Joint-decision Making: An Alternative to Centralisation / Decentralisation

Joint-decision Making: An Alternative to Centralisation / Decentralisation


The text presents the concept of joint-decision making as an idea and alternative to the already established concepts of centralisation and decentralisation in federal studies. Whereas the notions of centralisation and decentralisation seem to be well established in federal studies, the idea of joint-decision making seems to count only as a German speciality or a German feature of federal studies. This paper further explores this idea and concept, drawing upon the German case as well as suggesting it is worth expanding beyond it.


It is an open question, if a clear and long-lasting location of competences (or powers in North-American parlance) on the central or decentral territorial level of decision making is needed in any political system. In other words, from time to time an adjustment of the location of competences may be required in order to preserve a stable democratic political system. At the same time, competences also need to be fixed for preserving a stable political system. This paradoxical situation of change and stability exists for all political systems, no matter if competences are fixed in constitutions or not. This also means that political system without written constitutions, like the United Kingdom and Israel, face similar challenges particularly when compared to federal systems. Therefore, the question if decisions about change and stability in politics are taken on a territorially defined central or decentral level is at the heart of all political systems (Benz et al. 2016b). Even if a permanent solution should be found as to where to locate competences (on a central or decentral political level), the question remains: What competences should be placed on a central or decentral territorial level? At this point arguments vary. There are a number of advantages and disadvantages that occur when locating competences on a (de)central territorially defined level.

Another possibility beyond centralisation and decentralisation of competences exists. At least in the German and European Union (EU) realm the idea of joint-decision making is apparent in many instances. A growing number of other political systems have also recently begun to discover the idea of joint-decision making. The additional concept of joint-decision making stands beside the concepts of centralisation and decentralisation. Hence (de)centralisation and joint-decision making are by no means mutually exclusive or an antinomy, but interrelated and can co-exist beside each other. The suggestion of establishing a political system of joint-decision making seems to be a way out of the zero-sum game between (de)centralisation.

In classical texts about joint-decision making (Scharpf et al. 1976), the concept is often presented as an alternative to the issue of the centralisation and decentralisation of competences. Indeed, joint-decision making contradicts the general idea of transparency with the clear location of competences because all territorial levels are involved in the financing and execution of policies. Whereas in the classical example of the work about joint-decision making the financing was or is the task of the central (upper) territorial level, the execution of policies or policy making was or is the task of the decentral (lower) territorial level. This situation, for instance, is the case in German federalism as well as the EU. Indeed, joint-decision making combines a certain amount of autonomy and community for the solution of different problems. In the German context, Fritz Scharpf and colleagues argued that joint-decision making engenders better efficiency in dealing with problems about common goods, joint products and external effects (costs). Whereas finding solutions to those problems requires the cooperation of federal and federated entities, federal and federated entities also need to preserve their autonomy in other contexts. The question, therefore, remains: What mix is needed to ensure they are effective and legitimate? All political systems thus need to determine on their own in what contexts autonomous solutions and in what contexts common solutions are needed or wanted for achieving efficient and legitimate solutions for problems at stake. Throughout time, the mix of autonomy and community needs to balanced anew

Terminological Clarification

The core definition of joint-decision making (Politikverflechtung) can be found in German language in publications many years ago from Fritz Scharpf et al. in 1976:

“…bei dem zwar einerseits die Entscheidungsautonomie der dezentralen Entscheidungseinheiten eingeschränkt wird, bei dem jedoch andererseits die umfassenden Entscheidungseinheiten (Bund, Länder, Europäische Gemeinschaft) nicht gesamte Aufgabenkomplexe an sich zogen,…” (Scharpf et al. 1976: 29)

In a corresponding translation, this means that embracing decision units (like the federal government in Germany, Länder or the European Community / Union) did not attract every embracing competence. The autonomy of decentral political units was restricted to those competences the central and decentral level could agree on. This therefore means that there are no exit strategies or opting out solutions in a joint-decision making system. For none of the governments, be it a central government, decentral governments or any other governmental actor would be able to pursue its own policies.

Starting from this definition the concept of joint-decision making was adjusted into horizontal, vertical or compound decision-making structures (Benz et al 1992). The compound structures were the initial idea for developing the concept of joint-decision making and the horizontal and vertical structures of decision making were added later to the initial concept.

