Case Studies

Cooperative Federalism and the Dominant Role of Consensus in German Federalism

Cooperative Federalism and the Dominant Role of Consensus in German Federalism


German federalism is one of the most unitary in the world. It started from assumptions based on the subsidiarity principle. They still are to be found in the German constitution. The lack of a federalism culture, the output orientation of German politics that stresses the sameness of living conditions, and party-political centralization have shaped Germany’s federalism. The last three reforms of German federalism 2006, 2009, and 2017 have all contributed to more centralism and shared decision-making of the federal government and the Land executives.


From its very beginnings German federalism was devised as cooperative federalism based on federal-state interest intermediation. The German Constitution of 1949 over time was interpreted in a manner that allocates the lion’s share of legislative competences to the federal government (often as shared competences with the Länder). The Länder have most of the competences when it comes to the administration of law (including federal law). Consensus can be a choice, but it can also be the result of defeat. German federalism with the rare exception of the federalism reform of 2006 knows only one direction: more shared rule and less self-rule. This undermines the position of Land parliaments, though not necessarily of Land executives (governments). On the Land level, only a few competences and none without a certain federal role are left: the media, support for small and medium-sized enterprises, culture, police and education.

The German Constitution is built on the logic of the principle of subsidiarity. In Article 30, it starts from the assumption that the Länder are responsible for public policies and public administration, with the exceptions enumerated in the Constitution. In practical politics the Länder no longer dominate German statehood. Now the federal executive alone or in cooperation with the Länder executives sit in the driver’s seat. This is partly the case because the federal level has taken almost full control of the fields of concurrent legislation, and partly because the federal level has an almost exclusive right to make tax laws.

(Map of Germany)

In the post-war years, the cooperation of the federal level and the Länder still concentrated on problems to solve, such as the future of agriculture or economic support for the territories bordering the iron curtain disadvantaged by the partition of Germany (Zonenrandgebiete). Cooperation followed the principles of efficiency and financial viability. In the next few decades the federal level developed an appetite for a more systematic plan to bring Germany forward and together. This implied an improved steering capacity of central government for more and more policy fields. The additional impetus of German unification (1989/90) and the connected process of institution building led to even more strategic centralization. It was also the rationale behind financial transfers and the transfer of administrative and political personnel from West to East under the auspices of the federal government.

Cooperation became more than an occasional partnership. Cooperation was now hardened in an institutional network of joint decision-making. Cooperative federalism developed into “interlocking federalism”, into “Politikverflechtung” as the German political scientist Fritz W. Scharpf called the new phenomenon.  For the general question, what is the right balance of diversity and unity in German federalism, new answers had to be found, because now it meant an evaluation of Länder autonomy in the light of interlocking federalism. The Länder were not opposed to the federalism reforms of the 1960s. For them, interlocking federalism implied budgetary stability. Their governments even gained political power via the Bundesrat, where the Länder executives supported the reforms of the Constitution with the necessary two-third majorities.

Explaining the Emergence of Unitary/ ‘Interlocking’ Federalism?

What are the driving forces behind a cooperative federalism that developed into a unitary federalism? Generally speaking, the lack of a culture of federalism. Germans see their federalism above all as a technical device to steer politics. If anything goes wrong in the political process, the solution is always more centralism. Champions of federalism would defend regional decision-making as an expression of vertical power-sharing, as an expression of regional autonomy. Germans seem to abhor territorial differences. This brings us to a second factor that explains the emergence of unitary federalism in Germany, the development of the welfare state. The welfare state has as its central promise the idea of equality. In Germany we witness the paradox that the public seems to believe that the most efficient federalism is not one that allows diversity, but one that guarantees equal treatment of everybody. This is, no doubt, a misleading interpretation of Article 20(1) of the German Constitution (Grundgesetz), which guarantees a social and federal state (“sozialer Bundesstaat”).

Party politics has supported this interpretation. For political parties social policies are vote winners. Parties offer uniform solutions for social problems in Germany. And parties are only to some extent federal organizations. Big decisions are made on the national level. These decisions include a role for regional party leaders, for example in coalitions talks on the national level or in joint meetings of the Land ministers or Land prime ministers. Party majorities in Land parliaments accept national decisions because the alternative would be to topple the party coalition in government on the Land level.

