Federal, regional, unitary state... Political structures in Europe
The structure of states, which distributes the exercise of political power over their national territories, varies greatly from one European country to another. While there is a general trend towards decentralisation, federal models remain the exception within the Union.
From the Federal Republic of Germany to the "one and indivisible" French Republic, from the Swiss Confederation to the "regionalised" states of Spain and Italy, Europe has a variety of territorial and political organisations.From the Federal Republic of Germany to the "one and indivisible" French Republic, the Swiss Confederation and the "regionalised" states of Spain and Italy, Europe has a variety of territorial and political organisations. The structure of states corresponds to the distribution of political powers within the territory of a country, and the division of competences between the different sovereign entities that make them up. Defined in the constitution of the member states, it may change over time.
The different state structures
The unitary state, the most common form in Europe, Africa and Asia, is generally characterised by territorial and political unity. It is governed by a single central authority, which concentrates the vast majority, if not all, of state powers and exercises them uniformly throughout the national territory. The unity of a State does not prevent a certain level of deconcentration (existence of authorities delocalized from the central State, such as the prefects in France), or decentralization. In the latter case, the representatives of the decentralised units (such as the French regions, departments or communes) are elected locally and manage and administer public services under the supervision of the State. However, they have only those competences that have been attributed to them by the central state, and do not exercise legislative power.
The federal State, as opposed to the unitary State, is composed of several entities, generically called federated States (American States, or German Länder). United by a federal constitution, each of these states also has its own constitution and autonomous executive, legislative and judicial powers. The federal constitution organizes the distribution of powers between the federal and state levels. The federal level is generally responsible for sovereign powers (diplomacy, defence, currency, etc.), while other policies (social, cultural, infrastructure, etc.) and day-to-day affairs are more often the responsibility of the federal states. The states are represented at the federal level in the upper house of the bicameral parliament and participate in any changes to the federal constitution that unites them.
Between these two models, a new type of state is emerging: the regional state. This variation of the unitary state is the result of a strong policy of decentralisation and is close to the federal model, without adopting all its characteristics. The regions thus have a certain political autonomy, competences (health, social, etc.) that go beyond the simple administrative role of the federal state.The regions have a certain political autonomy, competences (health, social, etc.) that go beyond the simple administrative role of decentralised units, and, in some cases, limited legislative power under the control of the state. On the other hand, they do not have their own constitution (single legal order) and do not participate in national decision-making. Lastly, there is frequent differentiation between regions, some of which are more autonomous than others (autonomy through the "fast track" for certain Spanish communities, or "extended" autonomy for five Italian regions).
The confederation, a special case
A confederation is made up of independent entities that form an alliance but, unlike the federal model, do not give up their own sovereignty.
In the past, some states have had a confederal organization: the United States was a confederation until the drafting of the American constitution in 1787; present-day Germany was governed by several confederations during part of the 19th century; and Switzerland, still officially a confederation, was a confederation.century; and Switzerland, still officially called the "Swiss Confederation", takes its name from the confederations of cantons that preceded the creation of the Swiss federal state between 1291 and 1848.
Since the notion of statehood is now largely conditioned by the idea of a single international representation, none of the internationally recognised states is organised in a confederal manner: the political systems that come closest to confederations are the international organizations (UN, Commonwealth, Benelux...).
In Europe, the historical model of the unitary state, more or less centralised, remains dominant: only three EU member states are federal states (Germany, Austria and Belgium). Spain and Italy (and, outside the EU, the United Kingdom) can be considered as regional states.
These exceptions arise from specific historical contexts. The federal republics established in Germany and Austria in the aftermath of the Second World War, shaped by the Allies, are also descended from the federal and confederal structures that once dominated the country.The federal republics established in Germany and Austria in the aftermath of the Second World War, shaped by the Allies, are also descended from the federal and confederal structures that dominated Central Europe in the last millennium (the Hanseatic League, the Holy Roman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, etc.). The process of Italian decentralization can also be seen as the mark of the country's history, which for a long time consisted of a group of principalities, commercial cities and pontifical states before its unification at the end of the 19th century.
The presence of several nations within a single state also favours federalism or decentralisation. This is the case in Belgium, which is divided between Flemish and Walloons (Brussels being the third federated entity), or in the United Kingdom, where the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish nations obtained devolved governments in the late 1990s. Spain, finally, has promoted the autonomy of its communities in response to Basque and Catalan nationalist demands.
While European states remain free to choose their political organisation, European integration has been accompanied by a trend towards decentralisation. The principle of subsidiarity, enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty, favours local decision-making if the higher levels of government do not prove more efficient. Moreover, the cosmopolitan aspect of European construction has proved to be a fertile ground for nationalist demands and regionalist movements, pushing states to confer more autonomy on their regions.
Is the European Union a federal state?
Neither truly confederal nor truly federal, the EU is a hybrid or sui generis organisation ("of its own kind" in Latin)
In many respects, the structure of the European Union approaches a federal model. It has "central" institutions, with executive, legislative and judicial powers. Its treaties can be likened to a constitution, and European law, which takes precedence over national law, applies directly to European citizens. Legislative power within the Union is divided between several levels, and the states share sovereignty with it.
However, the exclusive competences of the EU (competition, international trade, monetary policy, etc.) are limited, essentially economic (the States retain their sovereignty in the main areas of sovereignty), and emanate from the Member States. Moreover, the European Union is not recognised as a federal state by any other state, and has no single international representation. Finally, the member states have the possibility of regaining their sovereignty at any time by withdrawing from the EU.