Moreover, the concept of the joint-decision trap gained prominence in public and academic discourse with the definition that a factual joint-decision trap has an elaborated meaning that “systematically (…) inefficient and inadequate problem-solving” takes place. At the same time, the federal system is unable to “change the institutional conditions of its decision-making logic” (Scharpf, 1988: 271). Hence the absence of the joint-decision trap. This is because the political system is unitary (and not federal), but does not mean that political performance is per se better. The quality of political output does not directly relate to the fact that a system of joint-decision making works or does not work (for the case of the joint-decision trap).

Joint-Decision Making and Federal Studies

The concept of joint-decision making is closely related to federal studies because it relates to different levels of decision- and policy-making. Furthermore, testable hypotheses can be derived from the general concept of joint-decision making. The concept was latter made more specific by Fritz Scharpf himself, but also by other scholars, with a particular focus on why joint-decision making is prone to being unable to produce suitable solutions for political problems ending in the joint-decision trap (Politikverflechtungs-Falle) (Scharpf 1988). In reality, there indeed exists a joint-decision trap, but Fritz Scharpf himself laid down that this is only one possibility among several possibilities. Political actors circumvent the joint-decision trap regularly, and are thus rarely caught in the joint decision trap.

Sharpening Focus

Discussions about joint-decision making (Politikverflechtung) started in 1976 with the book of Fritz Scharpf, Bernd Reissert and Fritz Schnabel. Later the concept was narrowed down to the joint decision trap (Scharpf 1988). But the concept was also broadened and a horizontal dimension was analysed in greater depth (Benz et al. 1992). Case studies about Germany (Scheller / Schmid 2008) and the EU (Falkner 2011) gather in edited volumes, so that many policies are covered for Germany and the EU. A case study about school policy deals with party politics and joint-decision making in Germany (Heinz 2015). Also, the concept of joint-decision making is applied in the Literature to Canada (Painter 1991), the EU (Peters 1997) and Scandinavia (Blom-Hansen 1999). Usually main discussions with regards to joint-decision making are related to exploring whether a policy, an institutional system or an institution itself is trapped in joint decision making or not. Few examples, however, are known and acknowledged to show that political actors are indeed trapped in joint-decision making. In addition, the focus of the academic literature lies more on the joint-decision trap and not in joint-decision making, although the trap only rarely occurs.

Contemporary Debates

The topic of joint-decision making is a middle range theory as Fritz Scharpf himself declared many times, because it covers the German case and the case of the European Union / Community. The application of the concept of joint-decision making has been relatively rare in scholarship limited to Germany, Canada (Painter 1991) and Scandinavia (Blom-Hansen 1999). It seems worthwhile, therefore, to widen this research agenda and apply the concept of joint-decision making to other federal states. For the German case, the concept is still of practical relevance, although many forms of coordination have changed over time, but no formal or institutional reforms took place. For example, joint tasks were heavily debated in the past, but they still are also of practical importance at least for German politics.

Concluding Reflections

To conclude, it can be said that Joint-decision making is a characteristic of the German and European federal political system. It enables also a way out of the enduring question of the European Union / Community if there should be more or less centralisation or decentralisation. An answer in favour of Joint-decision making would be that the mix of centralization and decentralisation would be dynamic so that negative aspects would be diminished and positive aspects of (de)centralisation would be increased. But against this statement, the concept of joint-decision making had to face demand for abolishment in the forefront of the first federal reform in Germany.

At least in the cases of Germany and the EU the situation seems to be far away in terms of abolishing joint-decision making, because that was publicly postulated in the past. Obviously joint-decision making proved to be more robust than expected beforehand. Hence, future research would need to discover joint-decision making also in other institutional contexts that is to say in other federal systems.



Benz, Arthur / Jessica Detemple / Dominic Heinz (2016a) Varianten und Dynamiken der Politikverflechtung im deutschen Bundesstaat (Nomos: Baden-Baden).

Benz, Arthur / Dominic Heinz / Eike-Christian Horning / Bettina Petersohn / Andrea Fischer-Hotzel and Jörg Kemmerzell (2016b) Constitutional Policy in Multilevel-Systems. The Art of Keeping the balance (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Benz, Arthur / Jörg Broschek (Eds.) (2013) Federal Dynamics Continuity, Change, and the Varieties of Federalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Benz, Arthur / Fritz W. Scharpf / Reinhard Zintl (1992) Horizontale Politikverflechtung: Zur Theorie von Verhandlungssystemen (Frankfurt/Main: Campus Verlag).