Via the Bundesrat (a quasi-second chamber of Parliament) the Länder executives have a formalized role in passing federal law. The Bundesrat has the potential to act as a chamber of the German Länder, and it sometimes does. But political coordination in the Bundesrat is based on party political cooperation. This cooperation has to overcome the challenge that decisions in the Bundesrat need an absolute majority of seats, which these days even so-called grand coalitions can no longer provide. It would be wrong to assume that the need to cooperate automatically creates harmony. It means more coordination, which strengthens the political executives on the federal and the Land level and weakens parliaments. Decisions are made by finding the smallest common denominator. This gives second best solutions a chance to succeed. Politics is slowed down, and fresh starts in politics are rare, but they are not impossible. Most of the time the result of federal-Land bargaining processes is a give and take. The Länder get federal financial support; and the federal level gets greater access to Länder responsibilities. The German fiscal constitution is another factor that provokes political centralization. The German Länder are notoriously underfunded, but they have only scant opportunities to raise taxes, about 95% of their expenditures are pre-determined by national and regional law. Since the balanced budget amendment to the Federal Constitution in 2009, they no longer have the right to borrow money. The only way out of a financial dilemma is support by the federal government. This support was always connected with a reduction of self-rule and an extension of shared rule, or the transfer of competencies from the regional to the national level.

The Relevance of Germany for Federalism Research

At first sight, German federalism seems to have two advantages. It seems to allow or even foster the economic success of a country, and it has a low level of regional conflicts. Where regional parties exist they are either given special treatment, like the party of the Danes and Frisians in Schleswig-Holstein which does not need to pass the five percent hurdle to make it in the Land parliament, or, as is the case for the Bavarian CSU, its role in national politics integrates support for regional interests into the political mainstream. It is difficult to prove, however, that Germany’s specific form of federalism has anything to do with the country’s economic success. The integration of regional interest articulation is very much facilitated by the absence of ethnic divisions in the country. The German example shows that there is a federalism scale on which German (and Austrian) federalism are close to one end of the scale, the unitary one bordering on no substantial federalism left.

What could be a success story in ethnically divided federal nations could be a Second Chamber along the lines of the Bundesrat to include regional elites in national decision-making to avoid secessionism, for example. What is also of interest for comparative studies is the fact that the number of different parties in regional coalition governments in Germany and the coalitions of different party-political composition has recently increased. Consensus-building in the Bundesrat, an institution with high hurdles for a political majority, deserves a fresh look. The stability assumption, which is so central for the marketing of German federalism, may come under threat. Still, for Germans the yard-stick for successful federalism remains its ability to deliver the promises of the welfare state, and the tool seems to be more centralism – although this contradicts the logic of federalism. Only some German lawyers and political scientists see this contradiction and favour diversity and the democratic potentials of decentralized government.

Further Reading

Julia Oberhofer/ Dieter Roth/ Julia Stehlin, Roland Sturm, Felix Wille: ‘Regional Citizenship in Germany: Solidarity and Participation in a Unitary Federal State’, in: Alisa Henderson/ Charlie Jeffery/ Daniel Wincott (eds): Citizenship after the Nation-State. Regionalism, Nationalism and Public Attitudes in Europe, Basingstoke: Palgrave 2014, S. 80-108.

Roland Sturm: ‘The Länder Lose out. Competence Sharing in German Federalism’, in: Ferdinand Karlhofer/ Günther Pallaver (eds.): Federal Power-Sharing in Europe, Baden-Baden: Nomos 2017, pp. 65-85.

Roland Sturm: ‘Counter-Secessionism and Autonomy in the Federal System of Germany: The Case of Bavaria’, in: Diego Muro/ Eckart Woertz (eds.): Secession and Counter-secession. An International Relations Perspective, Barcelona: CIDOB 2018, pp. 91-98.

Roland Sturm: ‘Unruly Divorces? Why Do Coalitions in the German Länder End Prematurely?’, in: Regional and Federal Studies 23(4), 2013, p. 445-460.




Posted by Roland Sturm in Case Studies, 0 comments
Are Cities Constituent Units in Brazil’s Federalism?

Are Cities Constituent Units in Brazil’s Federalism?


The Brazilian Constitution of 1988 states that municipalities (cities) are part of the federal union. This statement reflects the relevance of local governments in Brazil’s federation. The federal structure does not guarantee municipalities the same level of federative ground the states have. However, municipal competences and roles established by the constitution and the dynamic of Brazilian federalism have shown a high level of participation of local governments in Brazil’s federation.


