence was regained in 1815. The Latin name came with the need to translate the German Eidgenossenschaft (oath comrades or fellowship) into a common but neutral language. In fact, such federal unions are not ‘new’, since the Germanic Holy Roman Empire from either 800 or 962, depending on whether you count the Carolingian period until 888 as the beginning or the later revival, that lasted until 1806 was also a federation and, in effect, the United States of America since the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 wrote the United States Constitution is just that. Other modern states might include, for instance, the Bundesrepublik Deutschland from 1949 until 1990 and the reunification as Germany which is still a federal state. In other words, federations are not new. We have things to learn from, successes and failures alike, so what has foederati on offer that is new?

What’s it all about?

So what has our preoccupation been about? Both of us have been looking at the proliferation of federalist groups who appear to be on the one hand competing with each other and on the other often unaware of each other. They also appear to have quite different interpretations of federalism and political orientation. To be blunt about them, some of what they are proposing is vague or even contradictory; a lot is reshuffled old hat. Each one appears to lay claims to being the authentic foederati hominem, but then does what homo sapiens did early in its existence by drifting off into tribes that even then seem to break down into clans. That moves me on to something that amuses me no end, the search for either or both our linguistic or genealogical cum ethnic origins.

What are they saying?

Seeing these phenomena as individuals who believe in federalism, somewhat differently perhaps, but with enough common ground, the discussions have informed each other about other groups, movements or parties the other did not know of, of launches of those groups in new places and some of their activities. They all claim to be the real McCoy, but appear to have so little in common that the very nature of federalism seems to be defiantly ignored in the effort to be one more federal than the other.

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Some of the many European federalist incarnations over the last few years

The effect is that with claims about who is what, in each case proclaiming themselves to be the real bearers of the vanguard of federalism and some of them declaring how they would be absorbing other diffuse groups in the country they are based in, which when contacted said it is a consideration but nothing is agreed yet and very likely that an assembly to vote on that would reject the proposition, seemed over the top. Most are still based in their ‘home country’, one has recently begun to expand into other countries but one of  the launch videos was not exactly inspiring and others that have set up internationally within the EU seem to be most concerned with which group they will join and the value of those alliances. The European elections next May seem to be their common priority. Too many candidates with too little support base will be their death, but discussing that with them only results in explanations that divert away from that point to either rationalisations or political discourse that come across as not only a distraction but also an excuse for their competitive nature. Thus far, none of them I have challenged has accepted that critique. It looks like our foederati are wandering into a political maze believing it to be a straight path to a preordained destiny. Needless to say, each appears to have non-member supporters who are saying which one is best as well, thus predicting a wide dispersal of votes rather than the consolidation they actually need. They are not helping the cause of federalism at all.

On the origins of those who will be federalised

The other kind of foederati who are trying to prove that we share either Indo-European linguistic or ethnic roots are missing the point entirely. The origins of languages are indeed very interesting. So too is the story of ethnic origins. Both are extremely diverse. However, using them as any kind of rationale for our fusion as a federal entity gets lost in a vague mass of detail. With both we have the diversity that exists within modern political nation states. In reality there are almost no countries in the world that are genuinely monolingual. Those that tend to have very small populations so that if we exclude foreign languages learned for practical reasons we find examples like Icelandic whereby over 90% of the population use it, but Danish and English are mandatory in education, so bear a great deal of influence. Within the EU and Schengen Area countries such as Belgium, Ireland, Italy and Switzerland, which are officially multilingual, tend also to have a lot of monolinguals in their population. On the other hand, officially monolingual countries, such as France with Brezhoneg, Euskari, Occitan (even with Lengadocian and Gascou distinct linguistic variants within it), Corsu, Elsässerditsch, Walon, Picard, Langues d’oïl, Català, Piedmontese, Lombard, Emilian-Romagnol, Monegasque  and Ligurian are not actually monolingual at all. Then I ask myself, have I forgotten any? That’s just good old ‘monolingual’ France!

It runs similarly as soon as we run the gauntlet of proving ethnic origin with DNA testing sometimes surprising us all. That comes later. Names are also supposed to give us clues very often. Do they? Take Ken and I. Ken is of Scottish origin and is the Anglicised form of two possible roots, both Gaelic, Cinaed and Cionaed (born of fire) or Coinneach and Caoineach (attractive, handsome). OK Ken, you can climb back down off your boosted ego now! Sweeney is a surname most closely associated with Ireland but of Scots origin, derived from the Gaelic Mac Suibhne that means ‘son of Suibhne’; Suibhne meaning ‘pleasant’ or ‘well-disposed’. A nice guy to boot Ken! My own forename is actually Irish, a Gaelic name that people believe is Anglicised, which it is not, although as common in Scotland and England as Ireland. It is Bernard and similar in other languages. My family name is a very common Scots version of Miller, Müller or Meunier, a very common European occupational name. Plain old Bernie Müller. Very boring, but I survive with it. Names are always ultimately paternal, even where matrilineal naming occurs, since the origin will always lead back to a male ancestor in Europe no matter how far back one must go.

So what?