Blom-Hansen, Jens (1999) Avoiding the joint-decision trap: Lessons from intergovernmental relations in Scandinavia, in: European Journal of Political Research (35) 35-67.

Heinz, Dominic (2015) Politikverflechtung in der Schulpolitik: Koordination im Wandel, in: Politische Vierteljahresschrift 56 (4) 626-647.

Painter, Martin (1991) Intergovernmental Relations in Canada: An Institutional Analysis, in: Canadian Journal of Political Science, 24 (2) 269-288.

Peters, B. Guy (1997) Escaping the joint-decision trap: Repetition and sectoral politics in the EU, in: West European Politics 20 (2) 22-36.

Scharpf, Fritz W. (1988) The Joint-Decision Trap: Lessons from German Federalism and European Integration, in: Public Administration, 66 (3) 239-278.

Scharpf, Fritz / Bernd Reissert / Fritz Schnabel (1976) Politikverflechtung: Theorie und Empirie des kooperativen Föderalismus in der Bundesrepublik (Scriptor: Kronberg).

Scheller, Henrik / Josef Schmid (2008) Föderale Politikgestaltung im deutschen Bundesstaat: Variable Verflechtungsmuster in Politikfeldern. (Nomos: Baden-Baden).


Further Reading

Scharpf, Fritz / Bernd Reissert / Fritz Schnabel (1976) Politikverflechtung: Theorie und Empirie des kooperativen Föderalismus in der Bundesrepublik (Scriptor: Kronberg).

Benz, Arthur / Jessica Detemple / Dominic Heinz (2016a) Varianten und Dynamiken der Politikverflechtung im deutschen Bundesstaat (Nomos: Baden-Baden).

Benz, Arthur / Jörg Broschek (Eds.) (2013) Federal Dynamics Continuity, Change, and the Varieties of Federalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Scharpf, Fritz (1988) The Joint-decision trap: Lessons from German federalism and European integration, in: Public Administration 66 (3) 239–278.

Falkner, Gerda (2011) The EUs Decision Traps. Comparing Policies (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Posted by Dominic Heinz in Policies, Theory, 0 comments
Dynamic Federalism

Dynamic Federalism


Traditional federal theory seems no longer apt to grasp recent evolutions in state structures. By delimiting federal states in terms of defining institutional features, federalism scholars put themselves at the margin rather than the centre of where the action is: fragmenting dynamics in multinational states, secession movements, as well as centralist and decentralist tendencies within the European Union. In a dynamic approach to federalism, all multi-tiered systems are assembled with a common denominator being how they manage tensions between autonomy claims of territorial entities on the one hand, and the need for cohesion or efficiency of the central government on the other. In this approach, qualifying criteria to categorise state structures become mere indicators to rank multi-tiered systems on a gliding scale from the most central to the loosest systems. The ranking is based on three sets of indicators, one measuring autonomy, another measuring cohesion and a third, linking both, measuring participation. The core question examined in this contribution is: which mechanisms in the constitutional system have a centralising or decentralising effect?



It is an exciting era for scholars in federalism studies, with a succession of events that keep the world captive, from secession referendums in Scotland and Catalonia, the tiny Walloon Region in Belgium holding some 780 million persons hostage by vetoing a trade agreement between the EU and Canada, to the most pressing concern in the European Union: Brexit. That is – if the UK, Spain, Belgium and the EU are defined as federalist systems, worthy of study by federalism scholars. Books have been written about this question. Traditional federalists would argue that they are not, measured by criteria that have to be fulfilled and that are based on model states of past centuries, such as the USA or Germany. According to the traditional model, states are either unitary, federal or confederal, and systems that do not meet the defining criteria are called ‘regional states’, which, at best, are considered ‘immature federations’, implying that they aspire to become federal. However, excluding these systems leaves federalism scholars at the margin rather than the centre of activity.