The Brazilian Federal Constitution of 1988 (CF-88) states in Article 1: “The Federative Republic of Brazil, formed by the indissoluble union of the states and municipalities and of the Federal District, is a legal democratic state (…)”. Another official document, Brazil’s National Report to the UN Habitat III (2015), declared that “Brazil is considered a highly decentralized country since the 1988 Federal Constitution, which raised municipalities to the status of federative entities, in equal terms with states and the Union.”

Are there other federal countries that include municipalities (cities) as official parts of the federal union? With such a constitutional ground and level of clarity, probably not. Almost all federations are dual, formed by the states and the union. Undoubtedly it is not by chance that municipalities are declared part of the union in Brazil. The importance of local power in Brazil has been a matter of fact since colonial times. Nevertheless, the constitutional statement does not mean exactly what it promises, albeit the relevance of municipalities today is high and continues to increase in many fields, ways and aspects.

(Map of Brasil)

The aim of this article is to review the place and role of municipalities in Brazil’s federalism and show how cities play an important role as part of the Brazilian Federation.

Municipalities in Brazil

Municipalities were the first public entities created by Portugal in Brazil, during the colonial period (1500-1822). They were self-governed through their municipal councils (Camaras Municipais) and have their own local laws. With the advent of the Republic and the adoption of federalism (1889-1891), municipalities retained their autonomy but did not gain any different status in the new Brazilian federation. Besides, local political movements engaged in approving municipal constitutions were blocked by the new states and federal authorities. Municipalities, however, have had organic laws, which, in practice, function as local constitutions. Mayors (prefeitos) are elected through direct vote as well as municipal councilors (vereadores) for four-year mandates with one re-election allowed. Municipal legislative and executive powers are separate, in line with the presidential system.

Nowadays, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistic (IBGE), the main federal branch responsible for the country’s public data, Brazil has 5.570 municipalities (2016). Federal urbanistic law (Cities Statute, 2001) states that all municipalities with 20.000 inhabitants or more should approve an urban plan (Plano Diretor), a municipal law that should be based on a participatory and technical process, which regulates the uses and disposition of the whole municipal territory. The urban plan is a crucial instrument for public planning, but also for emphasising municipal autonomy. According to the Research on Basic Municipal Information (MUNIC-2015), from 1.742 municipalities with more than 20.00 inhabitants only 188 (10,8%) did not have an urban plan.

(Municipalities without urban plan (less than 20.000 inhabitants) in red; and with urban plan (more than 20.000 inhabitants) in green. Source: IBGE, Brazil, 2008.)

The map above (IBGE, 2008) shows cities with and without urban plan in Brazil. There is a great concentration of most populated municipalities in the South and Southeast regions (the most economically rich), as well as in the coastal zone, this last one as a heritage of the historical occupation of the country. In fact, Brazil has 80% of its population concentrated in urban areas, much more than the world average (60%, according to the World Bank), putting municipalities at the core of many polices in the federation.

Channels of Political Representation and Intergovernmental Relations

As a federation, Brazil has a Senate in which its 26 states plus the Federal District are represented through a symmetric architecture, each state having three senators elected by the people. One basic question in this matter is the following: as constituent units, do municipalities have representation in the Senate? The answer is no. In fact, Article 46 of the FC-88 states: “The Federal Senate is composed of representatives of the States and the Federal District (…)”. This absence exposes one of the contradictions of the so-called three-tier federation, in which one of their three pillars is not equally represented in the upper house. There is no mechanism of municipal representation in Congress at all, even one without the right of vote, such as South Africa’s seat for SALGA (South Africa Local Government Association) in the Council of Provinces.

Due to the lack of institutional channels to vocalize municipal interests, strong municipal networks, regional and national, have developed during decades after the approval of the new constitution. Today, there are three national associations representing municipal interests: The National Confederation of Municipalities (CNM), mainly composed of small cities; the National Mayors Front (FNP), mainly composed of medium and big cities, as well as state capitals; and the Brazilian Association of Municipalities (ABM). Those three entities have played a central role in advocating municipal interests both at the federal executive and legislative structures.

To mitigate the historic lack of a constitutional channel for municipality representation, the federal government has implemented some measures through infra-constitutional law. President Lula (2003-2010) created a set of new institutions for federal governance aiming to respond to municipalities’ representation as part of the union. Those institutions are the Ministry of Cities and its National Council for Cities; and the Secretary of Federative Affairs and its Federative Committee – the last one is a direct intergovernmental channel between the union and municipalities, represented by those aforementioned national associations of municipalities.

