Federal challenges and challenges to federalism. Insights from the EU and federal states

John Erik Fossum (ARENA Centre for European Studies)
John Erik Fossum (ARENA Centre for European Studies)

By John Erik Fossum

The basic question that this special issue collection (guest edited by John Erik Fossum and Markus Jachtenfuchs) addresses is: What may we learn from thinking about the EU in federal terms? Our survey of the literature shows that there are three categories of federal-type comparisons in the realm of EU-studies. These are across-systems comparisons; within EU-comparisons (member states, issues, policies and diachronically); and what we may term implicit comparisons, i.e. studies that borrow aspects from federal systems without explicit reference to the federalism dimension. A number of these are important and path-breaking analyses. But when we hold the body of literature on EU federalism up against the body of literature on EU studies, we are struck by the former’s limited and quite scattered nature. It is readily apparent that the federal dimension in EU studies is clearly underdeveloped in comparison to other fields and subfields, as a consequence of the fact that the euro-federalism perspective lost the theoretical competition to the international relations perspective. That meant that the theoretical competition between neo-functionalism and intergovernmentalism set the terms of debate. Federalism on its part has had a limited framing effect on the field of EU studies. If we look more broadly we see that this problem is amplified by comparative federalism’s relatively underdeveloped nature.

The contributions to this collection show that there are good grounds for reinvigorating the discussion of federalism in the EU context, through relying on an explicit and self-conscious approach to how such a reinvigorated effort should proceed. The issue is not simply to establish ‘how federal’ the EU is, but also to consider whether federal theory and practice may have to be adapted to take proper account of the EU and its many distinctive features, not the least its uniquely differentiated nature. In effect, we cannot usefully address the former unless we have come up with a viable answer to the latter. The contributions to this collection approach these questions through comparison and theoretical-conceptual reflection oriented along two main lines of inquiry. The first focuses on the relationship between federalism and democracy, and includes contributions from John Erik Fossum, Arthur Benz, Nicole Bolleyer and Lori Thorlakson. The second places the emphasis on the relationship among the governments of federal systems, with emphasis on intergovernmental relations, and includes contributions from Robert Csehi, Sergio Fabbrini, and Markus Jachtenfuchs and Christiane Kasack. Michael Keating ends the collection with a bird’s eye view of federalism, and highlights federalism as a set of analytical principles. He discusses this from the interesting angle of rescaling.