Federation, Confederation

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Summary

A federation (from Latin: foedus, gen.: foederis, "covenant"), also known as a federal state, is a political entity characterized by a union of partially self-governing states or regions under a central (federal) government. In a federation, the self-governing status of the component states, as well as the division of power between them and the central government, are typically constitutionally entrenched and may not be altered by a unilateral decision of either party, the states or the federal political body.

Details

A confederation, in modern political terms, is usually limited to a permanent union of sovereign states for common action in relation to other states. The closest entity in the world to a confederation at this time is the European Union. While the word "confederation" was officially used when the present Canadian federal system was established in 1867, the term is recognised to be a misnomer since Canadian provinces are not sovereign and do not claim to be (with the notable exception of some governments over the last 30 years with Quebec). In the case of Switzerland, while the country is still officially called the Swiss Confederation (Confoederatio Helvetica, Confédération suisse) this is also now a misnomer since the Swiss cantons lost their sovereign status in 1848.

In Belgium, however, the opposite movement is under way.One of the most important recent books about the Belgian institutions, written by one of the leading French-speaking jurists concludes : Vers le confédéralisme (Toward a Confederation). See: Charles-Etienne Lagasse, Les nouvelles institutions politiques de la Belgique et de l'Europe, Erasme, Namur 2003, p. 603 ISBN 2-87127-783-4 Belgium was founded as a centralised state, after the French model, but has gradually been reformed into a federal state by consecutive constitutional reforms since the 1970s. Moreover, although nominally called a federal state, the country's structure already has a number of confederational traits (ex. competences are exclusive for either the federal or the state level, the treaty-making power of the Federating units without almost any possible veto of the Federal Government). At present, there is a growing movement to transform the existing federal state into a looser confederation with two or three constitutive states and/or two special regions.Many Flemings would prefer two states, Flanders and Wallonia, and two special regions, Brussels and the German-speaking region. In Wallonia, there is a wider support for three states : Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels.

By definition, the difference between a confederation and a federation is that the membership of the member states in a confederation is voluntary, while the membership in a federation is not. A confederation is most likely to feature these differences over a federation: (1) No real direct powers: many confederal decisions are externalised by member-state legislation. (2) Decisions on day-to-day-matters are not taken by simple majority but by special majorities or even by consensus or unanimity (veto for every member). (3) Changes of the constitution, usually a treaty, require unanimity.

Over time these terms acquired distinct connotations leading to the present difference in definition. An example of this is the United States under the Articles of Confederation. The Articles established a national government under what today would be defined as a federal system (albeit with a comparatively weaker federal government). However, Canadians, designed with a stronger central government than the U.S. in the wake of the Civil War of the latter, use the term "Confederation" to refer to the formation or joining, not the structure, of Canada. Legal reforms, court rulings, and political compromises have somewhat decentralised Canada in practice since its formation in 1867.

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