Brexit, Canada and Federalism

The Globe and Mail recently published an editorial by former Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson on the topic of the European Union which called on Canada, as the great success-story of federalism, to stand up for Europe. Undoubtably, Robertson is referring directly to the recently ramped-up Vote Leave campaign in the United Kingdom, which seeks a withdrawal of that country from the European Union in general. I have personally been following the Brexit campaign half out of a desire for a good political story (look no further than Europe for great politics) and half because the outcome represents one front (of four) in which the European Union is facing a modern identity, and consequently, existential crisis. And, I can say, with confidence, that I disagree whole heartedly with the sentiment presented by Colin Robertson in his recent editorial. My disagreement is based on one chief complaint; the European Union is not a federalist experiment in Europe. And furthermore, a suggestion that it is as such is a prime reason why the United Kingdom, or any self-respecting democracy for that matter, should not advance membership in the European Union.

Robertson reaches back to the days of Trudeau to paint a very rosy picture of federalism. He is indeed correct when he reminds us of the strength Trudeau placed on federalism by claiming that it was a representation of great compromise between mature political actors. There is no question that within pluralistic states, federalism is a democratic option that presents the strongest case for stability and growth. There are not many politically minded people who would deny that fact. However, the crux lay in the fact that federalism requires an overarching state which can be composed of one or more nations. A state which would require the social contact between the people to exist in the first place. The European Union is not a state in this sense, and never was meant to be as such. I would concede that there are powerful European political forces who would like to see the European Union become a federalist super-state above the nation-states of Europe formerly known as countries. But the fact is that the European Union is first and last an economic union. It was conceived as such, it developed initial regulation as such and since has spawned into something that I absolutely do not slight Robertson for observing as being a federalist state from across the pond but at the end of the day is merely an economic union.

The chief organ of the European Union is the European Council which is composed of members who are at best unelected and at worst have been previously rejected in elections within their own countries. That is a fundamental democratic flaw within the European Union construct that would certainly prevent the country which founded the common law concept of responsible self-government from subscribing. There is absolutely no reason why the United Kingdom would require an unelected and foreign executive and legislative branch above the duly elected government and House of Commons to pass laws for their people. Any country that would allow the apparatus of the state and law to fall into the hands of a small and distant unelected body would be in breach of the social contract established between the people and the state. Federalism requires first and foremost the presence of democratically elected representatives and responsible government. Both of which are not present within the European Union.

The campaign currently underway within the United Kingdom is indeed historical. Not just because of the ramifications that will fall out in the future regardless of the outcome, but even in the very nature of the referendum itself. Robertson is correct in saying that here in Canada we have a unique connection to Europe and the United Kingdom and thus can draw a reason to enter into the fray. It was the United Kingdom that established British North America which eventually became Canada. But there is a lesson there as well, because the relationship that the United Kingdom has today with the European Union can be compared to that of a young Canada and a dying Empire. Rightfully, Canadians sought to shake off the powers and influence of a foreign and unelected power and we eventually grew and developed our own statehood. The United Kingdom has never lost statehood, but the waters have certainly become muddled as a member of the European Union. Just as it was abhorrent for Canadians to be under the direct control of European powers, the people of the United Kingdom have determined that it may be just as abhorrent to be under the direct control of European powers. We do have a common thread here, and we should be rallying behind our democratic big brothers and sisters.

Federalism lastly is about bringing the execution of government closer to the people. The devolution of powers from a federalist state down to the various states and municipalities stands as a system designed to address a fundamental principle of good government, namely that it is administered as closely to the people as possible. The European Union as a concept is the exact opposition of federalism. It seeks to remove the unique nature of each state within Europe and to blend a common economic body of regulations, monetary policy and, more recently, a common body of law. This removes fundamental executive powers of the government and state from the people and brings it closer to Brussels and not the British Isles.

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