So Ken has Scots ancestors somewhere back in time who gave him his family name but the forename is coincidentally Scots; my own origin probably Scots, but even then that is tricky to nail down. In the northeast we have a lot of Norman English, Norse and French influences, so what actual ethnic origins I may have are unknown unless I have my DNA examined. The point about names here is that as soon as we look at them we begin to touch a thread that leads us back through even quite localised origins in nations we may not expect and with which we do not identify in any sense. The fact that human beings are not be nature sedentary. When they arrive or are pushed into a place suitable for their immediate needs that then serves them well over several generations, they remain at that place. Otherwise we are very mobile and what is common believed to be our origin as a species, the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania illustrates perfectly well that we are the outcome of many millions of years of migration. Our distant ancestors moved on, climate change may have been the reason. That we also interbred with Neanderthals, perhaps with Denisovans and even other non Homo sapiens or other branches of hominidae in the primate group begins to show one aspect of how we began to develop differences. It does not explain conditioned changes such as isolation of groups who developed their forms of communication into distinct languages that in turn subdivided, the emergence of different cultures,  traditions, beliefs and all else that gives us individuality. The fact we are by nature migratory often leads to dead ends because we often believe we are sedentary. Going to look for what we may well never find is an interesting distraction but serves no useful purpose.

Ken and I both have partners who are not the same nationality as we are, which actually does not make a great deal of difference to us, but our children potentially have a wider world at their feet than we probably had. So what!

Does any of that really count?

So let’s have a couple of anecdotes to illustrate how thin our claims of being something easily identifiable are. I had a friend named Goldstein, a German Jewish name, who came from Cork in Ireland. He was a Protestant, but believed his origins must be Jewish, so began to search. He got back as far as 1572 when he found that the Goldstein family had arrived from France. He knew that it was the year of the massacres and purge of Huguenots in France because quite a few of the protestant friends of his family were descendants of people who had fled then. He imagined his family had left with them then took on the Protestant Christian faith. In France, Toulouse to be precise, he found no trail back to Germany or evidence of Jewish origins, in fact only of his Huguenot ancestors fleeing with others. He tried to find evidence from within Germany but working backward through the damage of wars, the Nazis, various pogroms and the breakup of what was once the German Empire, he could find no traces. What he did find was that a few generations back a member of his family had served in the British army that had been part of the 1868 British expedition to Abyssinia to release a number of British hostages. Once they had been released, some of their former servants accompanied them to where they disembarked in India with British Indian Army troops. The great-great-grandfather married the woman in India then eventually took her home to Cork. My friend’s great grandfather had an Ethiopian name Alemayehu that was the name of the Abyssinian heir to the throne who was evacuated to England but died young there. He gave up looking for Jewish origins, but finished his days in Addis Ababa.

Another anecdote is as follows. A fellow social anthropologist who thought she had origins as purely English as the equivalent of driven snow with family trees to show ancestry all the way back to the Norman invasion, perhaps even before, tried DNA testing. She gave samples at three reputable and respected laboratories. The results surprised her. There was a common strand in each of them but as much variance between the three samples. In fact she retested at one to see if it differed, which it did very slightly. Nonetheless, the point was made that she was not as pure English, whatever that may be, as she imagined. One of the problems with even the most complex family trees is that they are not quite expansive enough ‘sideways’ and often, because they only go back as far as known records are available, leave a great deal of data out. In her case, I have never known details precisely, but there was genetic evidence of non-European origins from at least six places that were recognised in each test. At first she was surprised, but later delighted.

What do foederati think?

So what do our foederati friends think of all that? I doubt they think too much of it at all. We are diverse, but then so are they, and what I am saying tends to point them towards keeping everything respectfully apart rather than herding it together. On the other hand they often seem to want to keep together that which should be allowed to be separate but simply united. They appear so preoccupied with uniting countries within a large federation of a United States of Europe type that they overlook people. Diversity is hard fought for, more so identity and uniqueness. That would point us in the logical direction of respecting all differences be they language, culture, traditions, appearance or anything else. If parts of present nations gain independence or full autonomy that should be calculated into what type of federal structure it would be in order to accommodate those differences. Celebrating diversity should be a key part of how we structure our federation. That may not mean union but some kind of looser federal unification than one with a single government, economy and constitution. A common legal system that takes in existing ones would be desirable of course. However, not an attempt to make Europe into a ‘country’ instead of a continent. Tell that to foederati and see the responses. I prefer to call a spade a spade, but I have seen a lot of pointless waffle that all points to the wide variety of forms of federation that tend to have one thing in common, intellectually they are potentially dictatorships because the democracy loving foederati only tolerate democracy as they present it.

I had one debate on policy in which my discussant picked up the fact that my ideological position is socialist. I do not hide that. I am naturally an internationalist, thus federalism seems quite natural to me. However that led him to tell me that socialists are too reliant on discourse. I agreed, but he said they should present policies rather than political theory. Again I agreed. I asked him to describe his group’s policies, but off he went into political theory, good old dialectical discourse in an attempt to identify some kind of precise articulation of our discussion in an attempt to reach some kind of consensus without him reciprocating my offer of us dropping our diverse points of view and him answering my question about exact policy. Had I been really mean I might have launched into Hegelian dialect just to have a good, solid argument. No, I asked again what his group’s policy is. He could only tell me that they wish to draw people together, probably position themselves left of centre and take it from there. So I asked again about what actual policies were since democratic societies tend to want to know what their potential governments have in store for them. I was accused of not taking in what he had already said and trying to trick him into saying something I could twist back against him. My response was that I would never be voting for his people because they appear to have nothing on offer. He simply gave up by saying that I was only out to oppose everything he said. I responded to say that he had not actually told me anything. I somehow found myself placed in the role of opposition, something that is not generally discussed, which delivers their ideas into the wide open hands of the nationalists who are making great headway at present. Something is seriously wrong because the federalists cannot get together to find a solution they can share. Ouch! I will be interesting watching the evolution of foederati hominem and mulier foederati into what are commonly known as political animals. At present they appear to not have sharp enough teeth for the dog eat dog arena of political life and big words do not tend to convince voters. Next May should be interesting.

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