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This article is about federal states. For other uses, see Federation (disambiguation).
Not to be confused with Confederation.

A federation (from Latin: foedus, gen.: foederis, "covenant"), also known as a federal state, is a political entity characterized by a union of partially self-governing states or regions under a central (federal) government. In a federation, the self-governing status of the component states, as well as the division of power between them and the central government, are typically constitutionally entrenched and may not be altered by a unilateral decision of either party, the states or the federal political body.1

The governmental or constitutional structure found in a federation is known as federalism. It can be considered the opposite of another system, the unitary state. Germany with sixteen Länder is an example of a federation, whereas neighboring Austria and its Bundesländer was a unitary state with administrative divisions that became federated, and neighboring France by contrast has always been unitary.

Federations may be multi-ethnic and cover a large area of territory (e.g. United States or India), although neither is necessarily the case. The initial agreements create a stability that encourages other common interests, reduces differences between the disparate territories, and gives them all even more common ground. At some time this is recognized and a movement is organized to merge more closely. At other times, especially when common cultural factors are at play such as ethnicity and language, some of the steps in this pattern are expedited and compressed.

The international council for federal countries, the Forum of Federations,2 is based in Ottawa, Ontario. It helps share best practices among countries with federal systems of government, and currently includes nine countries as partner governments.


Several ancient chiefdoms and kingdoms, such as the 4th century BC League of Corinth, Noricum in Central Europe, and the Haudenosaunee Confederation in pre-Columbian North America, could be described as federations or confederations. The Old Swiss Confederacy was an early example of formal non-unitary statehood.

Several colonies and dominions in the New World consisted of autonomous provinces, transformed to federal states upon independence (see Spanish American wars of independence). The oldest continuous federation, and a role model for many subsequent federations, is the United States of America. Some of the New World federations failed; the Federal Republic of Central America broke up into independent states 10 years after its founding. Others, such as Argentina and Mexico, have shifted between federal, confederal, and unitary systems, before settling into federalism. Brazil became a federation only after the fall of the monarchy (see States of Brazil), and Venezuela became a federation after the Federal War. Australia and Canada are also federations.

Germany is another nation-state that has switched between confederal, federal and unitary rules, since the German Confederation was founded in 1815. The North German Confederation and the Weimar Republic were federations.

Founded in 1922, the Soviet Union was formally a federation of Soviet Republics, Autonomous republics of the Soviet Union and other federal subjects, though in practice highly centralized under the Government of the Soviet Union. The Russian Federation has inherited a similar system.

Nigeria, Pakistan, India and Malaysia became federations on or shortly before becoming independent from the British Empire.

The Forum of Federations was established in 1999.

In somewhich? recentwhen? cases, federations have been instituted as a measure to handle ethnic conflict within a state, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Iraq since 2005.

Federations and other forms of state

A map of Argentina, showing its twenty-three provinces constituent and the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires.
A map of the United Mexican States (Mexico), showing its thirty-one constituent states and the Federal District.
A map of the United States of America showing its fifty constituent states and the Federal District.


In a federation the component states are in some sense sovereign, insofar as certain powers are reserved to them that may not be exercised by the central government. However, a federation is more than a mere loose alliance of independent states. The component states of a federation usually possess no powers in relation to foreign policy, and so they enjoy no independent status under international law. However, German Länder do have this power,3 which is beginning to be exercised on a European level.

Somewhich? federations are called asymmetric because some states have more autonomy than others. An example of such a federation is Malaysia, in which Sarawak and Sabah agreed to form the federation on different terms and conditions from the states of Peninsular Malaysia.

A federation often emerges from an initial agreement between a number of separate states. The purpose can be the will to solve mutual problems and to provide for mutual defense, or to create a nation state for an ethnicity spread over several states. The former was the case with the United States and Switzerland. However, as the histories of countries and nations vary, the federalist system of a state can be quite different from these models. Australia, for instance, is unique in that it came into existence as a nation by the democratic vote of the citizens of each state, who voted "yes" in referendums to adopt the Australian Constitution. Brazil, on the other hand, has experienced both the federal and the unitary state during its history. Some present day states of the Brazilian federation retain borders set during the Portuguese colonization (i.e. previous to the very existence of Brazilian state), whereas the latest state, Tocantins, was created by the 1988 Constitution for chiefly administrative reasons.

Seven of the top Eight largest countries by area are governed as federations.original research?

Unitary states

A unitary state is sometimes one with only a single, centralised, national tier of government. However, unitary states often also include one or more self-governing regions. The difference between a federation and this kind of unitary state is that in a unitary state the autonomous status of self-governing regions exists by the sufferance of the central government, and may be unilaterally revoked. While it is common for a federation to be brought into being by agreement between a number of formally independent states, in a unitary state self-governing regions are often created through a process of devolution, where a formerly centralised state agrees to grant autonomy to a region that was previously entirely subordinate. Thus federations are often established voluntarily from 'below' whereas devolution grants self-government from 'above'.

