Federalism is a mixed or compound mode of government that combines a general government (the central or "federal" government) with regional governments (provincial, state, cantonal, territorial or other sub-unit governments) in a single political system. Its distinctive feature, first embodied in the novel system of government established by the Constitution of the United States of 1789, is a relationship of parity between the two levels of government. It can thus be defined as a form of government in which powers are divided between two levels of government of equal status.
Federalism differs from confederalism, in which the general level of government is subordinate to the regional level, and from devolution within a unitary state, in which the regional level of government is subordinate to the general level. It represents the central form in the pathway of regional integration or separation, bounded on the less integrated side by confederalism and on the more integrated side by devolution within a unitary state.
Examples of the federation or federal state include the United States, India, Brazil, Malaysia, Mexico, Russia, Germany, Canada, Switzerland, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Belgium, Argentina, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Australia. Some characterize the European Union as the pioneering example of federalism in a multi-state setting, in a concept termed the federal union of states.
The terms "federalism" and "confederalism" share a root in the Latin word foedus, meaning "treaty, pact or covenant". Their common early meaning until the late eighteenth century was a simple league or inter-governmental relationship among sovereign states based on a treaty. They were therefore initially synonyms. It was in this sense that James Madison in Federalist 39 had referred to the new US Constitution as "neither a national nor a federal Constitution, but a composition of both" (i.e. as constituting neither a single large unitary state nor a league/confederation among several small states, but a hybrid of the two). In the course of the nineteenth century the meaning of federalism would come to shift, strengthening to refer uniquely to the novel compound political form established at the Philadelphia Convention, while the meaning of confederalism would remain at a league of states. Thus, this article relates to the modern usage of the word "federalism".
An early progenitor of federalism was the Achaean League in Hellenistic Greece. Unlike the Greek city states of Classical Greece, each of which insisted on keeping its complete independence, changing conditions in the Hellenistic period drove many city states to band together even at the cost of losing part of their sovereignty.
Subsequent unions of states included the first and second Swiss Confederations (1291-1798 and 1815-48), the United Province of the Netherlands (1588-1795) and the first American union formed under the Articles of Confederation (1781-89). However, these political systems were essentially confederal in nature, rather than federal.
The birth of the modern concept of federalism came with the discovery of an entirely original system for creating full democratic representation at two governing levels simultaneously, in the compromise agreed among the delegates at the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 that led to the US Constitution. A bi-cameral general government, consisting of a chamber of popular representation (elected proportionate to population - the House of Representatives) and a chamber of equal State-based representation (with two delegates per State regardless of size - the Senate), was overlaid upon the pre-existing regional governments of the thirteen independent States. With each level of government allocated a defined sphere of powers, under a written constitution and the rule of law (that is, subject to the independent third-party arbitration of a supreme court in competence disputes), the two levels were thus brought into a coordinate relationship for the first time.
In 1946, scholar Kenneth Wheare observed that the two levels of government in the US were "co-equally supreme". In this, he echoed the perspective of the American founding fathers, James Madison in Federalist 39 having seen the several States as forming "distinct and independent portions of the supremacy" in relation to the general government.
Modern federalism is a political system based upon democratic rules and institutions in which the power to govern is shared between national and provincial/state governments. The term federalist describes several political beliefs around the world depending on context. Since the term federalization also describes distinctive political processes, its use as well depends on the context.
In political theory, two main types of federalization are recognized:
Federalism is sometimes viewed in the context of international negotiation as "the best system for integrating diverse nations, ethnic groups, or combatant parties, all of whom may have cause to fear control by an overly powerful center." However, in some countries, those skeptical of federal prescriptions believe that increased regional autonomy is likely to lead to secession or dissolution of the nation. In Syria, federalization proposals have failed in part because "Syrians fear that these borders could turn out to be the same as the ones that the fighting parties have currently carved out."
According to Daniel Ziblatt's Structuring the State, there are four competing theoretical explanations in the academic literature for the adoption of federal systems:
Immanuel Kant was an advocate of federalism, noting that "the problem of setting up a state can be solved even by a nation of devils" so long as they possess an appropriate constitution which pits opposing factions against each other with a system of checks and balances. In particular individual states required a federation as a safeguard against the possibility of war.
In Europe, "Federalist" is sometimes used to describe those who favor a common federal government, with distributed power at regional, national and supranational levels. Most European federalists want this development to continue within the European Union. Although there are medieval and early modern examples of European states which used confederal and federal systems, contemporary European federalism originated in post-war Europe; one of the more important initiatives was Winston Churchill's speech in Zürich in 1946.
