United, But How? European Federalism vs Confederalism

The debate regarding the nature of federations and confederations is one of the oldest in federal theory, and in many ways, the EU is a hybrid of both federalism and confederalism. What is exactly the difference between these two different developments of federal theory? What are the ideological foundations of these two systems?

Both models are Federal Political Systems, i.e. systems consisting of two or more level of governments. Federal systems combine self-rule of the constituent units with shared rule through a common government and a common institutional framework. However, they differ in some key areas.

A Useful Model

Forsyth (1981), King (1982), Elazar (1987), and Watts (2007) gave the following definition of confederation: a Federal Political System, in which the confederal government is no more no less than an agent of its members. In a confederation, the key features of sovereignty, those traditionally linked to the concept of statehood, are exerted by the constituent States, while the confederal authority has a very limited sovereignty, a very limited or indirect democratic legitimacy, and its fiscal revenues, defense and foreign policy essentially rely on its Member States.

Unlike the former, federations are compound polities (Watts, 2007: 10) based on strong constituent units and a strong central government, in which each level of governments has its own democratic legitimacy, its own fiscal resources, and its own legislative and administrative powers. In these systems the traditional features of the State like defense, monetary policy and foreign policy are usually performed by the federal level.

As with all models, the federalism/confederalism dichotomy is a simplification, useful for categorizing the two phenomena but not entirely precise. Reality is more complex and in some instances, federal and confederal elements coexist or have coexisted, especially in the looser models of federation.

Early Federalism

The Swiss Confederation in 1648

European history is full of experiences of “confederal” unions. The most important case is that of the old, pre-Napoleonic Swiss Confederation, but that was not the only one: the Dutch Republic was another meaningful example of confederation. It is perhaps possible to compare other medieval leagues to these political systems: however, all these cases are very far from the current concept and theory of statehood. In fact, both Switzerland and the Netherlands were forms of permanent or semi-permanent military alliances, where the constituent units had the possibility to discuss and settle their disputes thanks to some common institutions. However, since the end of the 18th Century, with the development of the current concept of statehood in the Americas and in Europe, the very ideas of federation and confederation started changing dramatically.

In fact, still at the end of the 19th century, for some authors (Sigdwick 1903) federalism was just a term to describe those forms of governments and polities that were not unitary states: so that the dichotomy was essentially between unitary state on one hand and federal polity on the other. However, the main difference between the term confederal and federal emerged with the debate between Federalists and Antifederalists in the early years of the USA and the adoption of the US Constitution.

Federalism and Confederalism in the United States

The first form of constitutional document binding the Thirteen Colonies together was called “The Articles of Confederation”, which was no more and no less than an intergovernmental treaty, since the Articles of Confederation was mostly a military alliance, with very loose common institutions. Unlike the “Articles of Confederation”, the US constitution had the purpose to create a state founded on the principles of federalism. The debate on the new constitution put Hamilton, Madison and Jay, the three traditional supporters of the new federal model, against a long series of critics, later dubbed “the Antifederalists”, who rejected the new federalist proposal and who advocated a different arrangement for the United States and in some cases, they saw the “Articles of Confederation” as a preferable arrangement.

Alexander Hamilton

Although now these interventions are now known as the “Antifederalist Papers” in opposition to the Federalist Papers, at the time the authors did not claim to be anti-federalists, on the contrary they accused Hamilton and Madison to support the creation of a national State, while they claimed to defend federalism. So, essentially an argument between federalists supporting two different forms of federal political systems (Burgess, 2006). One was looser, with States as sovereign actors, and the other was an enhanced system in which the federal government and the State governments had different areas of sovereignty. Basically, one was a confederal model, the other a federal polity.

This dichotomy eventually exploded with the American Civil War, when the breakaway states of the South decided to form the “Confederate States of America” adopting a looser form of federalism, in which the rights of the states prevailed and in which the confederate government was much more limited in its competencies. With the Civil War, American political literature first developed the idea that federalism and confederalism were different ideologies, advocating for different polities.

Subsequent Developments

European federalists in Rome. Credits to our ph. Alice

Conclusions were openly stated only after the Civil War. In fact, when declaring their secession, the Southern States claimed that the federal constitution was no more no less than an international agreement, and in so doing, asserted that they had the right to leave the United States just like any European power could abandon or reject an alliance. In the same years in Europe, the Swiss confederation was facing the same struggle, and while the Catholic, traditionalist Cantons were looking forward to return to the old pre-Napoleonic confederal model, the protestant and urban cantons advocated the adoption of a form of federalism, that combined the Swiss tradition of federalism with the new forms of statehood. Most scholars agree that, from 1848 onwards, Switzerland is to be considered a federation in all but in its official name.

Currently, there are 27 states that completely or mostly match the definition of federation. The United Arab Emirates on the other hand are the closest match to definitions of confederalism. In fact, the UAE is a union of monarchies, in which the main constitutional features are exercised by the seven Emirs, and more importantly by the two primary ones: the Eemir of Abu Dhabi, who serves as federal president, and the Emir of Dubai, who servers as Prime Minister. The emirs gather in the Supreme Federal Council, the highest legislative and executive body of the country. The emirs also directly appoint a half of the Federal National Council, the legislative body of the UAE.

Most scholars are still arguing about the nature of the EU. To some extent, many of its key features match the definition of confederalism: the Council appoints the head of the Commission, the budget is very limited and based on Member State contributions, and more generally, Member States are masters of the treaties. However, it is possible to point out that in some areas, the European Union has developed and is developing some features that are already very close to that of a state, i.e. a federation.

This article is the first of the series “United, But How?”, which aims to illustrate key concepts of federalist theory. The author, Francesco Violi, is a former Regional Secretary of GFE Emilia Romagna. He specializes in federalist theory and helps organize the federalist summer school in Canterbury. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.

Further readings

Burgess, M., 2006. Comparative federalism: Theory and practice. London: Routledge.

Elazar, D.J., 1987. Exploring federalism. University of Alabama Press.

Forsyth, M., 1981. Unions of states: The theory and practice of confederation. Burns & Oates.

King, P. 1982. Federalism and federation (No. 342.24). Johns Hopkins University Press.

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