Karen Coleman: A federal Europe? Sounds good -- but what does it really mean?
LAST Wednesday, the president of the European Commission stood up in the European Parliament and gave his state-of-the-union address. Half-way into his speech, Jose Manuel Barroso looked around the vast chamber and declared his wish to establish a federation of nation states.
Some of the MEPs applauded, others remained silent and yet more raised eyebrows in confusion, unsure what Mr Barroso meant by the term "federation of nation states". Was this different to a federal Europe? And if so, how?
Rather than explaining how his grand plan would work, Mr Barroso instead waffled on about how Europe could not be technocratic, bureaucratic or even diplomatic -- but could be ever more democratic.
When I heard all of this, I found myself scratching my head, trying to decipher his grandiose sentences. But there isn't a dictionary for this kind of lofty eurospeak.
Mr Barroso promised to outline his vision for this future federation before the next elections for the European Parliament in 2014.
One interesting objective he outlined was that his successor would be elected by popular vote during those parliamentary elections. His idea is that the European Parliament's political parties would nominate candidates for the commission president.
That is not a bad idea. Any move that makes the EU more democratic and accountable is good. But we should be cautious about ceding more powers to existing EU structures, such as the European Commission, which many people see as an undemocratic edifice in Brussels.
We also need to police the kind of control that is handed over to powerful member states. After all, just look at how Germany and France controlled key decisions during the euro crisis. If we are to become closer in a federal Europe, then we have to ensure that small countries, such as Ireland and Malta, are not dominated by larger states wielding undue influence.
Most Europeans have a hard time trying to figure out who is who in Brussels and who makes the decisions. The mechanism of the European Union is complicated and the plethora of jargon that comes with it bamboozles even the most enthusiastic Europhile.
Euro-terms -- like 'council of ministers', 'council presidents', 'permanent representatives', 'pillars' and 'inter-governmentalism' -- are meaningless to millions of European citizens.
If you were to ask most people to explain the difference between the European Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament, they would probably scratch their heads and shrug their shoulders.
That confusion creates a dangerous culture of alienation. How are we to identify with the EU if we don't understand how it works?
This divide has to be addressed if we are to move towards a federal Europe that brings us all closer together.
There is no question that EU membership has been an excellent move for Ireland. It has taken us out of the dark ages and catapulted us into a modern, progressive and -- thankfully -- more liberal and secular society.
But that doesn't mean we should now rush headlong into some kind of federal system without first tackling the yawning gap between European citizens and the EU institutions and power-brokers who make the rules that impact on their lives.
One positive move would be to ramp up the powers of the European Parliament, which is the representative chamber of European citizens. Unfortunately, Ireland only has 12 MEPs. We would be better off having more MEPs and less TDs, considering that the majority of our laws now emanate from the EU.
Another step would be to ensure that all major treaties are put to referenda to all European citizens and not just to Irish people.
That democratic involvement would help fulfil Mr Barroso's goal to make his federation of nation states the kind of democratic utopia that he longs for.