Federalism Studies and Federal Scholars in Dialogue

12 February 2022
Federal Scholar in Residence - Eurac Research

The concept and practice of federalism has existed for centuries. So have discussions on the issue of a universal agreement of what federalism means and why federalism could be a good governance option. Although well-entrenched in social, political, and legal sciences, federalism remains a contested term. There is no globally accepted theory of federalism. Some scholars stress the importance of advancing a new dynamic federal theory, others opt for a more pragmatic approach by referring to the toolbox of federalism in the governance of territorial and societal pluralism, and of conflict-ridden contexts.

Constitutional reality shows that almost half of the world’s population lives in federal or federal-like systems, in 28 countries that either identify themselves as federal or (in part) function as such. It also shows that in recent years many countries have started reform processes that consider federalism, devolution or significant decentralization to be possible recipes to solve conflicts, strengthen democracy and increase state capacity. This is evidenced by the academia’s increasing focus on deliberative federalism as a part of deliberative constitutionalism at the one side. And by the increasing use of popular participation in Constitution-making processes and of mini-publics in decision-making at the other side.

Having the many facets of federalism in mind, ten years ago, we were thinking of how to successfully attract international scholars to the Institute for Comparative Federalism at Eurac Research in South Tyrol, Italy. On how to create a yearly exchange between an international scholar and us, a group of legal scholars and political scientists researching on federal, regional and local governance from an institutionalist viewpoint. The idea to establish a fellowship program at Eurac Research was quickly born. To elaborate all the details of what soon after became the very first fellowship program of Eurac Research, we did a little market analysis. We realized that what was missing in the field of comparative federal studies was a yearly fellowship that offers the possibility of a short, funded research stay – up to three weeks – that could be flexibly organized. After all, time is a precious good and work calendars follow different schedules and festivities.

The Eurac Research Federal Scholar in Residence Program aims to interconnect experts and their networks, and to advance comparative federal and regional studies, within and across social sciences disciplines. Such a broad approach is needed to understand the nuanced practice of federalism that, based on the formula of self-rule and shared rule of different levels of government, carries very different and contested meanings in academia and among policy analysts and practitioners in the different world regions. Indeed, the only aspect on which worldwide experts seem to agree is the distinction between federalism as a normative concept that values the accommodation of diversities for the sake of good governance, and federal systems as its institutional manifestations.

As the earlier references show, any attempts to advance a general theory of federalism or to neatly classify federal states so far have come with limitations. Of course, such attempts are of great help. They provide clarity and explain important issues in relation to the examined subject matter, political system(s) or world region(s). But the exercise of advancing a general theory of federalism or a categorization of federal systems might be an exercise of “limited value” compared to methodologically sound comparative studies. Because the elaboration of a shared definition of federalism and (even more) of its manifestations in the end equals squaring a circle. The scope of the federal principle is contested and so is the practice of federalism. Contextual factors such as historical legacies, state capacities and collaborative capabilities affect power balances, and the latter are never neutral. They change over time and in presence of (perceived) threats and emergencies, in situations of (proxy) wars and in the midst or in the wake of complex global emergencies such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate change, and the many social emergencies that are grounded in different kinds of human-made inequalities.

To tame the negative consequences of one-sided interest-driven federalism, importance must be given to the procedural corset federalism is embedded in, and to how actors make use of it. For federal democracies to be effective, the rule of law counts, not the rule by law. Also, federal systems often underperform or remain on paper because too much attention is paid to self-rule and too little to shared rule. Ultimately it is shared rule that turns the biggest potential of federalism, its policy-laboratory notion that enables subnational governments to be responsive to locally differing needs or demands, into practice. Effective intergovernmental relations and participatory federal governance (popular participation in the management of the public good) are ever more key to complex decision-making, in the presence but also in the absence of ethnic relations.

