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An Unusual Relationship: World Federalism and National Populism

By Alex MacIsaac

Alex MacIsaac is the Executive Director of the World Federalist Movement - Canada. He has founded and played an active role in various student political groups and organizations.

In an era plagued by the rise of nationalist populists around the world, it is only fair to see the possibility of achieving world federalist objectives through a more pessimistic lens. Worldwide efforts by organizations like World Federalist Movement – Canada to establish a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, for example, seem all but possible because of the need for their establishment by consensus or strong majority across the international community. Other efforts to strengthen global governance too, seem very unlikely in these times – as soon as we achieve any progress in one nation-state such as a commitment to a greener economy or improving adherence to human rights commitments domestically, another state winds the gears of hope back by dismantling the progress of its previous governments under the helm of a nationalist populist figure.

With early shadows emerging in the 1970s and a visible gain in momentum around the 1990s, we’ve seen nationalist populist movements attack international (and, particularly in Europe, supranational) institutions under the guise of taking back a democracy which had been subverted by a ‘global elite’. These populists view the sovereignty of the nation-state as sacred and absolute, rejecting the possibility that any other political unit can provide any representation or democratic channel for its citizens. This familiar characteristic we attribute to populists takes many different shapes and forms, such as Donald Trump’s attacks on NAFTA in the United States or Viktor Orbán’s opposition to EU policy on refugees and asylum seekers in Hungary. The formation of the European Union has indeed been cited as a leading reason for the rise of populism in the continent. Although the BREXIT movement took the spotlight in the last decade, the United Kingdom was not alone in its convictions to leave the EU. These movements spread across Europe with great force and very close calls, such as the Danish People’s Party or the Swedish Democrats. In this way, the creation and gradual expansion of zones for the free movement of goods and services was also seen as the creation of a ‘global elite.’ They become a target for populists to point to as being responsible for the woes and turbulence of the national economy in times of crises.

Despite being on polar opposites of the scale in terms of the solution prescribed, both world federalist and nationalist populist movements share the same criticism of current international and supranational institutions: they aren’t democratic (or efficient) enough! Various elements of the administration of EU policy on the economy and immigration is indeed distanced from the average citizen of the EU because of the membership of the European Commission being determined by appointment. This appointed body is responsible for submitting the budget proposals, limiting the power of the directly elected European Parliament to merely approve or disapprove them. While the democratic mechanisms embedded in the EU are far more advanced than those leading to the formation of international policy at the UN, they still have their notable weaknesses in terms of giving European citizens a voice. The body of the UN General Assembly is also determined by appointment rather than direct election, with very low standards for recognizing the representative legitimacy of appointed UN ambassadors. Since the appointment comes from the national political unit, some members of the body may have a more direct democratic link than others – clearly, any North Korean ambassador’s voice at the UN is far less legitimate than the voice of any Canadian ambassador. But even then, Canadian representation at the UN suffers from the chain of appointments between various political actors domestically, distorting the original interests of voters on global governance topics by throwing in various bureaucratic and national interests along the way. This democratic legitimacy component is a severe blow to aspirations of a General Assembly capable of forming international (or world) law that would be binding for nation-states!

Ideally, we would have some sort of UN Parliamentary Assembly to replace the General Assembly. This would involve creating a direct link between world citizens’ voices and global interests without going through, but in areas that don’t conflict with the global public good still respecting the sovereignty of, the national political unit. In other words, it would in many ways be a universalized version of the EU. World federalists have long advocated for such an endeavour, with minor differences in terms of how the voting groups would be arranged and what types of policy would fall under the global political unit. Most proposals, however, tend to draw voting groups beyond nation-states, grouping different regions and taking population considerations into account. For Canada, we would most likely either be grouped with the US (and maybe Mexico) as a North American voting group, or cut in half so that groupings of Eastern US states and Canadian provinces/territories and groupings of Western states and provinces/territories would each form separate electoral districts.

The problem is that establishing such a system would require near-unanimous consensus across the international community – so how can we optimistically assert that strengthening global governance is possible as world federalists when populism is on the rise around us (not to mention the possibility of a second Trump administration looms on the horizon of 2024)? For one, each movement fuels the other, so any rise in nationalist populism provides world federalists with argumentative ammunition and proof of the fallacies of absolute national sovereignty – neither will disappear because of the other’s rise, no matter how disproportionate the ratio gets. Moreover, note that populists tend to fail in achieving their objectives in the long-run, laying the groundwork for world federalist prescriptions for the same ills identified with international institutions in other areas (and over the long-run, in the same state that elected the populist figure).

The most important point of this article, however, is that we must acknowledge that world federalist proposals follow a similar logic at their basis as those emerging from nationalist populist movements. It is critical for us, as world federalists, to be able to realistically engage with supporters of nationalist populist figures and bring them to understand how we share similar concerns. Only then can we make progress as world federalists without fueling nationalist populist sentiments among the general public, and ultimately tip the balance in our favour! Next time you engage with a “Trump supporter” or any right-wing populist movement supporter on the topic of foreign affairs, just think to yourself: we have the same concern in mind, and while they may hold different notions in certain areas of political theory, they will better understand that neither of us accept that the international system is sufficiently either efficient or democratic as it stands, and that we have to do something about it together!

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