A recent article in The Economist (see below) suggests that ‘federalism’ has two opposing meanings.  In Europe the term means a stronger central government, while in the U.S. it connotes a weak center but stronger state governments.  Federalism, in fact, means both, a powerful center as well as strong state governments.

In the country of its invention, the U.S., federalism was established to create a strong central government, but without reducing the responsibilities and independence of its state governments. The whole idea was to have an effective government for each realm of activities.

For any union to succeed it is essential to have a strong central government.  But for effective governance on the ground, it is equally necessary to have strong state governments.  In their creative new system of government, America’s founders struck the right balance. Thomas Jefferson would call this balancing of state and federal governments “a beautiful equilibrium.”

The problem with the European Union is that it doesn’t have suitable central institutions, like the U.S. Senate, for federalism’s proper balancing.  Nor does it have appropriate distribution of powers.  The U.S. Constitution for example delegates only nine specific powers to the central government; all residuary powers are left with the states.  Without such well-crafted central institutions or powers, every transfer of authority to the European center ends up weakening its states, instead of the two bolstering each other.

— By Bhanu Dhamija


Here are excerpts from The Economist article…

Federalism: The term has two opposing meanings

EMMANUEL MACRON’S agenda for strengthening the European Union has revived talk of a “federal Europe”. The French president’s ambition will be easier to achieve without Britain: it has tended to follow the line of Margaret Thatcher, who in 1990 said the introduction of the euro might lead to “a federal Europe, which we totally and utterly reject.” Three years earlier Thatcher’s ideological ally, Ronald Reagan, had endorsed federalism in the United States, with an executive order that claimed to re-establish “the principles of federalism established by the Framers [of America’s constitution]” by taking power away from Washington and giving it to the states. “Federalism is rooted in the knowledge that our political liberties are best assured by limiting the size and scope of the national government,” Reagan proclaimed. The reader will have noticed that “federalism” has two opposite meanings here, in one case connoting a stronger central government, and in the other a weaker one. Why is that?

…The long answer starts with America’s constitutional convention of 1787, where the term “federalism” was coined. Those favouring a powerful central government, including Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (who eventually became the chief authors of the constitution), adopted the name “federalists”. Those who wanted strong states and a weak central government became the “anti-federalists”. The Federalist Papers, a series of arguments for the new constitution written by Hamilton and Madison, acknowledged the need for balance between state and federal power, but they mainly favoured the centre. After the constitution was adopted, the advocates of strong central government (mainly from Northern states) coalesced into the Federalist Party. …

In the 19th and early 20th centuries many other new states with significant internal divisions also embraced the federalist concept, including Brazil, Canada, Mexico and Switzerland. During the second world war, the idea took hold that a European federation, with an overarching European government sharing power with national states, might be the key to ending the continent’s persistent wars. In Italy, Altiero Spinelli founded the European Federalist Union in 1943. Winston Churchill called in 1946 for the creation of “a kind of United States of Europe”. Because the European states began with no joint federal union at all, “federalism” in Europe naturally meant favouring a stronger one. …

… The upshot is that today, when Europeans speak of “federalism” they mean giving Brussels more power, whereas when Americans speak of “federalism” they mean giving Washington, DC less.

This article was first published on The Economist on 13 June 2017