In the United States, federalism originally referred to belief in a stronger central government. When the U.S. Constitution was being drafted, the Federalist Party supported a stronger central government, while "Anti-Federalists" wanted a weaker central government. This is very different from the modern usage of "federalism" in Europe and the United States. The distinction stems from the fact that "federalism" is situated in the middle of the political spectrum between a confederacy and a unitary state. The U.S. Constitution was written as a reaction to the Articles of Confederation, under which the United States was a loose confederation with a weak central government.
In contrast, Europe has a greater history of unitary states than North America, thus European "federalism" argues for a weaker central government, relative to a unitary state. The modern American usage of the word is much closer to the European sense. As the power of the U.S. federal government has increased, some people[who?] have perceived a much more unitary state than they believe the Founding Fathers intended. Most people politically advocating "federalism" in the United States argue in favor of limiting the powers of the federal government, especially the judiciary (see Federalist Society, New Federalism).
Federalism may encompass as few as two or three internal divisions, as is the case in Belgium or Bosnia and Herzegovina. In general, two extremes of federalism can be distinguished: at one extreme, the strong federal state is almost completely unitary, with few powers reserved for local governments; while at the other extreme, the national government may be a federal state in name only, being a confederation in actuality.
In 1999, the Government of Canada established the Forum of Federations as an international network for exchange of best practices among federal and federalizing countries. Headquartered in Ottawa, the Forum of Federations partner governments include Australia, Brazil, Ethiopia, Germany, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan and Switzerland.
Anarchists are against the state, but they are not against political organization or "governance", so long as it is self-governance utilizing direct democracy. The mode of political organization preferred by anarchists, in general, is federalism or confederalism. However, the anarchist definition of federalism tends to differ from the definition of federalism assumed by pro-state political scientists. The following is a brief description of federalism from section I.5 of An Anarchist FAQ:
Federalism also finds expression in ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church). For example, presbyterian church governance resembles parliamentary republicanism (a form of political federalism) to a large extent. In Presbyterian denominations, the local church is ruled by elected elders, some of which are ministerial. Each church then sends representatives or commissioners to presbyteries and further to a general assembly. Each greater level of assembly has ruling authority over its constituent members. In this governmental structure, each component has some level of sovereignty over itself. As in political federalism, in presbyterian ecclesiology there is shared sovereignty.
Some Christians argue that the earliest source of political federalism (or federalism in human institutions; in contrast to theological federalism) is the ecclesiastical federalism found in the Bible. They point to the structure of the early Christian Church as described (and prescribed, as believed by many) in the New Testament. In their arguments, this is particularly demonstrated in the Council of Jerusalem, described in Acts chapter 15, where the Apostles and elders gathered together to govern the Church; the Apostles being representatives of the universal Church, and elders being such for the local church. To this day, elements of federalism can be found in almost every Christian denomination, some more than others.
In a federation, the division of power between federal and regional governments is usually outlined in the constitution. Almost every country allows some degree of regional self-government, in federations the right to self-government of the component states is constitutionally entrenched. Component states often also possess their own constitutions which they may amend as they see fit, although in the event of conflict the federal constitution usually takes precedence.
In almost all federations the central government enjoys the powers of foreign policy and national defense as exclusive federal powers. Were this not the case a federation would not be a single sovereign state, per the UN definition. Notably, the states of Germany retain the right to act on their own behalf at an international level, a condition originally granted in exchange for the Kingdom of Bavaria's agreement to join the German Empire in 1871. Beyond this the precise division of power varies from one nation to another. The constitutions of Germany and the United States provide that all powers not specifically granted to the federal government are retained by the states. The Constitution of some countries like Canada and India, state that powers not explicitly granted to the provincial governments are retained by the federal government. Much like the US system, the Australian Constitution allocates to the Federal government (the Commonwealth of Australia) the power to make laws about certain specified matters which were considered too difficult for the States to manage, so that the States retain all other areas of responsibility. Under the division of powers of the European Union in the Lisbon Treaty, powers which are not either exclusively of Union competence or shared between the Union and the Member States as concurrent powers are retained by the constituent States.
Where every component state of a federation possesses the same powers, we are said to find 'symmetric federalism'. Asymmetric federalism exists where states are granted different powers, or some possess greater autonomy than others do. This is often done in recognition of the existence of a distinct culture in a particular region or regions. In Spain, the Basques and Catalans, as well as the Galicians, spearheaded a historic movement to have their national specificity recognized, crystallizing in the "historical communities" such as Navarre, Galicia, Catalonia, and the Basque Country. They have more powers than the later expanded arrangement for other Spanish regions, or the Spain of the autonomous communities (called also the "coffee for everyone" arrangement), partly to deal with their separate identity and to appease peripheral nationalist leanings, partly out of respect to specific rights they had held earlier in history. However, strictly speaking Spain is not a federation, but a system of asymmetric devolved government within a unitary state.