At the same time, scholars realise that the federal/unitary distinction ‘is too crude to capture the complexity of contemporary governance’ (Loughlin, 2008: 473). In a new standard book on comparative federalism (Palermo and Kössler 2017), the authors list various definitions of federalism, one leading to a list of 23 federal states world-wide, the other to no less than 180 federal states. ‘The central question’, according to these authors, ‘is whether the question itself is meaningful’. I tend to agree. Whether Spain is a federal or a regional state is, frankly, a purely academic question, such as discussing the sex of angels. In the end, what matters, is to capture the essence of federal systems. The essence is not whether a given state has a bicameral system and a court to solve allocation of power disputes, or whether sub-units have their own constitution. What is at stake, was already defined by Friedrich (1968): the tension between autonomy of territorial entities on the one hand, and cohesion or efficiency of the central government on the other.

This brings us to a dynamic approach to federalism. In such an approach, qualifying criteria to categorise state structures become mere indicators, and the core question is: which mechanisms in the constitutional system have a centralising or decentralising effect?

The Use of Indicators to Define Federal Systems

In a dynamic approach, political systems are situated on a gliding scale, with unitary systems on the left side of the spectrum, and the loosest cooperative associations on the right. Systems are placed on this scale as soon as there is some tension between the central authorities and territorial sub-groups. While we could label these systems ‘federal’ in a broad sense, a more distinctive name that avoids confusion with ‘traditional’ federal systems, is ‘multi-tiered systems’, or simply MTS.

Political systems are situated on this gliding scale on the basis of a general score that relies on three axes: one measuring the autonomy of sub-national units, a second measuring the cohesiveness of the entire system, and a linking third focusing on participation. Political scientists have a longer tradition of scaling political systems on the basis of indicators. However, they are mostly interested in autonomy and they tend to ignore the role of courts (see, e.g., Hooghe et al. 2016). Indicative for the autonomy of sub-units is, amongst others, the entrenchment of subnational entities and competences in rigid acts, subnational representative bodies, financial autonomy, sets of competences and allocations techniques, and whether the entities are (directly or indirectly) involved in decision-making at the EU or the international level. In the literature, much less attention has been given to a second set of indicators that measure cohesion or integration. Indicators are, amongst others, free movement and a monetary and economic union within the legal system, mechanisms to deal with transboundary problems, instruments to prevent or solve conflicts of competences and conflicts of interests, or to prevent subnational entities from undermining central (national of international) policy. The third set of indicators is focused on mechanisms that ensure both autonomy and cohesion, with the subnational entities participating at the central level to ensure central legislative, administrative as well as judicial decision-making while paying attention to subnational specificities.

On this large scale of MTS, we can identify core ‘federal systems’. Federal systems in this narrow sense, find a balance between autonomy/differentiation and cohesion/integration. These systems will score moderate to high on all three axes. On the left side of the scale are those political systems that solve the tension by accentuating centralism. Such systems will score low on the autonomy axis but high on the cohesion axis. On the right side of the scale are those political systems that solve the tension by accentuating autonomy: more effort is made to preserving the autonomy of the subnational units rather than integrative mechanisms.

Within the sub-set of autonomy indicators, a political system can score low on one indicator and high on the other. While under the traditional approach the system should meet certain institutional requirements to be qualified as a federal system, under the dynamic approach other features can compensate for this.

While we preserve labels such as unitary states, decentralised states, regional systems, federal systems and confederations, a neatly cut categorisation of states is not always possible, and not even necessary. Spain, for example, would probably end up somewhere between regional states and federal states, but the exact label is not really important. Moreover, a categorisation of states is just a snap-shot. States evolve. Nowadays, in the centre of our attention are disintegrative states that move from the left side of the scale to the right. However, traditional integrative federal systems have their own, centralising, dynamics, bringing them from the right side of the scale to the left side, and sometimes leaving some doubt as to whether, in the end, highly centralised systems such as Austria can still be called ‘federal’ if defined as a system that upholds an equal balance between autonomy and cohesion.


Methodological Advantages

The methodological advantages of a dynamic approach are manifold.

First of all, it facilitates comparative research since we can easily group MTS with similar scores on one or more of the three axes. If we are mainly interested in the dynamics of state structures, we have a larger population than the twenty-something pure, traditional federal systems. We can look for factors that explain the position of specific types of states on the gliding scale. In addition, we can test whether the level of integration or disintegration is an explanatory factor for other things – for example the behaviour of courts in federal disputes, or the stability of the political system.

Secondly, we can examine phenomena that are not easily captured under traditional federal theory. An example is asymmetry. While traditional federal theory promotes symmetry for the sake of equality and stability, asymmetry is a growing trend in contemporary MTS. In a dynamic approach, we can measure the different sub-national entities on the autonomy-axis, so that we can give an exact score to the differences in status and competences between the most and the least autonomies subnational entities. This might instruct as to how asymmetric a system can be before it risks becoming unstable.