Municipal Autonomy

Despite the fact that municipalities are not institutionally represented in the Senate, as in theory they should be, the CF-88 empowered municipalities with exclusive competences and concurrent ones, recognizing an important place and role for local governments, both in legislative and executive competences. According to the aforementioned country’s UN Habitat III Report, “Municipalities respond autonomously for local interest issues and taxes of their competence; public transportation; children’s education and the first grades of basic education; basic health services; adequate territorial planning; and local historical-cultural heritage”. Municipalities have exclusive competence to impose and directly collect taxes (art.156) regarding urban buildings and urban land property, transfers of real state and services (residual competence regarding states competence).

In Pursuit of Local Interest

The CF-88 states in Article 30 that “The municipalities have the power to: I. legislate upon local interest”. However, there is no definition of what local interest is. Few interpretations of what could be local interest come from legal literature, but without much detail. In practice, judicial decisions at higher courts are defining that. In 2015, the Supreme Federal Court (STF) approved a binding precedent (n. 38) stating “The municipality has competence to fix open hours for commercial stores”. In fact, this is one of several possibilities for municipalities to apply their competence on local interest issues, therefore amplifying the scope of municipal autonomy.

International Relations of Municipalities and Regional Integration Process

More evidence of municipalities’ high level of autonomy is in international relations. Brazil’s subnational governments have been developing some kind of international activities, both bilateral and multilaterally. It is also true that since the 1980s international politics influenced by globalization have favoured paradiplomacy of subnational units, as the classic book on federalism and international relations edited by Michellman and Soldatos (1991) discussed. In Brazil, municipalities have played an extremely active role in regional processes, with networks such as Mercocities within Mercosur, where a Committee of Municipalities, States, Provinces and Departments (FCCR) was established in 2007, allowing subnational governments to address their interests within the integration process. Besides, municipalities have been active in a myriad of other networks in different issues and agendas, not to say in the United Nations system, from UN Habitat to climate change negotiations. A direct relationship with international development banks, such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank-IADB, is also part of this reality.

De facto Federal Centralization and Municipal Dependence

Most of the scholars in the field of federalism and federal studies agree that Brazil became a very decentralized federation after the CF-88. However, recent research on federalism, based on empirical evidence, has shown a growing level of centralization in the union, when economic and fiscal reforms are part of the federative equation. This reality affects both states and municipalities. On the other hand, the level of subnational debt has increased the level of state and municipal dependence on federal resources. The centralization trend is also part of the decision-making process of the Supreme Federal Court, but in this case to protect democratic values. For those reasons, some economists, political scientists and lawyers consider Brazil a de facto centralized federation, despite the formal decentralization granted by the Constitution.

Concluding Reflections

The answer to the question composing the title of this article cannot be a yes/no binary response. As one may realize, municipalities in Brazil are formally part of the union, according to the Constitution. This makes Brazil an interesting case of three-tier federation, in which municipalities are autonomous in various ways and aspects, despite not having formal representation in the Congress. Exclusive and concurrent competences make local governments essential players in the federal game. However, the centralization trend of Brazil’s federation raises the question whether municipalities are really autonomous? An evolving scenario for Brazil’s federation regarding municipalities as constituent units could include their institutional representation in the Senate, in order to guarantee at least an official voice to local governments in the nation’s affairs. A constitutional amendment to amplify municipal representation in the Senate would complete the pillar that municipalities represent in the federation.



Arretche, Marta 2012, Democracia, federalismo e centralização no Brasil, FGV, Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil 1988. Constitution of the Federative Republic of Brazil-1988, Supremo Tribunal Federal (STF) website.

Brazil 2015 National Report for Habitat III. National Council of Cities, Brasilia,

Kleiman, A. / Rodrigues, G. 2007, The Mercosur Committee of Municipalities, States, Provinces and Departments. Process of Creation and Perspectives. Fifth Annual Conference of the Euro-Latin Study Network on Integration and Trade (ELSNIT), Barcelona,

Michellman H / Soldatos P. (eds.) 1991, Federalism and International Relations, Oxford University Press.

Rodrigues, Gilberto M. A. 2017 Concurrent Power and Local Interest in Brazil’s Federalism, In: Steitler, N. (ed.), Concurrent Powers in Federal Systems. Brill / Nijhoof, Leiden.

Souza, Celina 2005, Federal Republic of Brazil, In: Kincaid J. / Tarr, Alain (eds.), Constitutional Origins, Structure, and Change in Federal Countries, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston.

