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United, But How? Decentralisation Or Federalism

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One of the main recurring questions in the debate about decentralisation is whether some countries are federal or simply decentralised. The differences between federalism and devolution might appear elusive at a cursory examination, and this is reflected in a number of empirical cases. This issue repeatedly surfaces in regards to Catalan (and Basque) secessionism in Spain, but also with the case of devolution in the United Kingdom (should the UK become fully federal or not?) and about the debate over the constitutional framework in Italy.

Defining Decentralisation

The definition of decentralisation changes accordingly to different States and constitutional traditions, but generally, decentralisation means the transfer of legislative powers to subnational bodies, as well as fiscal and administrative powers. Sometimes, decentralisation includes all of these three elements, but sometimes not.

Federalism on one hand and devolution/decentralisation on the other are two concepts which are strictly interconnected, but essentially different. Indeed, federalism means that State sovereignty is distributed across different level of government, according to a combination of self-rule of the constituent units, and shared rule through federal institutions. Normally, this process of distribution happens country-wide: all territories are affected by the new framework at the same time.

Administrative map of European regions, overlaid with European Party affiliation

More importantly federal principles must be legally protected within the constitutional framework, so that, while asserting the unity of the federation, the self-rule of its constituent states is intrinsically part of the federal constitutional framework. A constant feature of federal States is that the Upper Chamber/Senate represent the interest and the opinions of constituent units in the law-making process, therefore they must follow subnational boundaries.

Unlike federalism, devolution is the conferral of powers in some limited areas to subnational parliaments. Despite being democratically legitimate bodies, said parliaments remain legally subordinate to the supremacy of the central parliament. This means that, theoretically, the central parliament can recentralise said powers just following an ordinary constitutional procedure or even by simply issuing a parliamentary act. Shared rule is also very limited or non-existent, so that the territorial units have very limited say in the shaping and implementation of nation-wide policies. Additionally, while federalisation is applied to the whole state, devolution can be applied to only one territory or more territories, but not necessarily all of them.

Ultimately, devolution implies a narrow subset of competencies for devolved entities; more importantly, it doesn’t enjoy the same degree of constitutional protection as constituent units in federalism.

Two Ways To Decentralise

Federalisation and devolution are two different ways to perform decentralisation and manage internal differences. In light of these differences, federal States are those that adopt federalism, while decentralised, regionalised or devolved States are those that adopted some form of devolution. Watts collected all the latter under the definition of decentralised unions (Watts 2007: 16): i.e. unitary states adopting some form of decentralisation without being federal.

The 19 Norwegian electoral counties.
The 19 Norwegian electoral counties.

The difference in constitutional guarantees and conformity to a framework does not necessarily imply a difference in levels of autonomy. On the contrary, it can happen that a region in a decentralised State has relatively the same or even more autonomy than a constituent unit in a federation. Some scholars for instance agree that, although Spain is not a federal State in a classical term, Catalonia has a degree of autonomy that is somehow comparable to that of constituent units of federal States (Ferran Raquejo, 2017). The same can be argued for Scotland within the UK.

There are at least three cases of devolved/decentralised States in Europe: these are the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy. All three have some common patterns, but very different features. The Netherlands too represents another case of decentralised unitary state, even if the Dutch case will not be explored in depth here.

The United Kingdom

The UK is the quintessential case of a devolved State. The country is the result of the merger of two kingdoms in 1707, the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland, leading to the dismissal of the Scottish Parliament and its merger into Westminster. Similarly, the acts of Union of 1800 led to the merger of the Parliament of Ireland into the Parliament of the United Kingdom, a settlement that lasted until Irish independence.

Centuries after this merger, the United Kingdom underwent a process of devolution beginning in the 1990s. In this process, the Scottish Parliament was re-established. In the following years, through a series of acts, the Westminster Parliament conferred a series of fiscal, political and administrative powers, previously the prerogative of Westminster, to Holyrood. After the 2014 independence referendum, and following the report of the Smith Commission, Scotland was given more powers over some fiscal and administrative areas.