Thirdly, we can examine the impact of the international level on the relations between central authority and subnational units. This is especially important for MTS that are part of the European Union, as the impact of the European integration process upon the constitutional structure of the member states is more intense than that of any other supra-national organisation.


The Core Question: Which Mechanisms Have a Centralising or Decentralising Impact?

As mentioned, the core question in a dynamic approach to federalism concerns the process of integration or disintegration. In this approach, we examine the mechanisms that have a centralising or decentralising effect on the political system. For example, there is a common agreement that courts generally have a centralising effect when deciding on federalism disputes; yet some courts – mostly in multinational systems – take a more balanced approach (Popelier 2017). Political parties can have such effects as well. For instance, in Belgium, the break-up of national parties into regional parties had a disintegrative effect. Techniques to allocate powers may also have some impact: we can hypothesise that the predominance of concurrent powers has a centralising effect, whereas the predominance of exclusive powers has a decentralising effect.

If we have more insight into the conditions under which these mechanisms have a centralising or decentralising effect, we might be able to answer the question whether the dynamics of a specific political system can be turned through constitutional engineering. This is a topical question in the light of secessionist movements in countries such as Belgium, Canada, Spain and the UK as well as developments in, for example, Sri Lanka, where a devolutionary trend institutionalised at the end of the 1980s a form of multinational conflict management (Oberst 1988) but constitutional guarantees of national sovereignty and indivisibility are relied upon to break secessionist tendencies.


An Example: The Belgian Case

The Belgian case demonstrates the need for a dynamic approach to federalism. In the last five decades, it evolved from a unitary state into a federal state with confederal traits. Up until now, this has taken the shape of six state reforms, resulting, in 1993 in a constitutional provision that labelled Belgium as a federal state.

The Belgian federation, however, does not meet several of the criteria that defines federal states under the Hamilton approach. For example, in 1993, discussions on the use of a second chamber did not result in the abolition of the Senate. Instead the federalism argument was used to maintain an institution that did not fulfil a federalist function: The Senate was reformed, but in the new constellation a minority represented the federated entities and they were appointed on the basis of the federal, not the regional, elections. Since the sixth state reform in 2012-2013, the Senate has been reformed into an actual Chamber of the sub-states, but is left with only few competences. On the other hand, the subnational entities can directly interfere, with a suspensory vote, in the federal decision-making process. Moreover, while not represented as such, they have a dominant say through the linguistic groups that structure the federal parliament, the federal government, as well as the administration and the courts. The federal government consists of an equal number of French- and Dutch speaking ministers; these ministers are nominated by regional parties that represent the interests of their language groups. Besides, the two language groups in Parliament have a suspensory veto right.

The federalism argument was also used in the Flemish fight for subnational constitutional autonomy, although the (little) constitutional autonomy that was acquired has not been used in a way that is substantially different from what was regulated at the federal level. On the other hand, the subnational entities do enjoy substantial autonomy when it comes to concluding international agreements or involvement at the EU level.

This demonstrates that the traditional criteria to qualify federations are not always functional: The Senate did not fulfil the function of involving the federated entities in central decision-making, but they got their say through other means, to the point that the system even acquired confederal traits, as no federal decision can be made without the consent of both language groups. It also shows how a low score on one indicator (subnational constitutional autonomy) can be compensated for by a high score for another indicator (international affairs).

The devolving dynamics in Belgium are based upon the allocation of exclusive powers, equality of federal and federated entities, regionalised political parties, and a general ambiance of distrust and conflict typical of dyadic federalism. The dominant political party, N-VA, is a Flemish-nationalist party that supports Flemish independence. According to surveys, Flemings support autonomy though not secessionism, the N-VA’s strategy is to ‘naturally’ end up at independence through confederalism. Legal scholars and political scientists are eager to point out that confederalism, according to traditional theory, means the association of independent, sovereign states, implying that technically confederalism cannot precede secession. This shows, once more, how traditional theory is unable to capture political reality. In a dynamic approach, the N-VA’s strategy makes perfect sense, and the core question for those who support the continuation of the Belgian system, is whether through constitutional engineering – be it federal districts, shared competences, or otherwise – we can turn the tide.