In other words, dysfunctional vertical and horizontal intergovernmental relations make federal and federal-alike systems fragile, with conflicts that persist, not federalism per se. In absence of adequate bodies and procedures that regard the participation of constituent units in decision-making at the central level of government and their involvement in intergovernmental relations, any commitment to constitutional federalism is, in practice, confined to the spirit of the law. And institutional, social, and democratic innovations remain a rather theoretical exercise if collaborative governance is not practiced. In short, both vertical and horizontal subsidiarity must be given: the first concerns the relations between the national and subnational levels of government, the second the relations of all levels of governments with single or associated citizens willing to exercise their constitutional right to carry out activities of general interest.

Of course, conflicts stemming from irreconcilable underlying principles may arise if one has multiple levels of government and also allows policy asymmetries, especially in the case when liberal principles of Western federal democracies collide with illiberal principles of competing tribal or religious rules. However, federal systems are founded on the premise that multiple sources of sovereign authority create simultaneous normative forces on the legal actors within them. So, in the end, federalism is the realm in which legal pluralism can be least controversially and most undeniably made manifest. Ultimately, it is federalism with all its structures and procedures that allows for valuable cross-jurisdictional platforms in which pluralist deliberation and innovative policymaking may occur. The challenge is to not use asymmetry to create additional separation between territories/levels of government and their societies, but to ensure that all interests and societies are adequately involved in shared rule. This is what the notion of federalism as laboratory is all about.

A thorough understanding of federalism and federal systems, grounded in comparative studies, thus helps worldwide experts and also us Eurac Research federal scholars as a part of the international federal community to advance our conceptual and empirical studies. Studies, so our hope, that create the research impact that is needed.

To learn from experts of any part of the world, we set up the yearly program Eurac Research Federal Scholar in Residence and decided that it would accept applications from scholars, policy analysts and practitioners in following five languages: English, Italian, German, French and Spanish. German and Italian are co-official in South Tyrol’s territorial autonomy and power-sharing system, English is also used in higher education in South Tyrol and its neighboring territories. Universities and research centers within the European Region Tyrol-South Tyrol-Trentino regularly partner with us in projects, also within the Eurac Research Federal Scholar in Residence program.

For example, our Federal Scholars often are guest speakers in the SIS-EURAC Annual Lecture on Federalism, organized with the School of International Studies of the University of Trento. Our 2021 Federal Scholar Daniel Cetrà, then Research Fellow at the Centre on Constitutional Change of the University of Edinburgh and now Beatriu de Pinós Fellow at the Institutions and Political Economy Research Group (IPERG) of the University of Barcelona, discussed his co-authored research on State Nationalism and Territorial Accommodation: Founding Moments and their Legacies in Spain and India first with us in Bolzano/Bozen and then with our colleagues at the University of Trento. Also our 2019 Federal Scholar Andrew Harding, Visiting Research Professor at the Law Faculty of the National University of Singapore shared his vast knowledge on territorial governance and decentralization in South-East Asia with colleagues and students in Trento.

This year, on 24 February, we partner with STALS and "meet" Rebecca Nelson, Associate Professor of Melbourne Law School and Federal Scholar 2020, in a webinar in which she discusses her research on environmental change in multi-layered legal contexts. Her expertise helps us to advance our policy-driven work on environmental law. While Rebecca due to the Covid-19 pandemic for now has been unable to undertake her in-person research stay in the premises of our Institute, we will soon welcome Erin Delaney, Professor of Law at Northwestern University in Illinois and Federal Scholar 2022. She is the tenth Eurac Research Federal Scholar and as an expert on constitutionalism in comparative perspective she focuses on federalism and judicial design. Later this year, in a webinar on 29 April, we reconnect with Karlo Basta. When he was granted our fellowship in 2016, he was a faculty member at the Department of Political Science, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John’s. Today he is lecturer at the School of Social and Political Science and co-director of the Centre on Constitutional Change of the University of Edinburgh. Karlo will discuss his latest research on Minority Recognition, Majority Backlash, and Secession in Multinational Countries.

