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Forging connections

15 years on, how the Winter School on Federalism and Governance has created a transboundary, transdisciplinary, and lasting network.


La studentessa Bhavinee Singh, la responsabile del progetto Greta Klotz e il docente Juan Negri si godono il sole invernale nel giardino di Eurac Research.

© Eurac Research | Annelie Bortolotti

Annelie Bortolotti
by Rachel Wolffe

In a climate of unnerving uncertainties, the notion of community means more than ever. The Winter School on Federalism and Governance is a cross-border and transdisciplinary project that brings together academics and practitioners from the world over.

In its 15th year, the Eurac Research Institute for Comparative Federalism, and the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Innsbruck have chosen to focus on sustainability within federal systems in Europe and beyond. This year’s edition brought together 28 participants from 19 countries. We look back on the Winter School’s origins, its present and future with political analyst and university professor Juan Negri – a past participant and one of this year’s speakers, first-time attendee researcher and assistant professor Bhavinee Singh and its program manager and researcher at the Institute for Comparative Federalism, Greta Klotz.

The Winter School is cross-border, not only in the sense that participants come from very different parts of the world, but also where academics, civil servants, government officials, and employees of international organizations and of NGOs meet, in Austria and in Italy. Why is this so important?

Juan Negri: Well, it’s important to open perspectives. Academics usually have a rather good understanding of theory and how things should work. People who work in the field, in foundations, NGOs, who really work in applying some of these practices in their countries, countries that are at times undergoing a variety of conflicts, can help us academics gain knowledge on how these things work and on processes of implementation. It really broadens our own perspective. Firsthand. I met someone from Ethiopia when I was here at the Winter School some years ago, he worked at an international organization that checked on elections throughout the world and oversaw many of political systems working in other places. I got a window to these systems and how they work in the world, through him. I’m an academic from Latin America where people often come from sensitive contexts. These contexts aren’t limited to Latin America though, in my cohort, we had two people from Tibet and one or two from Myanmar also who were political activists.

Greta Klotz: Every year, we see people connect with each other, and for participants it is always exciting to meet lecturers whom they had only ever heard of from a book, for example. On top of that, each participant has a different outlook about multilevel governance. And we always try also to emphasize the exchange between the participants, that it’s not just about the lectures: the study visits, workshops and discussion sessions, every participant has so much to tell from their context, this exchange and diversity of views is fundamental to our Winter School. Under ‘normal’ circumstances, it’s not often you get an opportunity to know and have contact with people from so many countries. Of course, also at academic conferences, you meet a certain kind of people, but here, it’s still different.

Every participant has so much to tell from their context, this exchange and diversity of views is fundamental to our Winter School.

Greta Klotz
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Behind-the-scenes smiles at the 2024 Winter School on Federalism© Eurac Research - Annelie Bortolotti
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© Eurac Research - Annelie Bortolotti
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© Eurac Research - Annelie Bortolotti

Juan, what can you tell us about your first Winter School? What do you remember from it and what was your professional situation at the time?

Juan Negri: I was a junior professor. I had just got my PhD and was starting a new job. It was important to socialize, network, to see how different federal arrangements work in different parts of the world. In the Americas, we have a very particular way of understanding federalism, and European or Asian federalism is very different. To see how these things work in places with more ethnic or cultural divisions, was very important. I remember learning about the situation of South Tyrol, it was very telling for me. In Latin America, there are usually administrative divisions and federalism is more about money most of the time: it’s the role of the federal government to decide who does what and who gets what. In Europe, whereas in some Asian countries, it’s more about ethnic divisions, different languages, different nationalities. When I came here in 2018 and spoke to the provincial parliamentary members there were some openly saying that they wanted South Tyrol to be a part of different country. You don’t get this in the Americas. There, federalism is not about being in a different country or declaring independence. It’s more about the encroachment of the federal state in the local sphere or more money, less money, but not about language, religion, different nationalities or a colonial past. I mean, we were all conquered by the Spaniards.