Friedrich, K. 1968. Trends of Federalism in Theory and Practice. Frederick A. Praeger.

Hooghe, L. et al. 2016. Measuring Regional Authority. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Loughlin, 2008. ‘Federalism, regionalism and local government: comparative perspectives on transforming the nation-state’, 7 European Political Science, 472-482.

Oberst, R.C. 1988. ‘Federalism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka. 18 Publius 175-194.

Palermo, F. and Kössler, K. 2017. Comparative Federalism. Constitutional Arrangements and Case Law. Oxford and Portland: Hart.

Popelier, P. 2017. ‘Federalism disputes and the behavior of courts: explaining variation in federal courts support for centralization. 47 Publius, 27-48.


Further Reading

Aubert, J.F. 1963. ‘Essai sur le fédéralisme.’ 80 Revue du droit public et de la science politique. 401-452.

Popelier, P. 2015. ‘Secessionist and autonomy movements in Flanders: the disintegration of Belgium as the chronicle of a death foretold?’ in Belser, E.M. et al. (eds), States Falling Apart? Secessionist and Autonomy Movements in Europe. Bern: Stämpfli Verlag, 215-246.

Popelier, P. 2014. ‘Subnational multilevel constitutionalism.’ 6 Perspectives on Federalism, 1-23.

Popelier, P. 2012. ‘The need for sub-national constitutions in federal theory and practice.’ 4 Perspectives on Federalism 36-58.

Popelier, P. and Lemmens, K. 2015. The Constitution of Belgium. A Contextual Analysis. Oxford: Hart.



Posted by Patricia Popelier, 0 comments
‘The whole is other than the sum of its parts’: Cases of Centrifugal Citizenship

‘The whole is other than the sum of its parts’: Cases of Centrifugal Citizenship


This piece looks at what happens to citizenship when multilevel polities fall apart. Introducing the notion of ‘centrifugal citizenship’ to describe such cases, it uses the experience of the former Yugoslav republics to show all the possible consequences for individuals from the loss of status and the associated rights. The last section of the piece briefly contextualises such centrifugal citizenship in the debates related to the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union.



Citizenship is a structured relationship between an individual and their polity, be it a city, sub-state entity, state, or a supranational organisation (Miller 2000).  It entails reciprocity of rights and obligations. Citizens ensure the legitimacy and intergenerational continuity of the polity. They also sustain its day-to-day functioning by paying taxes and deciding on its political future. In return, they receive protection inside and outside of its borders and a bundle of socio-political

rights, including the right to vote and welfare protection. Against this background, the objective of this contribution is to look at how citizenship issues play out in disintegrating multilevel polities. The experience of the former Yugoslav republics offers insights helpful for understanding the debates related to the United Kingdom’s (UK) departure from the European Union (EU). Both in the domain of the status and of the rights of citizenship, the relationship between the polities that were once in a ‘citizenship constellation’ defines the rules for inclusion and exclusion.

Citizenship in Multilevel Polities

Citizenship is particularly complex in multilevel polities as it regulates the position of individuals in two or more overlapping political communities. Rainer Bauböck (2010: 848) has described such a circumstance as a ‘citizenship constellation’. A ‘citizenship constellation’, can either be horizontal (individuals linked to two or more polities through migration) or vertical  (in states formed by subnational polities, such as federations, confederations, unions of states; or in supranational polities established by states, including the European Union, the Union of South American Nations). In vertical ‘citizenship constellations’, matters of status and rights are determined by the relationship between the encompassing polity (e.g., the EU) and its constituent parts (e.g., Member States).

This structure opens up avenues for the individual to navigate in the new political space crafted out of rights and obligations beyond the borders of his or her ‘original’ polity. That is, while ‘the whole’ exists, it is ‘other than the sum of its parts’. Not greater, but different in nature. As the Gestalt psychologists from whom this phrase originates argued, the relationship between the ‘whole’ and its ‘parts’ is binary and concentric. On the one hand, the composition of the parts determines how we will see and experience the whole; on the other hand, the way in which the whole is seen will determine the interpretation of its constituent parts. As a consequence, individuals are at the centre of political structures containing several layers of legal statuses that determine rights within and beyond their borders. If their core polity (i.e. the polity that determines all of their other statuses) detaches from the nested polity, or the latter falls apart completely, the questions of status and rights become highly salient. Hence I refer to ‘centrifugal citizenship’ as processes of attribution of status and determination of rights in cases of secession or disintegration of multilevel polities.