In December 2021, we were very pleased to discuss the latest work authored by André Lecours, Full Professor of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa and Federal Scholar 2017. Inspired by historical institutionalism, in his book Nationalism, Secessionism, and Autonomy he argues that the strength of secessionism in liberal democracies is explained by the extent to which autonomy evolves in time. In short, if autonomy adjusts to the changing identity, interests, and circumstances of an internal national community, nationalism is much less likely to be strongly secessionist than if autonomy is a final, unchangeable settlement. South Tyrol’s dynamic autonomy caught his attention while being at Eurac Research to the extent that it has become one of the case studies he analyses!

Just a few days ago, in the 13th edition of our Winter School on Federalism and Governance, we have been able to discuss the topic of subnational autonomy and inequalities in federal systems in Latin America with Lucas I. González, researcher at the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET) and the Argentine Catholic University, and Associate Professor at the National University of San Martin, Buenos Aires. At this stage, a big thanks to our colleague in Australia who helped to disseminate the information on our fellowship program in Latin America, and has so enabled us to get to know and learn from Lucas, our Federal Scholar 2018.

We not only invite our Federal Scholars to lecture in programs such as the Winter School on Federalism and Governance, but during their in-person stays at Eurac Research we intensively discuss project ideas too. Such discussions sooner or later turn into project applications with them and their networks becoming invaluable partners in basic research and third-funded projects. The European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Staff Exchange (MSCA-RISE) Local Government and the Changing Urban-Rural Interplay (LoGov) is an example to this regard. Or, as for example in the case of James Gardner, Professor of Law at the Buffalo School of Law at The State University of New York and Federal Scholar 2015, our federal scholars often kindly accept our invitation to join panels or activities we organize within international associations such as the ICON•S | The International Society of Public Law or the IACL Research Group on Constitutionalism and Societal Pluralism.

2019 was a sad year for our program. We have learned about the passing of Andrew Hughes Hallet and Donna E. Wood. Professor Hughes Hallet, our second Federal Scholar in 2014, was a top economist with a citation rating in the Top 50 in the world (and even higher in his specialty of macro-economic policy). He helped us to develop our focus on fiscal federalism and financial relations and authored a paper for our first edited volume of international relevance in our policy-driven studies of that field: Comparing Fiscal Federalism. Remembering Donna E. Wood and her work is of particular importance to us. She was our very first Federal Scholar in 2013, and she fiercely promoted Eurac Research and our studies when traveling throughout Europe and back in Canada, where she was Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of Victoria. In her research work, she compared how Canada and the European Union govern social policy. In memory of her, her work, and her contributions to society, we would like to link to the words of remembrance by the Atkinson Foundation.

The evidence here given, and the many anecdotal notes we have from each edition of the Federal Scholar, reaffirm our conviction that we have established a program that has impact. Of course, managing a multilingual and multidisciplinary program is not easy. At this stage, a heartful thanks to all of you that so far have contributed as external blind reviewers. Your reviews are crucial for the program’s double-blind peer review process. They help us to keep the standards high and they are also very much appreciated by all those applicants that unfortunately get a not-so-nice rejection email (but at least some detailed feedback and suggestions on how to advance their research).

Last but not least, our thanks go to all applicants. So far 146 experts applied, from all continents and altogether 43 countries. We are immensely grateful for such an interest in our Institute! For all of you who are curious and consider to apply, please consult all program details on our website. Of course, you can also contact us for further questions at But please do first carefully read all information regarding the formal requirements and the selection criteria. And for those of you who applied in one of the past editions and did not win, be aware that re-applying is allowed.

We hope to welcome you soon in the heart of the Alps for many federal dialogues and a good glass of (alcohol-free) South Tyrolean wine or beer!

Elisabeth Alber

Elisabeth Alber is Senior Researcher and Program Head (Federal Scholar in Residence) at the Eurac Research Institute for Comparative Federalism. She is also lecturer at the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Innsbruck. She holds a PhD from the University of Innsbruck and does research on federal systems and decentralization processes, territorial autonomies and minority rights, and deliberative democracy and participatory constitution-making. As visiting scholar, she has worked in Germany, the USA, Spain, Australia, Overseas France and North Macedonia. As consultant, she has worked with many international organizations, most recently in Moldova.


  • Federal Scholar

Alber, E. Federalism Studies and Federal Scholars in Dialogue.

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