Further Reading

Aroney, N. / Kincaid, J. 2017, Courts in Federal Countries: Federalists or Unitarists? University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

Chiaramonte, José Carlos 2016, Raíces Históricas del Federalismo Latinoamericano, Sudamericana, Buenos Aires.

Rezende, Fernando 2007, Federal Republic of Brazil, In: Shah, A. (ed.), The Practice of Fiscal Federalism: Comparative Perspectives, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal & Kingston.

Rodrigues, Gilberto M. A. / Mattioli, Thiago 2017, Paradiplomacy, Security Policies and City Networks. Contexto Internacional. Vol.39(3) Sept-Dec, 2017.



Posted by Gilberto M. A. Rodrigues in Case Studies, 0 comments
Autonomous Island Regions

Autonomous Island Regions


Research regarding autonomous island regions encounters a myriad of various definitions used in two overarching traditions within the field: autonomism and federalism. This short article sheds some light on some of the most common definitions used and maybe how we can derive some closure in the area. However, more research should be done in order to come up with a complete list of autonomous islands in the world.


There are several authors that distinguish between territorial and non-territorial autonomies (see e.g. Hannum 1996; Olausson 2008; Légaré and Suksi 2008; Tkacik 2008). Territorial autonomies are seen as special regions within their metropolitan state having legislative and administrative rights and a large scope of issues controlled by the regional government, while the non-territorial autonomies are based on individual or group rights for minorities, indigenous peoples or other specific groups within the society at large with functional, cultural or personal matters in focus. Within the area of territorial autonomies there have been some comparative works where island autonomous regions have been in focus. Olausson (2008) is able to find 39 autonomous islands in the world, while Benedikter (2009) lists about 20 such islands amongst his list of territorial autonomies. I have in my dissertation mapped 44 autonomous islands amongst the territorial autonomies in the world (Ackrén 2009). The numbers vary due to the definitions used in the respective study.

Concepts such as territorial autonomy, federacy, quasi-federal arrangements and asymmetrical federalism are all interlinked with each other (see e.g. Watts 2005; Elazar 1987). Indeed, there is some confusion on these concepts in the academic literature. Furthermore, island regions which have reached a high degree of self-government are usually referred to as sub-national island jurisdictions (SNIJs) (see e.g. Baldacchino 2004; Baldacchino and Hepburn 2012) or partially independent territories (PITs) (see e.g. Rezvani 2014).

This short article will focus on autonomous island regions, but what should we call them? The next section will try to come up with a workable definition that can be used for further studies in the field.

Conceptual Clarifications

The island regions in the world which have reached some form of special status within their respective metropolitan state are usually former colonies (such as Aruba, Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Greenland, Puerto Rico etc.), but this is not always the case (Ackrén 2009; Olausson 2008). There are also islands which have received their self-government based on other political, economic and/or cultural conditions (e.g. the Åland Islands, Faroe Islands, Guernsey, Jersey, and Isle of Man). Devolution or decentralization within unitary states can take many forms. Usually, the states are divided into some forms of regional and local entities, such as, counties, districts and municipalities. However, sometimes some asymmetrical features occur where some regions enhance a greater autonomy or self-government than other regional and local entities with special rights. Island regions lying in the periphery usually belong to this group, since it is more practical if this type of region can handle as much of its internal affairs as possible lying far away from the power centres in the country in question. Decision-making becomes more practical if these are made as close to the citizens as possible. This also means that a certain “island identity” might occur and this will then further shape the island policy and relationship towards its metropolitan state. Political parties and movements are formed to address regional matters and these parties and movements advocate more regional and local matters, which might be different from their metropolitan counterparts.

Autonomous islands can be seen as lying in the middle of a continuum going from dependency to sovereignty. The autonomous island regions are operating on the sub-national level of the state where they occur and therefore they combine “self-rule” with “shared rule” in various ways (Baldacchino 2004: 77). The autonomous island regions constitute entities with both federal and non-federal elements. Federal elements include the idea of multi-level governance with some power and governmental authority transferred to the regions, while the ultimate sovereignty remains at the state level; special status arrangements, which may be seen as asymmetrical federalism; and the principle of combining shared-rule with territorial self-rule (Lluch 2012: 141-144). Some of the non-federal elements are that the formal distribution of power between legislative and executive bodies is not constitutionally entrenched; the shared rule element is usually weak or non-existent; influence over the policymaking institutions of the centre is weak or negligible; and self-rule is established in an unequal way in relation to the core state apparatus (Lluch 2012: 139-41).