Individuals confined to the borders of their core polity at the time of its departure from ‘the whole’ continue to exercise their rights in the core polity and commonly have a secure a status after secession. Their position is reasonably straightforward. By contrast, individuals who have established themselves outside the borders of their core polity owing to the rights of multilevel citizenship are in a more complex position. As will be illustrated by the case of the former Yugoslavia, status and rights of these people are commonly malleable and determined by the relationship between the rump and the seceded polity.

Centrifugal Citizenship in the Former Yugoslavia

The former Yugoslavia had two-tiered citizenship, consisting of the federal and republican levels. As in most federal states, the republican citizenship was derived from the federal level, which had primacy in the hierarchy of citizenships. This had two practical implications. First, a simultaneous acquisition of the status of citizenship at both levels was necessary and automatic. That is, any holder of the federal Yugoslav citizenship would at the same time be a citizen of one of its republics. In many cases, but not always, the republican citizenship would be linked to the place where the person had settled. Dual citizenship among republics was not allowed. Second, the rights of citizenship originated from the federal level, but their implementation depended on the republics. This implies that the two levels of citizenship were tightly coupled.

As a consequence, experiences and legacies of the ‘citizenship constellation’ of the former Yugoslavia have shaped the citizenship of its successor states. This ‘centripetal citizenship’ was most manifest during the Yugoslav break-up in the early 1990s, when the initial determination of the status depended on the republican citizenship (Stiks 2006). This approach differentiated the post-Yugoslav states from the countries carved out of the Soviet Union, since the latter applied the ‘zero option’ for citizenship. The ‘zero option’ for citizenship meant that all persons legally residing in a country at the time of its independence would automatically receive its citizenship. Yet driven by nationalism that underpinned the Yugoslav break-up, the first wave of the post-Yugoslav states (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) granted citizenship automatically to those who were registered as citizens of the respective republics, but not to those who were residents. For example, a person who was a registered citizen of Macedonia but resided in Croatia would be granted a Macedonian citizenship. This approach proved to be highly exclusionary, due to high intra-republican migration in the socialist Yugoslavia, which was not adequately recorded by the republics’ authorities. Thus, those people most at risk were those who spent decades in a republic other than that of their citizenship but never registered residency there, or changed their republican citizenship. In fact, registration was not key to the exercise of individual rights in cases of free movement among republics, as many rights could be enforced in the space covered by the ‘citizenship constellation’.

Perhaps the most famous such case was that of the ‘Erased’ in Slovenia. These were citizens of the other former Yugoslav republics who had long term factual residence in Slovenia and another republic’s citizenship at the time of independence. Under Article 40 of the 1991 Citizenship Act of Slovenia, they were granted six months to apply for Slovenian citizenship. If they failed to do so, they were removed from the Register of Permanent Residents with long-term consequences on the exercise of their rights, including the franchise, welfare, and education.[1]

Citizenship issues also featured prominently in the disintegration of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro (successor to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia between 2003 and 2006). Unlike in the former Yugoslavia, multilevel citizenship in this state was not federal. The State Union of Serbia and Montenegro never formally established its second tier of citizenship, but relied on citizenship regimes of the constituent states (Article 7 of the Constitutional Charter of Serbia and Montenegro). That is, each of the two constituent states had its own citizenship legislation, and decided on its membership. As noted by Dzankic (2010) and Rava (2010), the citizenship laws of Serbia and Montenegro diverged significantly (e.g., while Serbia is open to dual citizenship, Montenegro is not). This is similar to the structure of the nested EU citizenship, whereby membership in the encompassing polity is conditional upon membership in the differently regulated national polities.

The 2006 independence of Montenegro resulted in difficult circumstances for a number of people who lived in Montenegro with the citizenship of Serbia. To gain citizenship in the newly established state, most were required to renounce their Serbian citizenship, or re-register as permanent residents. In some cases, such as the Roma or refugees from Kosovo, this registration process was cumbersome. Having sought refuge in Montenegro in the late 1990s, these people did not possess the documents necessary to cross the (newly international) border between Montenegro and Serbia. As they were unable to obtain physical evidence of citizenship renunciation, they could not register as citizens and access the related rights.

