Federalism, Functionalism and Neo Functionalism


Federalism suggests that there should be a move towards a centralised federal body that acts on behalf of the regional bloc. It therefore advocates supranationalism, and deeper economic and political integration. This fits the EU model well, since it argues that regionalism under a federalist model is a good way to promote peace and stability, as it prevents state-centrism (states acting purely in their own interests). If states transfer some of their sovereignty to a higher federal body (pooled sovereignty), they reduce the risk of the pursuit of self-interest creating an anarchic system.

The EU is an excellent example of this form of federalism, as it was designed initially to reduce the tensions between France and Germany. It has since developed to such an extent that war between these two nations is now unthinkable. However, one could argue that the EU is not integrated enough to be considered a federal system — for example, not all EU states have adopted the euro. This alone is incongruous to a truly federal system. Furthermore, states can opt out of agreements or even remove themselves entirely from the system (as seen with Brexit).


The functionalist model arose as a challenge to the idea of federalism. It argues that blocs such as the EU did not emerge to become federalist, but rather to serve specific functions. This is a pragmatic view of regionalism. We can see from the stages of the EU’s formation that functionalism is an applicable model. The EU was first set up to establish an agreement over the trading of coal and steel. While it has continued to develop as an economic institution, it has also grown to meet various political and security functions. These functions are better met with collective action, as opposed to individualistic state action. Functionalists are generally positive about the EU’s ability to meet these needs effectively. However, others have argued that, in practice, states have been very reluctant to hand over power to functional bodies, and that these bodies have lacked the legitimacy of sovereign bodies. Furthermore, one could argue that the model is too simplistic and short sighted in relation to the EU, and that the EU has always had longer-term visions than functionalism.


The theory of neofunctionalism sits somewhere between the previous two theories, and argues that regionalism does indeed meet some functional needs but that this spills over into other, broader areas. In this sense federalism is the result of the initial functionalist aims. Usually neofunctionalism begins by addressing economic functions, but leads to some political spill-over. This is evident from the beginning of the EU, in the form of the coal and steel trade agreement, which had primarily economic goals but also aimed to promote stability within Europe. Furthermore, the European defence policies of recent years demonstrate that when there is a functional need, the EU develops new policies (for example, to combat terrorism) but that these often morph into longer- term strategic aims (for example, fostering a cosmopolitan identity and encouraging much of Europe to ‘band together’). This approach suggests that there is a complex interplay between the economic and political aspects of regionalism.