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


In some measure, contemporary Europe remains a vestigially Christian polity that reflects some of the principles and practices of reciprocity and mutuality. For instance, the EU has numerous elements of communal and associational ties at all levels such as citizenship, voting rights, solidarity and mutualised structures within the common framework of the single market. In this respect, two recent events are of particular significance. First of all, the German constitutional court (Verfassungsgericht) – in a judgement rendered on 30 June 2009 concerning the compatibility of the Lisbon Reform Treaty with the German constitution – described the EU neither as a federalist entity nor as an intergovernmental arrangement but as an ‘association of nations’ (Nationenverbund), as Andrea Simoncini has remarked. This is an implicit recognition that European nations are more like regions within a wider polity. Here one can go further than Germany’s constitutional judges and suggest that the mutual, reciprocal ties binding together the people and nations of Europe cannot be reduced to economic utility or purely legal standards. Instead, these ties resemble the organic links of a medieval corporation with overlapping jurisdictions and a complex web of intermediary associations wherein sovereignty is dispersed and diffuse.
The second event was a series of interventions by the new President of the EU Council Herman van Rompuy. In a remarkable speech on 7 December 2009, he outlined an alternative to both state communism and free-market capitalism by drawing on ideas shared by European Christian Democrats and Christian Socialists. [16] . His ideas have the potential to transform the ongoing debate on how best to reform the EU’s ailing economy. Van Rompuy’s argument is that both capitalist free-market and socialist central planning policies fail because they are based on a false account of human nature. Human beings are neither bare individuals who pursuit private profit through market competition. Nor are we anonymous parts of a monolithic collectivity controlled by the state.
The real, true account of the human person is not about unbridled freedom in the marketplace nor about our obedient dependence on the state, but about our social bonds which discipline us and make us the unique persons we all are. At their best, the social bonds of family, neighbourhood, local community, professional associations, nation and faith help instil civic virtues and a shared sense of purpose. Concretely, this means solidarity and a commitment to the common good in which all can participate – from a viable ecology via universal education and healthcare to a wider distribution of assets and other means to pursue true happiness beyond pleasure and power.
Unlike other monotheistic religions, Christian conceptions of God stress the relations between the three divine persons of the Holy Trinity (with the exception of Shi’ite/Sufi or a Kabbalistic/Hasidic mystics who are more at ease with the notion of ‘relations’ within the godhead than Sunni or Talmudic legalism). Therefore, the belief that we are all made in the image and likeness of a personal, ‘relational’ Creator God translates into an emphasis on the strong bonds of mutual help and reciprocal giving. For true Christians, charity is never about handing out alms to the poor and feeling better about oneself. Rather, it is about an economy of gift-exchange where people assist each other – not based on economic utility or legal obligation but in a spirit of free self-giving and receiving by members of a social body greater than its parts.
Nor is this some sort of religious utopia. Guilds, cooperatives and employee-owned businesses in parts of Italy, Germany, France or Spain exemplify the concrete reality of a mixed economy that combines gift-giving with economic exchange. In Britain, there are even grassroots’ initiatives to apply this approach to public services and welfare provision. The idea is to foster civic participation based on self-organisation, social enterprise, reciprocity and mutuality which help produce a sense of shared ownership. This approach seeks to balance liberty and responsibility as well as rights and duties. Whereas state models reduce people to needy recipients of public benefits and market models degrade citizens to passive consumers of private services, the real ‘third way’ proposed by Van Rompuy encourages active, voluntary membership of people who give as well as receive.
For politics, that means going beyond abstract measures like GDP and instead creating the conditions for individuals and groups so that they can flourish in solidarity and cooperation with each other. The task for Europe’s leaders is neither to restore the broken market nor to remake society through legislation and regulation. Rather, the most pressing problem for the EU as a whole is how to enable people to nurture and grow those bonds of reciprocity and mutuality.

