Althusius’s Societal Federalism: A model for the EU?

Johannes Althusius

Many supporters of the European integration strongly believe in a kind of federalism that would be closer to European citizens, more transparent, and more representative of Europe’s plurality of communities than is the case under the current form of the European Union. The problem obviously arises in the moment when it is necessary to pin down these abstract proposals to a more concrete federal model that would embody them. This article will try to show that when approaching this task, we can gain much if we explore the very roots of the federalist thought as they are found in the work of an early modern political thinker Johannes Althusius. As we will discover below, Althusius’s federalism presents a ‘bottom-up’, dynamic, participatory, consensual, and solidarist alternative to that static federal model, which is popular in our modern times.

Let us first briefly start with the life of Johannes Althusius (1557-1638) himself. Besides being a jurist and prolific Calvinist political thinker, Althusius was engaged in active politics of the city of Emden. As a syndic of that city, he had become the main instigator of the arrest of the city’s provincial lord, count of Eastern Frisia, by Emden’s city councillors that transpired on 7 December 1618. Althusius vigorously defended the councillors’ decision as a ‘legitimate act of self-defence and resistance’ against the provincial lord’s infringements on the city’s rights, considering it an ultimate resolve ‘warranted under every natural and secular law’.[1] As will become apparent with the discussion of his work, the right of resistance to tyranny of a government that does not respect the rule of law is a key part of his federal thought.[2] His most famous work Politica Methodice Digesta (Politics Methodically Digested, first published in 1603), which will be taken here as the main source of Althusius’s federal thought, in a similar vein justifies the right of the Dutch provinces to secede from the crown lands of the Spanish ruler.

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