A short overview of the various definitions in the literature gives us a picture of which specific characters these islands might uphold.

Overview of some common definitions in the field

Concept Definition Author Cases
Autonomy To rule over oneself according to one’s own laws or rules. Dinstein (1981) Here we could place various kinds of cases, not just island regions, but also individuals, churches, municipalities, minority groups etc.
Personal and political autonomy “The right to be different and to be left alone; to preserve, protect, and promote values which are beyond the legitimate reach of the rest of the society”. Hannum (1996: 4) Including not only autonomous islands, but minority and indigenous groups as well
Territorial Autonomy A geographical defined area which differs from other sub-national units within the state and which enjoys a special status including some legislative powers within the state, but does not constitute a federal unit or an independent state. Ackrén (2009); Olausson (2008) American Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Aruba, Azores, Balearic Islands, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Cook Islands, Falkland Islands, Faroe Islands, Greenland, Åland Islands, etc.
Asymmetrical federalism Political units with differences of interest, character and makeup and where local governments possess varying degrees of autonomy and power. Tarlton (1965: 869) Including not only autonomous island regions, but also other regions such as Catalonia, Basque Country, Nunavut, South Tyrol etc.
Federacy “Asymmetrical permanent linkage between two self-government units with the larger having specific powers within the smaller in exchange for specific privileges”. Any change in this relationship needs decision on a mutual basis by both parties. Federacies usually refer to peripheral or remote territories or islands. Elazar (1987: 55); Elazar (1996); Watts (2005) Faroe Islands and Greenland (in relation to Denmark); Åland Islands (in relation to Finland); Azores and Madeira (in relation to Portugal); Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey (in relation to Great Britain); and Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico (in relation to the USA)
Sub-National Island Jurisdiction (SNIJ) Non-sovereign states with strong levels of internal autonomy, whether de jure or de facto or both; sub-national entities associated to a larger sovereign state with a distinct society and culture and constitute islands. Baldacchino (2010) Åland Islands, Cayman Islands, Cook Islands, Faroe Islands, Greenland, Guernsey, Isle of Man, Jersey, New Caledonia, Niue, Puerto Rico, Turks Caicos Islands, etc.
Partially Independent Territory (PIT) “Partially independent territories are nationalistically distinct and constitutionally differentiated territories that share and divide sovereign powers with a core state. They are neither member units of federations nor are they fully controlled parts of unitary states.” Rezvani (2014) Åland Islands, Aosta Valley, Aruba, Azores, Basque Country, Bermuda, Bougainville, British Virgin Islands, Catalonia, Cayman Islands, Cook Islands, Curacao, Faroe Islands, French Polynesia, etc.

This list is not in any way exhaustive, but gives us some indications of how to define the territories in question. Similar features can be drawn from this list, such as, that autonomous islands seem to be self-ruling territories with a special status constitutionally within the core state and have legislative powers and some authors also go so far as to include ethnicity and culturally distinct features.

Possible Case Selection

How can the autonomous islands then be chosen if we are interested in investigating these territories in more depth? One point of departure would be to go through the countries’ constitutions in the world to see if we can find autonomous islands mentioned in these constitutions. Those countries without written constitutions need, of course, a different approach where self-government acts or other forms of legislative regulations might be an option. There are also cases where special regions are only regulated through ordinary laws or acts and not mentioned in the constitutions (here we find examples of American Samoa, the American Virgin Islands, Cook Islands, Faroe Islands, and Greenland to mentioned just a few cases). Another approach might be to select cases from an institutional approach regarding multi-level governance or from a power perspective. The power that autonomous regions uphold can vary between the centre and the local majorities within the same area. Sometimes these powers are approaching quasi-statehood and at other times they are more limited. Autonomous regions may feature distinctive administrative units, electoral systems, political parties, political symbols, passports and membership in international organizations. Furthermore, autonomy may entail the ability to control natural resources, collect local taxes and set tax rates, obtain external loans, and more. In cultural spheres, autonomy may feature control over official languages, education systems and religious life. There might also be various legal traditions. The case selection will come down to the definition used in any study that we undertake, so therefore there might be various opportunities for different studies. A good study would also include contrasting cases of land-locked territories and not just islands and even the whole continuum going from dependency to sovereignty.

