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A confederation (also known as a confederacy or league) is a union of sovereign states, united for purposes of common action often in relation to other states. Usually created by a treaty, confederations of states tend to be established for dealing with critical issues, such as defense, foreign relations, internal trade or currency, with the general government being required to provide support for all its members. Confederalism represents a main form of inter-governmentalism, this being defined as any form of interaction between states which takes place on the basis of sovereign independence or government.
The nature of the relationship among the member states constituting a confederation varies considerably. Likewise, the relationship between the member states and the general government, and the distribution of powers among them is highly variable. Some looser confederations are similar to international organisations. Other confederations with stricter rules may resemble federal systems.
Since the member states of a confederation retain their sovereignty, they have an implicit right of secession. Political philosopher Emmerich Vattel observed: ‘Several sovereign and independent states may unite themselves together by a perpetual confederacy without each in particular ceasing to be a perfect state. … The deliberations in common will offer no violence to the sovereignty of each member’.
Under a confederal arrangement, in contrast with a federal one, the central authority is relatively weak. Decisions made by the general government in a unicameral legislature, a council of the member states, require subsequent implementation by the member states to take effect. They are therefore not laws acting directly upon the individual, but instead have more the character of inter-state agreements. Also, decision-making in the general government usually proceeds by consensus (unanimity) and not by majority, which makes for a slow and inefficient government. These problematic features, limiting the effectiveness of the union, mean that political pressure tends to build over time for the transition to a federal system of government, as happened in the American, Swiss, German and European cases of regional integration.
Many scholars have claimed that the Kingdom of Belgium, a country with a complicated federal structure, has adopted some characteristics of a confederation under the pressure of separatist movements, especially in Flanders. For example, C. E. Lagasse declared that Belgium was "near the political system of a Confederation" regarding the constitutional reform agreements between Belgian Regions (federated states with well-defined geographical borders: Flanders, Wallonia and Greater Brussels) and between Communities (statelike authorities based on the mother tongue, not geography), while the director of the Centre de recherche et d'information socio-politiques (CRISP) Vincent de Coorebyter called Belgium "undoubtedly a federation...[with] some aspects of a confederation" in Le Soir. Also in Le Soir, Professor Michel Quévit of the Catholic University of Leuven wrote that the "Belgian political system is already in dynamics of a Confederation".
Nevertheless, the Belgian regions (and linguistic communities) lack the necessary autonomy to leave the Belgian state. As such, federal aspects still dominate. Also, for fiscal policy and public finances, the federal state dominates the other levels of government.
The increasingly confederal aspects of the Belgian Federal State appear to be a political reflection of the profound cultural, sociological and economic differences between The Flemish (Belgians who speak Dutch or Dutch dialects) and Walloons (Belgians who speak French or French dialects). As an example, in the last several decades, over 95% of Belgians have voted for political parties that represent voters from only one community, the separatist N-VA being the party with the biggest voter support among the Flemish population. Parties that strongly advocate Belgian unity and appeal to voters of both communities play usually only a marginal role in nationwide general elections.
This makes Belgium fundamentally different from federal countries like Switzerland, Canada, Germany and Australia. In those countries, national parties regularly receive over 90% of voter support. The only geographical areas comparable with Belgium within Europe are Catalonia, the Basque Country (both part of Spain), Northern Ireland and Scotland (both part of the United Kingdom) and parts of Italy, where a massive voter turnout for regional (and often separatist) political parties has become the rule in the last decades, while nationwide parties advocating national unity draw around half, or sometimes less, of the votes.
In modern terminology, Canada is a federation and not a confederation. However, to contemporaries of the Constitution Act, 1867, confederation did not have the same connotation of a weakly centralized federation. Canadian Confederation generally refers to the Constitution Act, 1867 which formed the Dominion of Canada from three of the colonies of British North America, and to the subsequent incorporation of other colonies and territories. Therefore, on 1 July 1867, Canada became a self-governing dominion of the British Empire with a federal structure under the leadership of Sir John A. Macdonald. The provinces involved were the Province of Canada (comprising Canada West, now Ontario, formerly Upper Canada; and Canada East now Quebec, formerly Lower Canada), Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. Later participants were Manitoba, British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, Alberta and Saskatchewan (the latter two created as provinces from the Northwest Territories in 1905), and finally Newfoundland (now Newfoundland and Labrador) in 1949. Canada is an unusually decentralized federal state and not a confederate association of sovereign states (the usual meaning of confederation in modern terms). A Canadian law, the Clarity Act, and a court ruling, Reference Re Secession of Quebec, set forth the conditions for negotiations to allow Canadian provinces (though not territories) to leave the Canadian federal state; however, as this would require a constitutional amendment, there is no current "constitutional" method for withdrawal.
