Friday, 14 September 2012

What The Heck Is a Federation? - Your Humble Guide to Forms of Government

The biggest blockbuster of European political news was the September 12th speech of Manuel Barroso, head of the European Comission, calling for the European Union to unite together as "a democratic federation of nation states that can tackle our common problems, through the sharing of sovereignty". There has been both rejoice and outrage, supporters visualising a global superpower European Federation, while opponents feared a 'bureaucratic superstate'. But who is right – and more importantly, what on earth is a federation - or a superstate? Read below to discover.

The night lights of the European Union enlight the question of Federation

Fifty Shades of Integration

Federation, confederation, commonwealth,empire – the list of terms describing political entities consisting of multiple parts quickly runs out of control. But how can they be differentiated, and how long do they go back as government forms? Schoolonomic will now list all of them, with explanations and historical examples, ranging from the loosest to the closest level of integration.


The loosest form of international cooperation, the term Commonwealth is unique to the relationship of the United Kingdom and it's former colonies – it means a semi-strong alliance between the states, theoretically co-operating their foreign policy and conducting trade between member states, however the de facto independence and the diverse domestic situation of members makes this difficult. The other usage of the word commonwealth stands simply for a decentralised, but not necessarily fully democratic country.
Examples: The British Commonwealth, the association of UK and it's former colonies. The second most famous example is the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was an Early New Age noble republic of the two nations, with the aristocracy governing daily issues, lacking both a central figure and general suffrage. The inefficiency of decision making (all decisions had to be approved by everyone) lead to the partition of the country in 1772.


The loosest form of international co-operation is a confederation this means that there is a central government and parliament, a common army, foreign and economic policy, but the conduction of these matters by the central government is strongly limited. Firstly, countries may join or leave confederations whenever they want (they rarely do). Secondly, decisions of the central parliament are not made by a single majority, but they require the votes of most or even all member states.
This naturally causes problems with long-term decision making; the goals of member states often differ, making day-to-day governance a problem.
Examples: The Confederate States of America throughout the 1861-1865 Civil War were a confederacy, as well as the cantons of Switzerland until their 1848 civil war, after which the canton's government reformed to become a federal one.


Federations are one step further from confederations. The central government has the same powers as in confederations, but it can overrule the decisions of individual member states and they are obligatory; also, parliamentary elections are done through interstate parties. Decisions only require a simple majority.
Examples: The careful balance between mutual interests and local ones generally proves to be the most stable form of governance for modern big states. 7 out of 10 of the world's biggest countries are governed this way – including the famous example of USA, but also countries like Brazil, Germany, Malaysia and Argentina.


Empires are a special case of multi-ethnic societies; governed by a single nationality and a single leader, their purpose is providing a constantly growing quality of life to their citizens through military expansion. They are not democratic, lead by dictators, emperors or kings, and the cultural and political dominance of the principal nations is unquestionable.
Examples: The most famous example is of course, the Roman Empire – which lasted for more than 500 years. Other examples include the Mongol Empire, the French Empire, and more recently the Third Reich of Adolf Hitler – clearly not a form of government most people would strive for.

Unitary country – "superstate"

A "superstate" simply means a very large, united country without degrees of local autonomy, or with degrees of autonomy which are only formal and can't be exercised fully or reliably. They often lack proper democratic credentials, and suffer from internal conflicts due to the diverse range of populations they house.
Examples: Two of the world's biggest states, China and Russia both fall into this category. While Russia is theoretically a federation, the powers of it's member states are severely limited by the central government, and not all the member states are independent republics, but rather provinces called oblasts.

So what is the EU?

You got me. The current state of the EU is an unique, unprecedented mix – it has the elements of both a commonwealth, a confederation, a federation and some would say a superstate(Not an empire, though – if you read carefully, you know that is a completely different story). So Mr Barrosos' proposal would simply clear things up, transforming the EU into a clear federation – a move many oppose. Do expect a later post listing the pros and cons – until then, write down whether you think it's a great idea or not.

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