Diversity of State Models

Article published on March 31, 2004
community published
Article published on March 31, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

From the French central government to the autonomy of Spain's regions, every taste is catered for among the multitude of European State structures . But there is no easy solution for everyone.

Marked by a plethora of political models, Europe would like to grow together politically. The differences hark back to the history and culture of each individual country, be it “cooperative federalism” in Germany, “competitive federalism” in Spain, or centralism in France, the Czech Republic or Slovakia. It should not be a case of selecting one model applicable for all for a united Europe, rather of seeing how different countries in Europe organise their political lives.

Federal Government and Federal state affairs

Federalism has a long tradition in Germany, interrupted only by the united National Socialist State between 1933 and 1945. Following these dark times, it became clear that Germany would exist as a Federal State once more, and this was equally called for by the four occupying powers. The Basic Law of 1949 set out the legal basis for this and was to become applicable to the whole of Germany after reunification. Germany is characterised by its horizontal and vertical division of power, i.e. the fact that the legislative, judicial and executive powers must be implemented in each and every one of the 16 Federal states as well as by Federal Government. In this way the control exerted by the different powers is increased. The Federal states are granted authority in many areas (e.g. in education); and at the same time there should also be a form of financial balance and solidarity leading to equality between the poorer and richer Federal states, preventing rivalry between them. In recent years, particularly since reunification and the addition of various poor states to Germany, this democratic principle has led to criticism by the richer Federal states, such as Bavaria, who see themselves as hard done by in the long term with permanently balanced finances. The individual Federal states will represent their interests on a national level in the Upper House of Parliament. The number of representatives varies according to the number of inhabitants in the Federal state from between one and three.

“Competitive Federalism”

Spain is characterised by its strong and visible cultural, ethnic, national and territorial differences. Regional diversity, rivalry between the different regions and the use of different languages have been on Spain’s political agenda for a long time. Yet territorial pluralism and the consequent decentralisation are not what the Spanish constitution of 1978 aimed for. However, reality has led to this, which is called by many as “competitive federalism”. The phrase “a State consisting of autonomous regions” is not mentioned in the constitution. Political regionalisation and decentralisation of the State have been achieved through conscious regional competition and strategic political negotiation between the historically united areas (Basque, Galicia and Catalonia) and the government. This process is progressive, with regions continuously negotiating and developing their status and authority. Each of the 17 autonomous regions exerts the authority they enjoy following their own model. The political situation in Spain does not only lead to rivalry between the three historical regions and the government, but also to rivalry and competition among the 17 regions. This means that there is little cooperation between central government and the regional governments. Likewise, the Senate can perform no significant representative role for the regions on a national level owing to its weak position. This may perhaps be a reason why much negotiation is carried out bilaterally between central government and a particular local authority. Many believe that Spain is possibly one of the most decentralised countries.

The indivisible Republic

The above cannot be said for France. France is a centrally governed country par excellence. Divided into départements, regions and local authorities, the decision making power comes principally from Paris. From 1982 various decentralisation reforms were agreed upon, and yet many French politicians are still rather hostile towards this change. This means that the reforms of the 1980s in particular can be seen rather more as strengthening the centralised model on a local scale. The present Prime Minister, Raffarin, wanted in any case to strengthen France’s decentralisation, and yet he also ran into contention in all crises. The main point of criticism is that the reforms lead to increased inequality between the regions. France’s historically and culturally limited centralised State may also have survived strict changes for more than 20 years, yet decentralisation will surely not end in a federal State.

Nothing new in the East

Before the division of Czechoslovakia, the Slovakian part wanted to re-affirm the authority between the Federal government and the two provincial governments. The Slovakian government therefore suggested that the provincial governments should ease the burden of the Federal government by gaining greater authority, which was not particularly supported by the Czechs. The Czech government and citizens were in favour of centralisation for reforming government. No true compromise could be found for the resultant crisis and finally the two countries were officially divided. Today both countries are governed centrally. The once existing federalist form, even if it was only on a small scale, was not maintained.

Europe is marked by centralism as well as by various forms of federalism. Finding one single model may well be wishful thinking. Yet perhaps from this diversity at some point in time there will grow a “new” model as an alternative.