Federalism in crisis?

22 February 2022
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The 2022 Winter School has come to an end and being able to participate in this particular edition of the traditional get-together of students, scholars, professors, and all sorts of people who share a common interest in federalism was inspiring. This year's Winter School was characterized by its diversity and offered participants an international and interdisciplinary perspective on federalism research.

The title of the Winter School "Federalism and/in emergency" could be considered provocative, but it reflects current research questions: have federal states fared better or worse than other state models in the Corona crisis? In view of the observed centralisation of decision-making power, is federalism in general, in crisis? Is this also true in cases of states with federal decision-making structures? And have the crises of recent decades also plunged federalism into crisis?

Crises and emergency situations are diverse and manifest themselves in different ways, areas and with differing degrees of intensity. But state structures that can be assigned to one or the other state system - federal, centralist, regionalist - on the basis of certain institutional characteristics (Watts)1 are also just as diverse. Even states with federal decision-making structures, which assign a high degree of autonomy and self-determination to the subnational levels, differ in the intensity of this subnational autonomy or the constitutional provisions relating to them (Forum of Federations).2 However, federalism is always based on the fundamental principle of autonomous, i.e. self-determined, power and shared power between the components of a federal state, the subnational levels and the national level.

The last decades have been marked by crises: economic, migratory, climate and now the global Corona pandemic. But aren't crises part of everyday political life, which require wise and far-sighted policies in handling emerging global changes, for example in the climate crisis, in order to avoid acute emergency situations? How do states and political rulers deal with crises? In the current Corona crisis, many federal states have experienced a certain centralization of decision-making power, which has installed crisis management as a "command-and-act" procedure at the national level, sometimes to a greater or lesser extent. The capitals have declared themselves to be the control centres of crisis management. The vertical cooperation between governments and parliaments and the horizontal cooperation between the national level and the subnational levels, which are common in states with federal characteristics, have partially come to a standstill (Baglioni et al.3, Palermo4, Emergency Governance Initiative Note 045). Some governments have octroyed themselves special powers to deal with the challenges of the Corona crisis on the basis of constitutional possibilities, while other states have handled crisis management without the use of the state of emergency (Palermo)6.

In the end, the question arises as to whether federalism in crisis management must be called into question because subnational levels are not able to intervene in crisis management. Or, does this only pertain only to a limited extent, in which case, should processes of crisis management be adapted to fit a plural and democratic society. Strengthening the involvement of subnational levels creates a culture of agile crisis management that can respond to different territorial situations and needs and results in a broader acceptance of measures (Behnke7, Emergency Governance Initiative Policy Brief8).

In my opinion, there is instead a need for traditional crisis management to undergo a federalization process, which foresees the involvement of subnational levels all the way up to the local levels and even to that of the citizens.

Federal states provide the structures and the will to cooperate. Cooperation and collaboration are key aspects of effective crisis management (Palermo 10; Cameron2), whether at the strategic or operational level. Crisis management based on integrated risk management, taking into account scientific, sociological, economic and cultural aspects (Brunet and Schiffino), requires that subnational levels are involved in the elaboration, implementation and preparation (Fallon et al.9) of the crisis response.

One crisis is not like another, and although some crises can be anticipated, they cannot necessarily be prevented. Subnational levels offer enormous potential to contribute to the efficiency of crisis management by providing an integrated risk and prevention analysis and by playing a crucial role in the procedures to provide an efficient response to the challenges of different emergency situations (Emergency Governance Initiative Note), thus strengthening the resilience of societies (Glesner11; Fallon et al.12).

Crisis management is usually understood as a "top-down" process and tends to be executed in a "command-and-act" approach. A federal approach could make crisis management more agile and efficient, create more acceptance among the population and minimize the intensity of an emergency situation through a proactive and preventive approach.

In the end, the question is not whether federalism is in crisis, but whether crisis management in its current form is outdated and should be oriented towards basic federal principles in order to be sustainable.

Nicole De Palmenaer

Nicole De Palmenaer received her Master's degree in Political Science from RWTH-Aachen. Since 2009, she has been working in the political field in different institutional and socio-political contexts and issues. Currently she is advisor for European affairs, regional development and democratic participation in the Cabinet of the Ministerp President of the German-speaking Community of Belgium and also working on her doctorate thesis that treats the question on the added value of autonomy and self-determination at a level of small regions. She recently obtained an interuniversity certificate on emergency planning and crisis management from the University of Liège.


De Palmenaer, N. Federalism in crisis?

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