It is often part of the philosophy of a unitary state that, regardless of the actual status of any of its parts, its entire territory constitutes a single sovereign entity or nation-state,citation needed and that by virtue of this the central government exercises sovereignty over the whole territory as of right. In a federation, on the other hand, sovereignty is often regarded as residing notionally in the component states, or as being shared between these states and the central government.citation needed


A confederation, in modern political terms, is usually limited to a permanent union of sovereign states for common action in relation to other states.4 The closest entity in the world to a confederation at this time is the European Union. While the word "confederation" was officially used when the present Canadian federal system was established in 1867, the term is recognised to be a misnomer since Canadian provinces are not sovereign and do not claim to be. In the case of Switzerland, while the country is still officially called the Swiss Confederation (Confoederatio Helvetica, Confédération suisse) this is also now a misnomer since the Swiss cantons lost their sovereign status in 1848.5

In Belgium, however, the opposite movement is under way.6 Belgium was founded as a centralised state, after the French model, but has gradually been reformed into a federal state by consecutive constitutional reforms since the 1970s. Moreover, although nominally called a federal state, the country's structure already has a number of confederational traits (ex. competences are exclusive for either the federal or the state level, the treaty-making power of the Federating units without almost any possible veto of the Federal Government). At present, there is a growing movement to transform the existing federal state into a looser confederation with two or three constitutive states and/or two special regions.7

By definition, the difference between a confederation and a federation is that the membership of the member states in a confederation is voluntary, while the membership in a federation is not. A confederation is most likely to feature these differences over a federation: (1) No real direct powers: many confederal decisions are externalised by member-state legislation. (2) Decisions on day-to-day-matters are not taken by simple majority but by special majorities or even by consensus or unanimity (veto for every member). (3) Changes of the constitution, usually a treaty, require unanimity.

Over time these terms acquired distinct connotations leading to the present difference in definition. An example of this is the United States under the Articles of Confederation. The Articles established a national government under what today would be defined as a federal system (albeit with a comparatively weaker federal government). However, Canadians, designed with a stronger central government than the U.S. in the wake of the Civil War of the latter, use the term "Confederation" to refer to the formation or joining, not the structure, of Canada. Legal reforms, court rulings, and political compromises have somewhat decentralised Canada in practice since its formation in 1867.


An empire is a multi-ethnic state, multinational state, or a group of nations with a central government established usually through coercion (on the model of the Roman Empire). An empire often includes self-governing regions, but these will possess autonomy only at the sufferance of the central government. On the other hand, a political entity that is an empire in name, may in practice consist of multiple autonomous kingdoms organised together in a federation, with a high king designated as an emperor. One example of this was Imperial Germany.

Comparison with other systems of autonomy


A federacy is essentially an extreme case of an asymmetric federation, either due to large differences in the level of autonomy, or the rigidity of the constitutional arrangements. The term federacy is more often used for the relation between the sovereign state and its autonomous areas.


A federation differs from a devolved state, such as Indonesia, the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Spain, because, in a devolved state, the central government can revoke the independence of the subunits (Scottish Parliament, Welsh National Assembly, Northern Ireland Assembly in the case of the UK) without changing the constitution.

Associated States

A federation also differs from an associated state, such as the Federated States of Micronesia (in free association with the United States) and Cook Islands and Niue (which form part of the Realm of New Zealand). There are two kinds of associated states: in case of Micronesia, association is concluded by treaty between two sovereign states; in case of Cook Islands and Niue, association is concluded by domestic legal arrangements.

Crown dependencies

The relation between the Crown dependencies of the Isle of Man and the bailiwicks of Guernsey and Jersey in the Channel Islands and the United Kingdom is very similar to a federate relation: the Islands enjoy independence from the United Kingdom, which, via The Crown, takes care of their foreign relations and defence – although the UK Parliament does have overall power to legislate for the dependencies. However, the islands are neither an incorporated part of the United Kingdom, nor are they considered to be independent or associated states. The Isle of Man does not have a monarch, per se; rather, the British Monarch is, ex officio, Lord of Mann (irrespective of the incumbent's sex).

Overseas territories

Overseas territories, such as the British overseas territories, are vested with varying degrees of power; some enjoy considerable independence from the sovereign state, which only takes care of their foreign relations and defence. However, they are neither considered to be part of it, nor recognised as sovereign or associated states.

Alleged de facto federations

The distinction between a federation and a unitary state is often quite ambiguous. A unitary state may closely resemble a federation in structure and, while a central government may possess the theoretical right to revoke the autonomy of a self-governing region, it may be politically difficult for it to do so in practice. The self-governing regions of some unitary states also often enjoy greater autonomy than those of some federations. For these reasons, it is sometimes arguedby whom? that some modern unitary states are de facto federations.

