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How do we reconcile attention to our local communities with the need for competitive power on a global scale? This question has probably been relevant at least since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the pandemic has made it even more relevant. "The reality is that federalism is already emerging as the most suitable solution in a number of technical sectors that require reconciling critical mass with human scale".

Gonçal Berastegui Canosa

February 06, 2021

“The reality is that federalism is already emerging as the most suitable solution in a number of technical sectors that require reconciling critical mass with human scale”.

How do we reconcile attention to our local communities with the need for competitive power on a global scale? This question has probably been relevant at least since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but the pandemic has made it even more relevant. Today, the ability to mobilise and coordinate human, material or financial resources on a large scale gives societies not only the capacity to invest them exponentially effectively to gain competitiveness and generate prosperity. In times of crisis, it also gives them the same capacity to react quickly and credibly, and the strategic depth to absorb shocks with resilience. These are the benefits of having what we can call “critical mass” on the global stage. In recent months, we in Europe have witnessed its impact in acquiring vaccines or issuing large doses of low-interest pooled debt. Despite the incidences, these vital manoeuvres would have been unaffordable for most EU states individually.

At the same time, however, there are factors that strongly push us to recover the human scale of our habitat and our everyday life as a vector of sustainability, well-being and strength. Paradigms such as the “15-minute city” or Km0 seek not only to improve our quality of life, but also to reduce travel and its impact on the environment. Proposals are emerging all over the planet that call for leaving behind overcrowded urban concepts and infrastructure networks that often dehumanise our habitat, act as barriers and have a high environmental cost, the effects of which can no longer be expected, replacing them with more holistic and integrated designs. Industrial relocation, on the other hand, is manifesting itself not only as an aspiration to recover lost quality employment, but also as a measure of autonomy in the face of the shocks of a global trade that has prioritised cost reduction in its supply chains over their robustness. Meanwhile, the alarm of the depopulation of rural areas and the interior of our countries has been raised at a time when our cities risk dying of success, threatened by gentrification and the arrival of large investors in the housing market. And, of course, the arrival of the COVID has increased the value of proximity even more, given the necessary restrictions on mobility.

The paradox, then, is obvious – we might refer to it as the “paradox of critical mass”. How can we reconcile the two needs, how can we unlock the critical mass demanded by the times while respecting the human scale of our environment, and can we do so while ensuring democratic governance that is equally accountable to us all? In short, can we achieve the power required to meet the challenges of the present and the future without sacrificing the interests and well-being of our communities?

Surely these are sound definitions of political federalism. Political federalism, yes – because, even if many dismiss it as a utopian or inefficient proposal, the reality is that federalism is already emerging as the most effective and efficient solution in many other technical areas outside of politics, driven precisely by those same dynamics of transformation that require combining critical mass with human scale.

We see, for example, how in the energy sector the development and deployment of microgrids is advancing, which facilitate the local generation and consumption of electricity in small, almost self-sufficient centres, reducing the costs and impact of distribution from distant power plants. Their installation also encourages the rational deployment of clean energy sources to supply them. However, the advantages of local generation and consumption are enhanced by the connection – or federation – between micro-grids within a main macro-grid, which allows energy to be used in times of local shortage – a measure of resilience – and to sell the surplus generated in times of low demand at a fair price – the local benefit of critical mass.

In the digital domain, the cloud already runs on federal frameworks – such as Docker or Kubernetes – that allow any developer to build easily scalable applications, benefiting from the computing power and reliability of large centralised data centres. Each specific function, created by the developer for his particular project, resides in a modular element, which is federated by the upper layers of the system. In addition to computing power, powerful development or cybersecurity tools are obtained from these layers, which are only possible through the economies of scale provided by the critical mass of a large server.

In scientific and technological research and innovation, federalism manifests itself in a multilevel format. The effectiveness of grouping research and industrial entities at the local level through clusters and innovative ecosystems has been more than demonstrated, facilitating information exchange and joint efforts to address the most relevant challenges of our time. In turn, these local clusters almost always work in international networks with federal behaviour, governed by bodies or working groups constituted by representatives of the local entities themselves – again, unlocking critical mass through the intelligent sharing of challenges, resources, and information, multiplying local benefits.

Since 2011, European air traffic management – the densest and most complex in the world – has been carried out by a federal system. Each state air navigation service provider – or ANSP – works at all times under the supervision and coordination of the European “network manager”. This entity coordinates international traffic flows to ensure that they operate within available capacity and safety parameters, something that is outside the visibility of state-level providers, which are confined to their borders. The network manager function is performed by the pan-European body Eurocontrol – itself governed by representatives of its 41 member states. Without this close cooperation, European aviation would have reached dangerous levels of suffocation and collapse. Today, this federal architecture forms the basis of the “Single European Sky”.

There are therefore numerous examples of technical areas where critical mass and human scale are successfully combined through federal mechanisms. Thus, more than a pioneering movement, political federalism is fast becoming the necessary update for democratic societies aspiring to secure their present and future prosperity. And it does so as one more dimension – the most important one – of a very broad paradigm that demonstrates, with facts, that it can respond to the paradox of critical mass by putting collaboration at the centre: a multidimensional federalism.

Post-pandemic reconstruction, itself articulated through a federal mechanism of common European debt issuance, which has made it possible to mobilise the huge budgets of the Next Generation EU reconstruction funds, also requires us to work with a federal mindset in investing these funds. The large transformative projects they are meant to finance will only be feasible through coordination between public institutions, between private entities, and between the public and private sectors themselves, to ensure that all parties are moving together in the same direction and with shared objectives. Properly executed, these projects are a unique opportunity to transform our local environments while building European critical mass. Their results will redraw the map of prosperity for at least a generation. In it, those who choose to federate will advance, and those who choose confrontation or stasis over collaboration will lose ground. But this enormous joint effort will not be an isolated case – the future, exciting but also implacable, demands that federalism and collaboration be the new normal.


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