Temi Vives, 19 October 2023
Biologist and Philosopher
Honorary Professor at the University of Barcelona
Image : Susana Alonso
Federalism and confederalism
The current political moment in Spain is marked by territorial demands and tensions that have led to the federalist proposal being increasingly on the lips of politicians, especially on the left. The Basque PNV, Iñigo Urkullu, has recently made proposals that can be identified as “confederal”, and different sectors of Catalan independence advocate this option. Federalism and confederalism are two concepts related to the structure of a country’s government. They differ in how power is organised and distributed between different levels of government. Schematically (but not definitively), the main differences between federalism and confederalism are the following.
In federalism, the distribution of power takes place between a central government and sub-national entities, connationals, states or autonomies with specific levels of government, authority and competences that complement but do not duplicate each other. In the federal constitution, the division of powers and the responsibilities of the different levels of government are established. Power rests primarily with the federal state. Examples of federal countries are the United States, Canada, Switzerland, Germany and Australia or the former USSR.
In a confederal system, the states or sub-national entities retain a great deal of independence and cede only certain specific powers to the central government. Power rests primarily with the states and they retain control over key issues such as defence, foreign policy and finance. Each member state in a confederation will be considered sovereign and may withdraw from the confederation if it chooses to do so. In general, there is no constitution in the confederal system that sets out the structure of government; instead, member states enter into treaties or agreements that provide for cooperation among themselves. A historical example of a confederal system was the Confederation of the United States of America under the Articles of Confederation (1777-1789). However, the system soon proved inefficient and was replaced by the U.S. Constitution in 1789, which established a federal system.
Today there are no modern states that are fully confederal in the traditional sense of the term. Some countries may have confederal characteristics in certain aspects of their government or political structure, but they are generally considered federal systems as a whole. For example, Switzerland, despite calling itself the “Swiss Confederation”, has a federal structure that grants considerable autonomy to its cantons, but is not considered a confederation in the historical sense of the term.
For the unredeemed independence fighters, there is only one goal: full independence. When they accept any intermediate agreement, it is in order to be able to demand more and more until their ultimate goal, which is total and irreversible secession. I sincerely believe that the pro-independence supporters will only be happy with total independence, which, yes, confederalism would put within their reach. Surprisingly, the Catalan and Scottish pro-independence supporters want to join the European Union, which is de facto functioning as a confederal political body. This is a total contradiction, for whether they accept EU membership or not, given their population and economic size they will be politically, economically and culturally insignificant.
Finally, there remain some crucial questions that should be clearly answered before entering into political lucubrations and fantasies that never end well. Is the European Union currently a confederal state? Is the future of the European Union federal or confederal? To what extent is a confederal state compatible with the EU treaty?
If Catalan pro-independence supporters really want the good of the Catalans and Catalonia, they would do well to give clear and well-founded political answers to these questions. The argument that “the people will decide”, apart from being a trap, is totally dishonest: the people decide on the basis of the proposals and explanations of the politicians, not the other way round.