Due to its unique nature, and the political sensitivities surrounding it, there is no common or legal classification for the European Union (EU). However, it does bear some resemblance to both a confederation (or a "new" type of confederation) and a federation. The EU operates common economic policies with hundreds of common laws, which enable a single economic market, open internal borders, a common currency among most member-states and allow for numerous other areas where powers have been transferred and directly applicable laws are made. However, unlike a federation, the EU does not have exclusive powers over foreign affairs, defence and taxation. Furthermore, laws sometimes must be transposed into national law by national parliaments; decisions by member states are taken by special majorities with blocking minorities accounted for; and treaty amendment requires ratification by every member state before it can come into force.
However, academic observers more usually discuss the EU in the terms of it being a federation. As international law professor Joseph H. H. Weiler (of the Hague Academy and New York University) wrote, "Europe has charted its own brand of constitutional federalism". Jean-Michel Josselin and Alain Marciano see the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg City as being a primary force behind building a federal legal order in the Union with Josselin stating that a "complete shift from a confederation to a federation would have required to straight-forwardly replace the principality of the member states vis-à-vis the Union by that of the European citizens. As a consequence, both confederate and federate features coexist in the judicial landscape". Rutgers political science professor R. Daniel Kelemen observed: "Those uncomfortable using the 'F' word in the EU context should feel free to refer to it as a quasi-federal or federal-like system. Nevertheless, the EU has the necessary attributes of a federal system. It is striking that while many scholars of the EU continue to resist analyzing it as a federation, most contemporary students of federalism view the EU as a federal system". Thomas Risse and Tanja A. Börzel claim that the "EU only lacks two significant features of a federation. First, the Member States remain the 'masters' of the treaties, i.e., they have the exclusive power to amend or change the constitutive treaties of the EU. Second, the EU lacks a real 'tax and spend' capacity, in other words, there is no fiscal federalism."
Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the chairman of the body of experts commissioned to elaborate a constitutional charter for the European Union, was confronted with strong opposition from the United Kingdom towards including the words 'federal' or 'federation' in the European Constitution, and hence replaced the word with either 'Community' or 'Union'.
Indigenous confederations in North America
In the context of the history of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, a confederacy may refer to a semi-permanent political and military alliance consisting of multiple nations (or "tribes", "bands", or "villages") which maintained their separate leadership. One of the most well-known is the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois), but there were many others during different eras and locations across North America; these include the Wabanaki Confederacy, Western Confederacy, Powhatan, Seven Nations of Canada, Pontiac's Confederacy, Illinois Confederation, Tecumseh's Confederacy, Great Sioux Nation, Blackfoot Confederacy, Iron Confederacy and Council of Three Fires.
The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, historically known as the Iroquois League or the League of Five—later, Six—Nations, is the country of Native Americans (in what is now the United States) and First Nations (in what is now Canada) that consists of six nations: the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, the Seneca and the Tuscarora. The Six Nations have a representative government known as the Grand Council which is the oldest governmental institution still maintaining its original form in North America. Each clan from the five nations sends chiefs to act as representatives and make decisions for the whole confederation. The League has been operating since its foundation in 1142 CE despite limited international recognition today. In fact, Haudenosaunee issues passports for its citizens, though travellers often face problems crossing State borders.
Serbia and Montenegro
Serbia and Montenegro (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) was a confederation that was formed by the two remaining republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFR Yugoslavia): Montenegro and neighboring Serbia. The country was reconstituted as a very loose political union which was established on 4 February 2003.
As a confederation, Serbia and Montenegro were united only in very few realms, such as defense, foreign affairs and a very weak common president of the confederation. The two constituent republics functioned separately throughout the period of its short existence, and continued to operate under separate economic policies, as well as using separate currencies (the euro was and still is the only legal tender in Montenegro, while the dinar was still the legal tender in Serbia). On 21 May 2006, the Montenegrin independence referendum was held. Final official results indicated on 31 May that 55.5% of voters voted in favor of independence. The confederation of Yugoslavia effectively came to an end after Montenegro's formal declaration of independence on 3 June 2006, and Serbia's formal declaration of independence on 5 June.