De facto federations, or quasi-federations, are often termed "regional states".


Spain is suggested as one possible de facto federationby whom? as it grants more self-government to its autonomous communities910 than most federations allow their constituent parts.citation needed For the Spanish parliament to revoke the autonomy of regions such as Galicia, Catalonia or the Basque Country would be a political near-impossibility, though nothing bars it legally. Additionally, some regions such as Navarre or the Basque Country have full control over taxation and spending, transferring a small payment to the central government for the common services (army, foreign relations, macroeconomic policy). For example, one scholarwho? discusses the "federal nature of Spain's government (a trend that almost no one denies)."11 Each autonomous community is governed by a Statute of Autonomy (Estatuto de Autonomía) under the Spanish Constitution of 1978.

European Union

The European Union (EU) is a type of political union or quasi Federation. Robert Schuman, the initiator of the European Community system, wrote that a supranational Community like the Europe's founding European Coal and Steel Community lay midway between an association of States where they retained complete independence and a federation leading to a fusion of States in a super-state.12 The European Founding Fathers made a Europe Declaration at the time of the signing of the Treaty of Paris on 18 April 1951 saying that Europe should be organized on a supranational foundation. They envisaged a structure quite different from a federation called the European Political Community.citation needed

The EU is a three pillar structure of the original supranational European Economic Community and the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, Euratom, plus two largely intergovernmental pillars dealing with External Affairs and Justice and Home Affairs. The EU is therefore not a de jure federation, although somewho? academic observers conclude that after 50 years of institutional evolution since the Treaties of Rome it is becoming one.13 The European Union possesses attributes of a federal state. However, its central government is far weaker than that of most federations and the individual members are sovereign states under international law, so it is usually characterized as an unprecedented form of supra-national union. The EU has responsibility for important areas such as trade, monetary union, agriculture, fisheries. Nonetheless, EU member states retain the right to act independently in matters of foreign policy and defense, and also enjoy a near monopoly over other major policy areas such as criminal justice and taxation. Since the Treaty of Lisbon, Member States' right to leave the Union is codified, and the Union operates with more qualified majority voting (rather than unanimity) in many areas.citation needed

By the signature of this Treaty, the participating Parties give proof of their determination to create the first supranational institution and that thus they are laying the true foundation of an organized Europe. This Europe remains open to all nations. We profoundly hope that other nations will join us in our common endeavour.

Europe Declaration signed by Konrad Adenauer (West Germany), Paul van Zeeland, Joseph Meurice (Belgium) Robert Schuman (France) Count Sforza (Italy) Joseph Bech (Luxembourg) and Dirk Stikker, J. R. M. van den Brink (The Netherlands).14

Europe has charted its own brand of constitutional federalism.

— European Constitutionalism Beyond the State. Edited with Marlene Wind (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003) page 23, Joseph H. H. Weiler

Those uncomfortable using the "F" word in the EU context should feel free to refer to it as a quasi-federal or federal-like system. Nevertheless, for the purposes of the analysis here, the EU has the necessary attributes of a federal system. It is striking that while many scholars of the EU continue to resist analyzing it as a federation, most contemporary students of federalism view the EU as a federal system.citation needed
(See for instance, Bednar, Filippov et al., McKay, Kelemen, Defigueido and Weingast)

— R. Daniel Kelemen

A more nuanced view has been given by the German Constitutional Court. Here the EU is defined as 'an association of sovereign national states (Staatenverbund)'.15 With this view, the European Union resembles more of a confederation.

People's Republic of China

In the People's Republic of China, a form of de facto federation has evolved without formal legislation. This has occurred as largely informal grants of power to the provinces, to handle economic affairs and implement national policies. This has resulted in a system some have termed "de facto federalism with Chinese characteristics" (in reference to Deng Xiaoping's policy of socialism with Chinese characteristics).16 Constitutionally, the power vested in the special administrative regions of the People's Republic is granted from the Central People's Government, through decision by the National People's Congress. A Federal Republic of China, in effect the third Chinese Republic, has been proposed as a future replacement for the PRC.

Internal controversy and conflict

The United Provinces of Central America was a short-lived federal republic

Certain forms of political and constitutional dispute are common to federations. One issue is that the exact division of power and responsibility between federal and regional governments is often a source of controversy. Often, as is the case with the United States, such conflicts are resolved through the judicial system, which delimits the powers of federal and local governments. The relationship between federal and local courts varies from nation to nation and can be a controversial and complex issue in itself.