Devolution in the UK

Wales underwent a similar process and, after a devolution referendum in 2011, it enjoyed a further increase in competences. Similarly, Northern Ireland enjoys self-rule and devolved powers. The United Kingdom remains a strongly asymmetrical system, since Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland have three different forms of devolution and, unlike the others, England does not have a national parliament. Westminster makes laws for England thanks to an “English Votes for English Laws” procedure. Ultimately, because of the absence of a written constitution, devolution is guaranteed by parliamentary acts only and the ultimate authority rests with the UK Parliament.


The case of devolution in Spain has sparked considerable debate. In fact, even though some scholars argue that Spain is a de facto federation, others (Gagnon-Keil-Mueller 2015, Requejo 2005, Filippov–Ordeshook-Shvetsova 2004, Griffiths-Neremberg 2002, 2005, Watts 1999, Stepan 1999, Elazar 1991) argue for the opposite: i.e. that it is a devolved system, including many elements of federalism, but not entirely a federal State. Therefore, some define Spain a quasi-federation.

The Spanish Autonomous Communities are not constituent units. Some of the current communities have deep historical roots, others were artificially created after the new constitution came into force. The judicial power is still centralised, and the Senate, unlike Upper Chambers in federal systems, is not linked to the Autonomous Communities; thus, reducing their role in making state-wide policies.

Similarly, on the field of taxation, autonomous communities (with the sole exception of the Basque countries) have limited tax-raising powers, which remain in the hands of the central government, providing for redistributing fiscal resources to the Communities. Again, Autonomous Communities have no official role in the constitutional reform process, which remains mostly in the hands of the central parliament and to State wide referendums. These main elements are the reason why, although Spanish Autonomies display a high degree of agency that is typical of federal States, classifying Spain as a federation is inaccurate: its constitution simply does not reflect it.


Italy is an asymmetric system combining both elements of federalism and devolution at the same time. The result is that Italy shows traits of being a federal State under development (Palermo, Woelk 2007), stuck between those two different solutions. The federalisation of Italy has been a very long process, but the turning point is represented by the constitutional reform of 2001, amending the 5th Title of the Constitution, and increasing the competences of ordinary regions.

Regions of Italy

Italy is divided into twenty regions, five of which are designated as Regions with Special Statute (RSS). The remaining fifteen are Regions with Ordinary Statute (ROS). While the statutes of the Autonomous Regions are ranked with the Constitution in the hierarchy of Italian laws, the statute of the other ordinary regions ranks as ordinary law, and therefore subordinate to the Constitution. This disparity makes Italy an asymmetrical political system following two different tracks of decentralisation: the one applied to the RSS, modelled after a federalist paradigm; and the one applied to the other fifteen regions, modelled after a devolved system. It’s a devolutionary, asymmetric federal hybrid system, still in development. (Palermo, Woelk 2017).

In addition to this fundamental element, RSS have both exclusive and residual legislative powers, while ROS only have residual ones. Ordinary regions enjoy limited fiscal autonomy, although their degree of administrative autonomy is relatively high. In fact, while the Special Statute Regions have a constitutional right to their fiscal revenues, the other regions do not, and are subject to State transfers.

Infographic describing the failed reform of the Senate

Unlike Spain and the United Kingdom, the Italian Senate follows a regional allocation criterion, as stated by Article 57. Nevertheless senators are not elected by regional bodies, and generally do not represent regional or subnational interests, but normally follow national partisan lines. Regional minority parties in Special Statute Regions are an exception to this.

The many attempts to change the nature of the Senate into a House of Regions have so far met with no success. Currently, the Senate isn’t the chamber of local interests and autonomy, but a perfect equivalent in powers and prerogatives as the Chamber of Deputies. The Permanent State and Regions Conference plays that role of forum for the national and regional governments, but it is a consultative body, with no role in the law-making process.
For these reasons, Italy is strongly regionalised but mostly decentralised unitary state, since it lacks the features that most federal States have.


Devolution and federalisation represent two possible paths of distributing powers within a polity. They are conceptually different systems, but hybrid solutions are possible; more, they can both lead to the outcome of boosting and securing local autonomies and manage internal diversities. There is no better or worse option, since the final outcome of both processes very much depends on a series of factors: like, for instance, the different cultural, economic and institutional backgrounds, the way it is introduced and the constitutional framework underlying.


This article is the second of the series “United, But How?”, which aims to illustrate key concepts of federalist theory. For the first episode, please go here.

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.


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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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