4. Constitutional Corporatism and Subsidiary Federalism
Linked to the new politics of reciprocity and mutuality are European traditions of corporate constitutionalism, federal subsidiarity, fraternity and participation in a union that is greater than its parts. Indeed, the contours of a common political identity have already emerged. Europeans know that national states alone cannot defend the diversity of their ways of life against global economic harmonisation and the uniformity of American culture. Confronted with opposition at home and abroad, they also know that only a common European political strategy can deal with the global challenges of climate change, debt relief and trade equality. Neither a simplistic return to narrow national politics nor a selective cooperation between member-states can deliver on any of these widely hoped for and desired objectives.
Moreover, Europe is the only region in the world where citizens have in some manner already moved beyond the nation-state. The retreat to nationalist self-interest and isolation is endorsed only by the political extremes and ? as yet ? commands no majority. Where nationalism is rampant, it is so by default ? due to a lack of shared institutions and practices. Paradoxically, what is required is a more intense and imaginative formation of a common political project that speaks to the particular and universal dimensions of European citizenry. Each culture wants to be preserved and wishes the same for its neighbours. Europeans realise that in order to achieve this they must act together. Such cooperation cannot be concentrated either in the hand of sovereign states or in the hands of market players but should increasingly extend to all the actors and institutions of civil society, especially those who operate across the artificial divide between the private, the public and the voluntary sector.
Unlike the modern secular liberal focus on the sovereign will of the individual and the collective (the absolute central state) and on negative freedom of choice, constitutional corporatism shifts the emphasis towards groups, associations and bodies that mediate between ‘the one’ and ‘the many’ as well as pluralise the state and the market from within. In a European context, this relates to all the ‘intermediary institutions’ that are involved in cultural, social, economic and political activities – in the public, the private and the voluntary sector. At a time when the centralised state and the unbridled free market are in crisis, there is much scope to enhance the role of local and regional government as well as strengthen neighbourhood councils and other (formal and informal) arrangements.
Concretely, within the existing EU treaties the following avenues for reformed and action are possible. First of all, at the level of the Union both member-states and the executive Community institutions (Commission and Council) should make greater use of the Committee of the Regions (CoR) and the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), especially in the direction of forging more horizontal links with civil society within the EU and across international borders. Second, a more pluralised and diffused European polity requires a greater actual involvement of national parliaments and a more frequent resort to citizens’ initiatives. Even though the Lisbon Treaty facilitates both these conduits, their potential remains unfulfilled. Third, the EU acknowledges that religious freedom has priority over other rights, but this primacy of groups over individuals is elsewhere undermined by quasi-constitutional powers and legal provisions, including the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. Examples include the application of ‘equality’ legislation to religious bodies. There is thus no limit on the power of secular authorities to interfere in, and legislate over, the internal affairs of the Church and other religious communities by imposing the logic of voluntary contracts concluded by consenting individuals rather than other forms of mutual interaction.
As such, the Union needs to resolve the tension between certain individual and certain group rights, in favour of recognising a collective dimension that cannot be reduced to the individual sovereign will. By encouraging more groups, associations and bodies to self-organise and forge ties with each other, the Union can encourage a form of bottom-up process of constitutionalisation that is far more likely to command the assent and support of Europe’s citizenry than a top-down, centralised Constitutional Treaty that has already failed so spectacularly.
Likewise, there is an alternative to Franco-German statism and Anglo-Saxon free-market liberalism, as I have already hinted at. Christian notions of subsidiarity and solidarity stress ideas and practices of reciprocal help and mutual assistance at the most appropriate level – the person, the family, the neighbourhood, the local community, municipal government, regions, nations, Europe or indeed the global level. Applied to the European case, this means that the ideal of mixed government and a reciprocal, mutualist politics give rise to notions of subsidiary federalism or federal subsidiarity. Here the UK and the rest of Europe can in fact learn from each other. Just as the former would benefit from radical economic and political decentralisation to the lowest most appropriate level (as is the case in parts of Italy and Germany), so too the latter could in part be modelled on the ideal of the British Union wherein nation-states augment their distinct identity through sharing in common institutions and practices. [17] Thus, the EU as a whole could be reconfigured in terms of the idea of ‘subsidiary federalism’ – a legally guaranteed distribution of right and responsibilities between the EU and national levels, combined with a political programme of radical decentralisation to the most appropriate level. The distinct contribution of the UK to a transformed EU is to view each constituent part of Europe as a region within a wider European polity which has many trans-regional poles – rather than as an independent national state which has to surrender its sovereignty to a single, centralised centre.
Nor is this limited to some of Britain’s best traditions. Northern Italy, Germany and even France have sought to balance central authority with regional and local autonomy. Both are necessary, as some regressive practices at the local level require central intervention. Equally, regions should not be wholly subservient to the centre but self-organise in accordance with their own best ideals and practices. In some sense, Europe is already in some limited and imperfect measure a ‘corporation of corporations’ whereby authority and autonomy are blended in mutually augmenting ways.
Across the whole of Europe there is now a growing consensus that the EU needs to be made more accountable and transparent through decentralisation. But the proposed repatriation of powers from Brussels to member-states would concentrate decision-making at the national level, which is at odds with the promise by many on the centre-right to deliver a radical redistribution of power to the local level. Instead of a sterile appeal to the principle of national sovereignty, the Union should adopt a positive stance and follow the imperative of subsidiarity by arguing in favour of an Europe-wide decentralisation to the lowest possible and most appropriate level, including regional authorities, local government, communities and neighbourhoods.
For example, the EU could reinforce and extend the principle of mutual recognition of products and services to more areas of legislation that govern the operation of the European single market. This, combined with some minimal minimum standards, could limit and roll back excessive harmonisation, a perverse situation whereby the Commission can (and still does) legislate on the shape of tomatoes and the size of bananas (in part acting on the requests of individual member-states or rulings by the European Court of Justice). By arguing for a change in EU law that favours mutual recognition rather than harmonisation, the Union can help promote greater diversity and fairer (anti-monopoly and anti-monopsony) competition whilst also protecting national producers and consumers against a competitive race-to-the-bottom.

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