I’d like to ask you, Bhavinee, how the South Tyrolean model of autonomy compares to the multilevel system of India?

Bhavinee Singh: It’s been quite a learning curve for me honestly because prior to coming here, I wasn’t aware of the South Tyrolean issue or the divisions in population. I think the way in which it is very different from India would be because firstly, in India there’s a huge diversity in terms of languages, ethnicities, tribal communities. And our states are also formed based on linguistic allegiances. But I think we, because of colonization, ended up adopting a very parliamentary form of government like the British one. And sadly, the structures have also followed through, and that dependency has given them a certain nature and form. However now it has become more important to trace where the money comes from and where it goes: what the fiscal transfers look like from the center to the states, who has tax autonomy and who doesn’t? There’s a whole range of challenges in the field of federalism and multilevel governance that come with the Indian experience.

How did the idea for the first Winter School come about, Greta?

Greta Klotz: Before our Winter School started, there were not so many short-term programs about federalism or multilevel governance. So we thought it would be highly enriching to organize a program to bring people from all over the world together. From the beginning, we tried to keep the tuition fees low and to offer some scholarships for the participants from outside Europe and toyoung researchers who otherwise wouldn’t have the chance to meet or to learn in such an environment, especially not in a cross-border program such as ours: one week in Innsbruck, one week in Bolzano/Bozen. We also change the specific topic each year. When Juan first participated in 2018, the topic was ‘Federalism in the Making’. We studied the examination of countries transitioning from decentralized systems to federalism, the advantages of federal systems and the difference between federal systems and other political systems. This year, we focused on among other things, federalism and sustainability. And we look at sustainability not only from the ecological point of view, but also from institutional, financial, and societal perspectives. The Winter School is a joint project between the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Innsbruck of the University of Innsbruck and us as an interdisciplinary research institute. This interdisciplinarity connects civil servants and practitioners with academics with a background in political science, law, or economics.

You don’t get this in the Americas. There, federalism is not about being in a different country or declaring independence. It’s more about the encroachment of the federal state in the local sphere .

Juan Negri

Bhavinee, how did you encounter the Winter School initially and what have your experiences of it been?

Bhavinee Singh: I heard about the Winter School for the first time from another PhD candidate at Edinburgh Law School who attended it last year. She works in federalism in her country and informed me about it as I research fiscal federalism. I looked up the website and spoke to my supervisors, who were already aware of the Winter School. One of them had actually already lectured here, Wilfried Swenden. In terms of my experience, I would say that there are two takeaways for me: firstly, the diversity, in terms of both, the set of lecturers that we’ve had and the topics that we’ve touched upon. We started off with a more general overview of federalism and constitutional sustainability, then we started going into case studies. The second thing that made an impression: the diversity of the participants’ profiles. We are a huge mix of lawyers, political scientists, economists, and climate activists. And all of these different perspectives in the same room have been insightful to say the least. And as a PhD student, it’s very easy to live in a silo with blinders on and to get isolated in your own personal intellectual journey.

Greta Klotz: One of our focus topics at the Institute for Comparative Federalism is also multi-level governance regarding environment. We have always had some workshops on the environment but this year, there’s a more attention to the topic. We had a roundtable on federalism and climate change in this edition. We try always to connect with the local concerns, institutions, and local contexts. In the Innsbruck week, we always meet with the mayor and are invited to a visit of the city council. And here in South Tyrol, we always go to the provincial parliament and participants appreciate finding out more about the specific context and the power-sharing system which is very specific to our Winter School.

Bhavinee Singh: Another highlight, indeed. I think contextualizing what we were listening to about South Tyrol by taking us through the historical tours both in Innsbruck and Bolzano/Bozen, understanding governance systems in Innsbruck and here has been interesting because the moment you bring in the context, it becomes much easier to understand – it’s so much more than just showing a slide. And it doesn’t remain a slide for us. It’s quite rare to find that in winter and summer schools, where most of the time you aren’t as involved in the context of the place.