It is common that during the historical evolution of a federation there is a gradual movement of power from the component states to the centre, as the federal government acquires additional powers, sometimes to deal with unforeseen circumstances. The acquisition of new powers by a federal government may occur through formal constitutional amendment or simply through a broadening of the interpretation of a government's existing constitutional powers given by the courts.
Usually, a federation is formed at two levels: the central government and the regions (states, provinces, territories), and little to nothing is said about second or third level administrative political entities. Brazil is an exception, because the 1988 Constitution included the municipalities as autonomous political entities making the federation tripartite, encompassing the Union, the States, and the municipalities. Each state is divided into municipalities (municípios) with their own legislative council (câmara de vereadores) and a mayor (prefeito), which are partly autonomous from both Federal and State Government. Each municipality has a "little constitution", called "organic law" (lei orgânica). Mexico is an intermediate case, in that municipalities are granted full-autonomy by the federal constitution and their existence as autonomous entities (municipio libre, "free municipality") is established by the federal government and cannot be revoked by the states' constitutions. Moreover, the federal constitution determines which powers and competencies belong exclusively to the municipalities and not to the constituent states. However, municipalities do not have an elected legislative assembly.
Federations often employ the paradox of being a union of states, while still being states (or having aspects of statehood) in themselves. For example, James Madison (author of the US Constitution) wrote in Federalist Paper No. 39 that the US Constitution "is in strictness neither a national nor a federal constitution; but a composition of both. In its foundation, it is federal, not national; in the sources from which the ordinary powers of the Government are drawn, it is partly federal, and partly national..." This stems from the fact that states in the US maintain all sovereignty that they do not yield to the federation by their own consent. This was reaffirmed by the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which reserves all powers and rights that are not delegated to the Federal Government as left to the States and to the people.
The structures of most federal governments incorporate mechanisms to protect the rights of component states. One method, known as 'intrastate federalism', is to directly represent the governments of component states in federal political institutions. Where a federation has a bicameral legislature the upper house is often used to represent the component states while the lower house represents the people of the nation as a whole. A federal upper house may be based on a special scheme of apportionment, as is the case in the senates of the United States and Australia, where each state is represented by an equal number of senators irrespective of the size of its population.
Alternatively, or in addition to this practice, the members of an upper house may be indirectly elected by the government or legislature of the component states, as occurred in the United States prior to 1913, or be actual members or delegates of the state governments, as, for example, is the case in the German Bundesrat and in the Council of the European Union. The lower house of a federal legislature is usually directly elected, with apportionment in proportion to population, although states may sometimes still be guaranteed a certain minimum number of seats.
In Canada, the provincial governments represent regional interests and negotiate directly with the central government. A First Ministers conference of the prime minister and the provincial premiers is the de facto highest political forum in the land, although it is not mentioned in the constitution.
Federations often have special procedures for amendment of the federal constitution. As well as reflecting the federal structure of the state this may guarantee that the self-governing status of the component states cannot be abolished without their consent. An amendment to the constitution of the United States must be ratified by three-quarters of either the state legislatures, or of constitutional conventions specially elected in each of the states, before it can come into effect. In referendums to amend the constitutions of Australia and Switzerland it is required that a proposal be endorsed not just by an overall majority of the electorate in the nation as a whole, but also by separate majorities in each of a majority of the states or cantons. In Australia, this latter requirement is known as a double majority.
Some federal constitutions also provide that certain constitutional amendments cannot occur without the unanimous consent of all states or of a particular state. The US constitution provides that no state may be deprived of equal representation in the senate without its consent. In Australia, if a proposed amendment will specifically impact one or more states, then it must be endorsed in the referendum held in each of those states. Any amendment to the Canadian constitution that would modify the role of the monarchy would require unanimous consent of the provinces. The German Basic Law provides that no amendment is admissible at all that would abolish the federal system.
The meaning of federalism, as a political movement, and of what constitutes a 'federalist', varies with country and historical context. Movements associated with the establishment or development of federations can exhibit either centralising or decentralising trends. For example, at the time those nations were being established, factions known as "federalists" in the United States and Australia advocated the formation of strong central government. Similarly, in European Union politics, federalists mostly seek greater EU integration. In contrast, in Spain and in post-war Germany, federal movements have sought decentralisation: the transfer of power from central authorities to local units. In Canada, where Quebec separatism has been a political force for several decades, the "federalist" impulse aims to keep Quebec inside Canada.
Federalism, and other forms of territorial autonomy, is generally seen[by whom?] as a useful way to structure political systems in order to prevent violence among different groups within countries because it allows certain groups to legislate at the subnational level. Some scholars have suggested, however, that federalism can divide countries and result in state collapse because it creates proto-states. Still others have shown that federalism is only divisive when it lacks mechanisms that encourage political parties to compete across regional boundaries.