The Case of Greenland

Greenland is a good example where the status has changed over time. First, Greenland was a colony from 1721-1953. In 1953, Greenland became an integrated part of Denmark as a county amongst other counties in Denmark, but then in the end of the 1970s nationalistic movements among the local population started to demand more autonomy and even secession from Denmark. This led to the Home Rule Act in 1979. Greenland then began to take over a lot of various areas of competences from the Danish side. Later a new Self-Government Act in 2009 was implemented and gave Greenland even more powers approaching a kind of quasi-statehood. Now in the recent election campaign the independence issue is on the agenda. This example shows that autonomy is not a static phenomenon. Autonomy is always in a state of flux.


This short article has tried to elucidate the concept of autonomous island regions and how we can define these territories. It is clear that we encounter two traditions within research: autonomism and federalism. Sometimes these overarching strategies are combined and sometimes not. The debate will probably still go on for decades to come regarding how we perceive both traditions.


Ackrén, M. 2009. Conditions for Different Autonomy Regimes in the World – A Fuzzy-Set Application. Åbo: Åbo Akademi University Press (Doctoral Dissertation).

Baldacchino, G. 2004. Autonomous but not sovereign? A review of island sub-nationalism. Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism, 31(1-2), 77-91.

Baldacchino, G. 2010. Island Enclaves: Offshoring Strategies, Creative Governance, and Subnational Island Jurisdictions. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Baldacchino, G. and E. Hepburn (2012). Introduction. Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 50(4), 395-402.

Benedikter, T. 2009. The World’s Modern Autonomy Systems: Concepts and Experiences of Regional Territorial Autonomy. Bolzano/Bozen: EURAC Research. Available at:

Dinstein, Y. (ed.) 1981. Models of Autonomy. New Brunswick: Transaction Books.

Elazar, D.J. 1987. Exploring Federalism. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.

Elazar, D. 1996. From Statism to Federalism – A Paradigm Shift. International Political Science Review, 17(4), 417-429.

Hannum, H. 1996. Autonomy, Sovereignty, and Self-Determination – The Accommodation of Conflicting Rights. Revised Edition. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Légaré, A. and M. Suksi (2008). Introduction: Rethinking the Forms of Autonomy at the Dawn of the 21st Century. International Journal on Minority and Group Rights, 15(2-3), 143-155.

Lluch, J. 2012. Autonomism and Federalism. Publius – The Journal of Federalism, 42(1), 134-161.

Olausson, P. 2008. Autonomy and Islands: A Global Study of the Factors that Determine Island Autonomy Åbo: Åbo Akademi University Press (Doctoral Dissertation).

Rezvani, D.A. 2014. Surpassing the Sovereign State: The Wealth, Self-Rule, and Security Advantages of Partially Independent Territories. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tarlton, C. D. 1965. Symmetry and Asymmetry as Elements of Federalism: A Theoretical Speculation. The Journal of Politics, 27(4), 861-874.

Tkacik, M. 2008. Characteristics of Forms of Autonomy. International Journal on Minority and Group Rights, 15(2-3), 369-401.

Watts, R.L. 2005. ‘Comparing Forms of Federal Partnerships’ in D. Karmis and W. Norman (eds.): Theories of Federalism: A Reader. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Further Reading

Aldrich, R. and J. Connell 1998. The Last Colonies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Safran, W. and R. Máiz (eds.) 2000. Identity and Territorial Autonomy in Plural Societies. London and Portland, OR: Frank Cass Publishers.

Suksi, M. 2011. Sub-State Governance through Territorial Autonomy: A Comparative Study in Constitutional Law of Powers, Procedures and Institutions. Berlin-Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.

Weller, M. and S. Wolff (eds.) 2005. Autonomy, Self-Government and Conflict Resolution: Innovative Approaches to Institutional Design in Divided Societies. London and New York: Routledge.


Posted by Maria Ackrén in Case Studies, 0 comments
The Union Model of Indian Federalism

The Union Model of Indian Federalism


The Founding Fathers provided India with a Union Constitution and a model of federalism, which is now distinctively know as a ‘union model of federalism’. It distinctively harmonises otherwise opposite processes of (i) centralisation-decentralisation; (ii) autonomy-integration, and unionisation- regionalisation. The degree of federalism varies from Article to Article and from one context to another. One finds a consistency in the relative degrees of centralisation and decentralisation. Powers are distributed in a manner as to promote federal nationalism and regionalism, besides being an ethnically responsive federal polity. With the introduction of Goods and Services Taxes (GST) and the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog) and growing salience of subject specific regulatory bodies, Indian federalism is gradually shifting towards a system of national governance, which I have termed ‘National federalism’. This contribution succinctly analyses these aspects of Indian federalism.