Juan Negri: I would add another thing, the fact that it’s two weeks is interesting because you get to know the other participants more than if it had been only one week. At the end of the second week, you become very close with many people. And in the end, I think the group really solidifies in some ways.

We try always to connect with the local concerns, institutions, and local contexts.

Greta Klotz
Forging connections: over the course of two weeks, the Winter School fosters a transboundary, transdisciplinary, and lasting network.© Eurac Research | Annelie Bortolotti

Any more highlights?

Bhavinee Singh: Definitely. The connections, whether it’s the lecturers, the organizers, or the participants. And the connections aren’t just based on networking, but also on personal bonds. We are from different fields. Some are working on environment, some on a political dimension of federalism but somehow there is still a common strand that runs through all our work. Some may be on the front lines of it as activists, some may be writing about it, some may be researching about it. But to be able to find that common strand so easily and so naturally in the same environment is special. As an academic sitting in a university, you probably wouldn’t have the chance to speak directly to an activist who’s on the front lines. Getting all of us together here and just reminding us that we’re not alone in this and there are common strands, despite the different approaches to federalism, I would say, has been a key highlight for me.

Greta Klotz: Although, because of politics, visa applications are becoming stricter and it has become increasingly challenging for participants from certain countries to attend, every year, when everything finally comes together and we kick off the program, it is a huge satisfaction and it is worth it. The Winter School is also a sustainable project for us in the sense that we also get inspiration for collaborations, we build contacts with the participants, we invite them to publish in our book series, get invited to conferences and sometimes even more bigger projects can be born. Juan, for example, has been involved in the H2020 LoGov project led by our Institute. A participant of our very first Winter School, Yonatan Fessha won a prestigious Marie Curie fellowship and joined us at the Institute for two years. And I could mention many more examples of further collaborations. We celebrated this 15th edition with a call for alumni and we brought back one of the former participants to lecture. So, it goes full circle: Juan is a former Winter School student, lecturing in the present, and addressing the future.

We are from different fields. Some are working on environment, some on a political dimension of federalism but somehow there is still a common strand that runs through all our work.

Bhavinee Singh

Winter Schools past and present

2024 Winter School

28 participants
from 19 countries
134 total applications

Winter School 2010-2024

2.475 applications
409 participants from 73 countries
participants countries: 13,6% Americas, 9,5% Africa; 0,4% Australia, 30,5% Asia; 45,4% Europe

Former topics

2010 Local Government in Federal and Regional Systems 2011 Cross-border Cooperation
2012 Federalism and Minority Protection
2013 Federalism and Fundamental Rights
2014 Federalism and Multilevel Constitutionalism 2015 Federalism and Democratic Participation
2016 Conflict and Cooperation in Federal Systems 2017 Federalism and Power-Sharing
2018 Federalism in the Making
2019 Federalism and the Rule of Law
2020 Federalism and Language
2021 Federalism and Local Self-Government
2022 Federalism and/in Emergency
2023 Federalism and Equality
2024 Federalism and Sustainability

Out of 134 applicants, 28 participants from 19 countries participated in this year’s Winter School on Federalism and Governance

About the Interviewed

Bhavinee Singh is researching on constitutional law theory and fiscal federalism through the case study of India. She is currently a PhD Candidate at Edinburgh Law School and Assistant Professor at Jindal Global Law School.

About the Interviewed

Juan Negri is Director of Studies in Political Science and serves as an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Dr. Negri specializes in comparative politics, focusing on political institutions, the Presidency, Executive-Legislative relations, and federalism, with a particular emphasis on Latin America.

About the Interviewed

Greta Klotz is the project manager of the Winter School on Federalism and Governance since 2012. She has completed her PhD on local governance in the Alpine region in 2023 and is working as post-doc researcher at the Eurac Research Institute for Comparative Federalism.

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