Sergio Fabbrini on #EUdemocracy

Fabbrini argues that it is necessary

“to acknowledge the key difference between a nation state and a union of states.

This is the difference between a federal state (emerging from the disaggregation of a previously unitary state) and a federal union (created by the aggregation of previously independent states). Empirically speaking, federal states like Germany, Austria, Belgium, Canada and Australia have all adopted a parliamentary system of government, but none of the federations by aggregation (or federal unions, such as the United States and Switzerland) have done so. Federal unions have adopted, at the horizontal level, a specific brand of separation of power, given their need to prevent the formation of a strong and centralised decision-making centre – a need genetically less relevant in federal states…


The EU cannot adopt a parliamentary form of government due to structural, rather than contingent, reasons. Regardless of the parliamentary rhetoric celebrated in the Treaties, parliamentarism cannot give a feasible answer to the two main systemic constraints within the EU: the demographic asymmetries between its member states and the national differentiation between the latter’s citizens. Given these systemic constraints, it would be unacceptable to recognise only the European Parliament as the source of governmental authority in the EU, if not as the source of the EU’s democratic legitimacy.

If this were to occur then the representatives of smaller member states (currently around three quarters of the total) would consistently be in a minority, given the national differentiation between citizens cannot be regulated through the same ‘left vs right’ axis that exists at the national level. It is no coincidence that federations by aggregation have adopted a decision-making system based on separation rather than fusion of powers. Separation of powers offers a mechanism for guaranteeing multiple access points to the decision-making process: a setup that protects small member states and prevents the formation of permanent hegemonies by larger ones.

Certainly, in systems that fuse powers, it is much easier to take decisions, as long as the government enjoys the political confidence of the majority of the legislature, and it is also much easier to identify who is responsible for what. This is not the case in systems based on a separation of powers, where the government is a process, not an institution. However, a union of states is not a nation state. In complex situations, simple ‘solutions’ can worsen the problem, rather than solving it.”

I find the concept of systems “where the government is a process, not an institution” interesting – and not only in the EU context.

(I worked for Reading Borough Council at a time when it had complicated relationships of powers with Berkshire County Council. For example, we owned the municipal car parks and set their tariffs – but these had to be approved by the County. I remember thinking that this absence of absolute power did not only have disadvantages.)

However, I am not convinced by the historical argument at the start. Of the five examples, at least three – Germany, Canada and Australia – were to my mind “created by the aggregation of previously independent states”. This undermines one implication of the piece – that the EU and the US have no choice but to make decisions in slow and patchy ways.

Parliament central Nairobi 813.JPG(Parliament building, Nairobi, 2013)

Published by

Paul Hodson

Head of Unit "EnergyEfficiency" at European Commission, Directorate-General for Energy

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