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United, but How? National vs Multinational Federations

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In previous installments, we have given a definition of federations: a federation is a State whose constitutional principles are based on federalism. Traditionally, federations display the traditional characters of external sovereignty which one would expect from a State; defense and security, foreign policy, trade policy, and monetary policy are generally pooled at a federal level. Internally, however, this is not the case: power is divided amongst their constituent units, exercising self-rule within their boundaries and shared-rule through the federal institutions.

How are federations classified?

While some authors (Burgess, 2006) consider federations as a single category, others (Fabbrini 2015) divide federations into two distinct sub-categories, i.e. federal unions and federal States. Federal unions derive from a process of integration (or centralisation, King 1982) amongst constituent units, while federal States come from a process of disintegration within previously centralised states (or decentralisation, King 1982). A third category of scholars (Law, 2013) consider federal unions as not being a subcategory of federations, but an intermediate step between confederations and federations.

Federations boast a variety of different features, depending from different geographic, historical, economic and cultural developments (Friedrich 1969, Burgess 2006). One of the greatest distinctions that we can draw is that between national (or rather, mono-national) federations and multinational federations (Elazar 1987, Watts 2007, Kymlicka 1995).

Kymlicka (1995:10-16) is one scholar who gave a comprehensive definition of those terms. By applying them (Watts, 2007), multinational federations are all those containing more than one single national group, where each group sees itself as separate. Therefore, each one demands various forms of autonomy or self-government, in order to survive as a distinct society, boasting a different culture, language, traditions and institutions.

National federations, on the other hand, contain only one single national group and therefore their territorial constituent units do not follow linguistic or cultural boundaries. Empirically however, national federations have often contained multiple ethnicities themselves. Multiethnic/polyethnic States are those containing distinct cultural groups that do not wish to be recognised as a separate community. Typically, these cultural groups try to make mainstream society more accommodating towards their cultural diversity, while on the other hand accepting to be assimilated to the mainstream cultural group.

Map of Mexico
Map of Mexico

Accordingly, Germany, Austria, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, the USA are considered national federations. This is because there is a mainstream, majority cultural group, which has assimilated (or is assimilating) culturally diverse groups. The latter have nevertheless influenced the history, political environment and overall culture of their countries. Differently, countries like Switzerland, Belgium, Bosnia Herzegovina, Ethiopia, Canada, India and Russia are classed as multinational federations, since they recognise linguistic divisions and cultural identities as part of their constitutional framework.

Map of USA federation
Map of USA

Multinational federations display a higher degree of autonomy than national federations, since, in addition to the core areas of federal self-rule, like policing and tax collection, the constituent units have constitutional tools to preserve their cultural and linguistic identity. In terms of constitutional provisions, this could develop into exclusive competences in the area of schooling and higher education, promotion of linguistic diversity, promotion of the mother tongue abroad, but also, for instance, in policies for integrating migrants into society. Multinational States can hardly be centralised, since the demand for self-rule matches the demand of self-determination by subnational groups.


Conversely, national federations display a higher degree of centralisation than multinational federations. This occurs because the lack of cultural boundaries among internal groups tends to inhibit struggle for autonomy and independence compared multinational models. In a calculation of the degree of centralisation that Requejo made in a publication (2015: 157-176), in a 20-points degree scale, multinational federations displayed on average 15 points, while national federations only 9.625.

For instance, Austria represents a model of a national federation with a very high degree of centralisation. Because of its limited size, the high degree of cultural and linguistic uniformity, and the de facto limited powers of its states, Austria might represent a case of a de facto unitary state (Erk, 2004. Huegelin & Fenna 2006). In fact, despite having a federal constitution, local constitutions just mirror the national one, the party system follows mostly national lines, and the federal Upper House has a limited role in the policy-making process. It appears that Austria, despite being constitutionally a federal country, has a lower degree of decentralisation compared to, for example, a non-federal, but regionalised state like Spain.

What makes a federation united?

The success or failure of a federation depends on different factors. The will of an absolute majority (or at least a strong, consistently powerful, and organised relative majority) is important in determining the survival or the collapse of a federal system. Similarly, common interests and cultural and economic similarities might play a meaningful role in determining whether a federation will thrive. More generally, there should be a common ground that, for pragmatic or ideal reasons, fosters the desire for unity.

When a common national background is missing, other elements might play a significant role. Michael Burgess in his 2012 publication, In Search of the Federal Spirit, made a list of different values and principles that make the existence and the success of a federation possible. It is a moral dimension, encompassing human dignity, liberty, equality, justice, empathy, tolerance, recognition and respect.

From a constitutional point of view, this translate into autonomy, partnership, self-determination, comity, loyalty, unity in diversity, entrenchment and mutuality. This is why multinational federations, as well as mono-national federations, can survive thanks to a form of “civic (or liberal) nationalism”. Under such a model, national features are not shaped by ethnic or cultural elements, but by the rational adoption of a set of civic (or liberal) values on a voluntary basis. Attachment to a set of constitutional values that shape the character of its citizenship – i.e. constitutional patriotism – is also a factor that allows federations to thrive.

Success and survival of a multinational society is therefore down to the prevalence of a federal spirit, that can integrate and combine different national experiences. Should the EU ever become a federation, its success would depend on the ability to combine the principle of “unity in diversity” with some of the traditional characters of sovereign statehood.


Burgess, M., 2006. Comparative Federalism: Theory and Practice. London: Rouledge.

Burgess, M., 2012. In Search of the Federal Spirit: New Comparative and Theoretical Perspectives. London: Oxfort University Press.

Burgess, M. and Pinder, J. eds., 2007. Multinational federations. London: Routledge.

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

Erk Jan, 2004, ‘Austria. A Federation without Federalism’, Publius. The Journal of Federalism XXXIV(1): 1-20.

Fabbrini, S., 2015. Which European Union?. Cambridge University Press.

Friedrich, C.J., 1968. Trends of federalism in theory and practice (Vol. 652). New York: Praeger.

Gagnon, A.G. and Keil, S., 2015. Understanding federalism and federation. London: Routledge.

Hueglin, T. O. and Fenna A., 2006, Comparative Federalism: A Systematic Inquiry. Toronto: Broadview Press.

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

Kymlicka, W., 1995. Multicultural citizenship: A liberal theory of minority rights. Clarendon Press.

Law, J., 2013., ‘How can we define federalism?ì’ Perspectives on Federalism, 5(3), pp.88-120.

Requejo, F., 2015., ‘National Pluralism, Recognition, Federalism and Secession (or Hegel was a clever guy)’ Understanding Federalism and Federation.

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Francesco Violi

Federalist activist and PhD student in Politics and International Relations. Author for My Country? Europe and other federalist/pro-European platforms.

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