Switzerland, officially known as the Swiss Confederation, is an example of a modern country that traditionally refers to itself as a confederation. This is due to the fact that the official (and traditional) name of Switzerland in German (the majority language of the Swiss) is Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft (literally "Swiss Comradeship by Oath"), an expression which was translated into the Latin Confoederatio Helvetica (Helvetic Confederation). It had been a confederacy since its inception in 1291 as the Old Swiss Confederacy, originally created as an alliance among the valley communities of the central Alps, and retains nowadays the name of Confederacy for reasons of historical tradition. The confederacy facilitated management of common interests (e.g. freedom from external domination, especially by the Austrian Habsburgs, development of republican institutions in a Europe composed of monarchies, free trade, etc.) and ensured peace between the different cultural entities in the central alpine area.
After the Sonderbund War of 1847, when some of the Catholic cantons of Switzerland tried to set up a separate union (Sonderbund in German) against the Protestant majority, the resulting political system established by the victorious Protestant cantons acquired all the characteristics of a federation.
Historical confederations (especially those predating the 20th century) may not fit the current definition of a confederation, may be proclaimed as a federation but be confederal (or the reverse), and may not show any qualities that 21st-century political scientists might classify as those of a confederation.
Some have more the characteristics of a personal union, but appear here because of their self-styling as a "confederation":
- a Confederated personal union.
- b De facto confederation.
- Oxford English Dictionary
- Vattel, Emmerich (1758) The Law of Nations, cited in Wood, Gordon (1969) The Creation of the American Republic 1776 - 1787, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, p.355.
- McCormick, John (2002) Understanding the European Union: a Concise Introduction, Palgrave, Basingstoke, p. 6.
- This was the key feature that distinguished the first American union, under the Articles of Confederation of 1781, from the second, under the US Constitution of 1789. Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 15, called the absence of directly-effective law in the Articles a 'defect' and the ‘great and radical vice’ in the initial system. Madison, James, Hamilton, Alexander and Jay, John (1987) The Federalist Papers, Penguin, Harmondsworth, p. 147.
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- Belgian research center whose activities are devoted to the study of decision-making in Belgium and in Europe Archived 3 February 2007 at the Wayback Machine
- French: "La Belgique est (...) incontestablement, une fédération : il n’y a aucun doute (...) Cela étant, la fédération belge possède d’ores et déjà des traits confédéraux qui en font un pays atypique, et qui encouragent apparemment certains responsables à réfléchir à des accommodements supplémentaires dans un cadre qui resterait, vaille que vaille, national." Vincent de Coorebyter "La Belgique (con)fédérale" in Le Soir 24 June 2008
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- Robert Deschamps, Michel Quévit, Robert Tollet, "Vers une réforme de type confédéral de l'État belge dans le cadre du maintien de l'union monétaire," in Wallonie 84, n°2, pp. 95-111
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- Josselin, Jean Michel; Marciano, Alain (2006). "The Political Economy of European Federalism" (PDF). Series: Public Economics and Social Choice. Centre for Research in Economics and Management, University of Rennes 1, University of Caen: 12. WP 2006-07; UMR CNRS 6211. Archived from the original (PDF) on 19 August 2008.
A complete shift from a confederation to a federation would have required to straightforwardly replace the principalship of the member states vis-à-vis the Union by that of the European citizens. As a consequence, both confederate and federate features coexist in the judicial landscape.
- "How the Court Made a Federation of the EU" [referring to the European Court of Justice]. Josselin (U. de Rennes-1/CREM) and Marciano (U. de Reims CA/CNRS).
- J.H.H. Weiler (2003). "Chapter 2, Federalism without Constitutionalism: Europe's Sonderweg". The federal vision: legitimacy and levels of governance in the United States and the European Union. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-924500-2.
Europe has charted its own brand of constitutional federalism. It works. Why fix it?
- How the [ECJ] court made a federation of the EU Josselin (U de Rennes-1/CREM) and Marciano (U de Reims CA/CNRS).
- Josselin, Jean Michel; Marciano, Alain (2006). "The political economy of European federalism" (PDF). Series: Public Economics and Social Choice. Centre for Research in Economics and Management, University of Rennes 1, University of Caen: 12. WP 2006-07; UMR CNRS 6211. Archived from the original (PDF) on 19 August 2008.
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- Thomas Risse and Tanja A. Börzel, Who is Afraid of a European Federation? How to Constitutionalise a Multi-Level Governance System, Section 4: The European Union as an Emerging Federal System, Jean Monnet Center at NYU School of Law
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