Kalender mit markiertem Termin
Kalender mit markiertem Termin

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Federalism in a changing world – Canada and the European Union assessed

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Lecture by John Eric Fossum, ARENA Center for European Studies University of Oslo


The late Daniel Elazar has claimed that globalisation and other processes of state transformation make the states system more amenable to federalism. If so, that may compel us to reconsider the relationship between federalism, state sovereignty, and nationalism. I explore that question with specific reference to Canada and the European Union. The former has never agreed upon a common substantive Canadian national identity and sense of community; the latter is a matter of transforming the nation-state or transcending beyond state-based nationalism. These two political systems have each in its own way given rise to a rich debate on (and beyond) federalism with several conceptual innovations, the two theoretically most important and most frequently used being multinational federation and multilevel governance. The question is whether these terms properly capture the core features of these two different political systems.

Canada is a federation, whereas the EU has clear federal traits. Neither entity can however draw on an agreed-upon federalism. Both are marked by deep-seated constitutional conflicts and disagreements, which in both cases are handled by executive officials in systems of summitry with clear parallels to international diplomacy.

These features are not picked up or given their proper due by the proponents of multilevel governance or multinational federation. In order to do so, we need to invent a new and different term, that of poly-cephalous federation. I have devised this category in order to highlight that both entities, however otherwise different, hold poly-cephalous traits that set them apart from ordinary federations that are configured to reconcile federalism’s onus on diversity and non-centralisation with modern state-based sovereignty’s onus on unity and hierarchy.

The first purpose is to substantiate the claim that poly-cephalous federation is a more apt term to depict the EU and Canada (pre-patriation, i.e. pre-1982) than such terms as multilevel governance and multinational federation. The second purpose is to consider what form of viable federalism (if any) such a structure may give rise to. My point of departure is that "social orders come to be what they are in morally arbitrary ways…"(Shapiro 1999:31). The task for the researcher is accordingly to provide the best possible account of the political system(s) in question (first purpose), and based on that seek to establish what normative merits, if any, a given political system possesses (second purpose). The Canadian experience suggests that there is a normative potential in poly-cephalous federations insofar as they give rise to reflexive federalism. What that is and under what conditions it can be developed is important to establish, not the least because there might be a similar potential for the EU. I will conclude with a brief assessment of what the euro-crisis has done to these prospects in Europe.