EU Citizenship and the Departure of the UK

Citizenship of the European Union (EU Citizenship) is a multilevel citizenship. It was established in 1992 through provisions of the Maastricht Treaty which codified the rights of citizens of the Member States across the Union. These rights include, among others, the freedom of movement and residence, the right to non-discrimination on grounds of nationality, voting rights in municipal and European Parliament elections, consular protection by another EU country, etc. They are exclusive to individuals possessing the nationality of one of the Member States. That is, EU Citizenship is additional to and dependent on national citizenship (Article 20 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, TFEU).

In June 2016, a majority of citizens in the UK voted in favour of the UK withdrawing from the EU. Given the dependence of the status of EU Citizenship on the country’s membership of the Union, the departure of the UK inevitably raises the question of what will happen to individuals who have exercised their freedom of movement to or from the UK while the country was still a Member State. According to the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2015), there are 3.3 million EU citizens living in the UK and 1.2 million UK citizens living in other EU Member States. Negotiating what status and rights these 4.5 million people will have after the decoupling of national and EU Citizenship, therefore, will be an important aspect of the two-year negotiations foreseen under Article 50 of the TFEU.

As in other cases of centrifugal citizenship, it is unlikely that the negotiated statuses will apply to those who decide to exercise freedom of movement past a certain date (presumably the day when the UK ceases to be an EU Member State). While there have been initiatives and petitions to secure a personal associate EU Citizen status for all UK nationals, such a motion would require a proportionate action by the UK government. Hence the transitory provisions that will be negotiated are most likely to apply to individuals who have acquired rights in the UK or in the EU through free movement of persons. These will include rights related to the prospect of residence or citizenship rights, as well as participation in local and European political processes.

In Lieu of a Conclusion

Secession and state disintegration raise a number of conceptual and legal questions. Citizenship is the core one, not the least because it is at the heart of a democratic polity, but also because it affects lives of individuals. The experience of the disintegration and secession in the post-Yugoslav space provides a valuable lesson in this respect. That is, that centrifugal citizenship might result in marginalisation or exposure to statelessness. Therefore, avoiding adverse consequences for UK citizens in the EU, and EU citizens in the UK, needs to be an important concern (rather than a bargaining chip) for both UK and EU policymakers negotiating the former’s exit from the Union.



Bauböck, R. (2010). Studying citizenship constellations. Journal of ethnic and migration studies, 36(5), 847-859.

Džankic, J. A. (2010). Transformations of Citizenship in Montenegro: a context-generated evolution of citizenship policies. CITSEE Working Paper 2010/03. University of Edinburgh.

Miller, D. (2000). ‘Citizenship and national identity’. In Democracy: A Reader edited by Ricardo Blaug, John Schwarzmantel. Polity Press: Cambridge.

Rava, N. (2010). Serbia: elusive citizenship in an elusive nation-state. CITSEE Working Paper 2010/08. University of Edinburgh.

Stiks, I. (2006). Nationality and citizenship in the Former Yugoslavia: from disintegration to European integration. Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, 6(4), 483-500.

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2015). Trends in International Migrant Stock: Migrants by Destination and Origin, http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/data/estimates2/estimates15.shtml

Further reading

Henderson, A., Jeffery, C., & Wincott, D. (eds.). (2013). Citizenship after the nation state: Regionalism, nationalism and public attitudes in Europe. Springer.

Maas, W. (ed.). (2013). Multilevel citizenship. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Shaw, J., & Štiks, I. (2012). Citizenship in the new states of South Eastern Europe. Citizenship studies, 16(3-4), 309-321.




[1] In the 2010 judgment Kuric and others v. Slovenia (26828/06), the European Court on Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that the removal of applicants from the register constituted a violation of the right to private and family life and the right to an effective remedy (articles 8 and 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms).

Posted by Jelena Dzankic in Policies, 0 comments
Linguistic Diversity in Plurinational States

Linguistic Diversity in Plurinational States


This article examines the politics of language in plurinational states. First, I argue that the relationship between language and nationhood is politically constructed through two broad processes: state nation-building and ‘peripheral’ activism. Second, I present three broad strategies of territorial management to accommodate the normative and practical issues derived from the politicisation of languages: self-rule, shared rule, and symbolic recognition. Third, I illustrate the discussion drawing on the paradigmatic cases of Catalonia and Flanders.

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Posted by Daniel Cetrà in Policies, 0 comments