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Posted by Ajay Kumar Singh in Case Studies, 0 comments
The Original Sin of Ethiopian Federalism

The Original Sin of Ethiopian Federalism


Territorial autonomy for ethnic groups is an important component of Ethiopian federalism designed to deal with the challenges of ethnic diversity. The constitutional decision to use ethnicity as a basis for the organisation of the state represents a recognition of the political relevance of ethnicity. However, the decision that each major ethnic group should be dominant in one and only subnational unit has elevated ethnic identity to a primary political identity. This approach overlooks other historically and politically relevant territorial identities. The constitution thus misses an opportunity to respond to ethnic concerns without freezing ethnicity as an exclusive political identity.

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Posted by Yonatan Fessha in Case Studies, 0 comments
Switzerland in 2018 – The Re-birth of Federalism?

Switzerland in 2018 – The Re-birth of Federalism?


Switzerland is often held up as one of the most successful examples of a stable federal system. Since its creation in 1848, Swiss federalism has contributed to the country’s stability, as well as its wealth and prosperity. Notwithstanding the generally accepted success of the Swiss experiment with federalism, the Swiss themselves very much relish an opportunity to examine and criticise the federal system. This has even been institutionalised in the form of ‘National Conferences on federalism’ which, when convened every three years, provide a forum for a discussion on the development of Swiss federalism, often focusing on drawbacks and weaknesses as opposed to benefits. For the first time in many years, however, the 2017 National Conference presented federalism in a more positive light. This article briefly details the history and complexity of federalism in Switzerland, discusses the development of the National Conferences and concludes with a discussion on federalism in times of illiberal democracy.

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Posted by Nicolas Schmitt in Case Studies, 0 comments
A Federation like no other: The Case of Bosnia and Herzegovina

A Federation like no other: The Case of Bosnia and Herzegovina


Bosnia and Herzegovina is a complex state composed of two entities: the Federation of BiH and Republika Srpska, and one independent unit – Brčko District, as well as three constituent peoples: Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs. The Constitution does not mention the word federation, thus it is not formally defined whether BiH has a federal or confederal character. Strengthened competences of the state and a clear direction towards greater empowerment of the state level institutions suggest a movement from a confederation to a federation. However, while there is no agreement on what exactly Bosnia is, what is even more alarming is the abuse of the concept of federalism by Bosnian elites. Serbs consciously misinterpret federalism to underline their demand for more autonomy and, ultimately, secession. Croats see federalism as a tool to argue for a third entity, while Bosniaks promote the idea of regionalism instead. Thus, despite the fact that it has been twenty years since the first post-war elections, nothing has really changed; Bosnia and Herzegovina remains a highly unbalanced and badly constructed federation.

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Posted by Aleksandra Zdeb in Case Studies, 0 comments
Nigeria: A Federation in Search of Federalism

Nigeria: A Federation in Search of Federalism


This article argues that the Nigerian federation epitomises an incomplete federal arrangement. The feelings of marginalisation, which had been suppressed during the military era are fully expressed by ethno-regional groups in the post-military era and these feelings finds expression in the potent agitation for a more functional federal system. The Nigerian political elites have at different times attempted to grapple with the imperfections inherent in the country’s federal system by putting in place a range of distributive and structural mechanisms but the increasing agitation for “true federalism” indicates that the governmental system is defective and in serious need of some bold political reform.

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Posted by Dele Babalola in Case Studies, 0 comments
Is Spain a Federal Country?

Is Spain a Federal Country?


In this contribution we examine the federal characteristics of the Spanish case. Having initiated a process of political decentralisation as an integral pillar of the democratic transition, it is often posited that Spain is a federation, or quasi-federal country. Employing a comparative perspective this article argues that while Spain shares some federal features, many core elements are absent in the Spanish case.

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Posted by Ferran Requejo in Case Studies, 0 comments
Belgium: The Short Story of a Long History of (In)Stability

Belgium: The Short Story of a Long History of (In)Stability


The history of Belgium since 1830 shows the progressive transformation of a linguistic dynamic in an identity dynamic through the territorialisation of political tensions and then the federalisation of the State, originally a unitary State. This contribution tells the short story of a long history of stability and instability in Belgium.

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Posted by Min Reuchamps in Case Studies, 0 comments