Another common issue in federal systems is the conflict between regional and national interests, or between the interests and aspirations of different ethnic groups. In some federations the entire jurisdiction is relatively homogeneous and each constituent state resembles a miniature version of the whole; this is known as 'congruent federalism'. On the other hand, incongruent federalism exists where different states or regions possess distinct ethnic groups.

The ability of a federal government to create national institutions that can mediate differences that arise because of linguistic, ethnic, religious, or other regional differences is an important challenge. The inability to meet this challenge may lead to the secession of parts of a federation or to civil war, as occurred in United States (southern states interpreted slavery under the tenth amendment as a state right, while northern states were against slavery, with a catalysis occurring in the then Kansas Territory) and Switzerland. In the case of Malaysia, Singapore was expelled from the federation because of rising racial tension. In some cases internal conflict may lead a federation to collapse entirely, as occurred in Nigeria, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, the Gran Colombia, the United Provinces of Central America and the West Indies Federation.

Federal governments

The federal government is the common or national government of a federation. A federal government may have distinct powers at various levels authorized or delegated to it by its member states. The structure of federal governments vary. Based on a broad definition of a basic federalism, there are two or more levels of government that exist within an established territory and govern through common institutions with overlapping or shared powers as prescribed by a constitution.

Federal government is the government at the level of the sovereign state. Usual responsibilities of this level of government are maintaining national security and exercising international diplomacy, including the right to sign binding treaties. Basically, a modern federal government, within the limits defined by its constitution, has the power to make laws for the whole country, unlike local governments. The United States Constitution was created to limit the federal government from exerting power over the states, but certain amendments gave the federal government considerable authority over states.

Federal government within this structure are the government ministries and departments and agencies to which the ministers of government are assigned.

For a detailed list of federated units, see Federated state#List of constituents by federation. There are 27 federations as of October 2013.1718


Federal republic

Main article: Federal republic
Year est. Federation Federating units Major federating units Minor federating units
1853  Argentina Provinces of Argentina 23 provinces 1 autonomous city
1920  Austria States of Austria 9 Länder or Bundesländer
1995  Bosnia and Herzegovina Divisions of Bosnia and Herzegovina 2 entities 10 cantons
1 district
1889  Brazil States of Brazil 26 states and 1 federal district (Previously 20 provinces during the Imperial period between 1822 and 1889) 5,565 municipalities
1975  Comoros 3 islands
1995  Ethiopia Regions of Ethiopia 9 regions 2 chartered cities
1949  Germany States of Germany 16 Länder or Bundesländer
1950 India India States and territories of India 29 States 7 Union Territories, including a National Capital Territory
2005  Iraq Governorates of Iraq 18 provinces
1821  Mexico States of Mexico 31 states 1 federal district
1979  Federated States of Micronesia Administrative divisions of the Federated States of Micronesia 4 states
2008    Nepal Zones of Nepal 14 zones 75 districts
1963  Nigeria States of Nigeria 36 states 1 territory
1956  Pakistan Provinces and territories of Pakistan 4 provinces 4 federal territories including a federal capital territory
1992  Russia Federal subjects of Russia 46 oblasts, 22 republics, 9 krais, 4 autonomous okrugs, 1 autonomous oblast1920 3 federal-level cities
2012  Somalia Federal Member States of Somalia 18 states18
2011  South Sudan States of South Sudan 10 states
1956  Sudan States of Sudan 17 states
1848   Switzerland Cantons of Switzerland 26 cantons
177621  United States of America States of the United States 50 states 1 federal district; 4 Commonwealths; 1 incorporated territory, 11 unincorporated territories
1863  Venezuela States of Venezuela 23 states 1 federal district, 1 federal dependency

Federal monarchy

Main article: Federal monarchy
Year est. Federation Federating units Major federating units Minor federating units
1901  Australia States and territories of Australia 6 states 2 territories
1970  Belgium Divisions of Belgium 3 Communities, 3 Regions
1867  Canada Provinces and territories of Canada 10 provinces 3 territories
1963  Malaysia States of Malaysia 13 states 3 federal territories
1983  Saint Kitts and Nevis Islands/parishes of Saint Kitts and Nevis 2 islands/14 parishes
1971  United Arab Emirates Emirates of the UAE 7 emirates

Long form titles


Some of the proclaimed Arab federations were confederations de facto.

See also


  1. ^ It is often argued that federal states where the central government has the constitutional authority to suspend a constituent state's government by invoking gross mismanagement or civil unrest, or to adopt national legislation that overrides or infringe on the constituent states' powers by invoking the central government's constitutional authority to ensure "peace and good government" or to implement obligations contracted under an international treaty, are not truly federal states.
  2. ^ Forum of Federations
  3. ^ Leonardy, U. (1992). "Federation and Länder in German foreign relations: Power‐sharing in treaty‐making and European affairs". German Politics 1 (3): 119–135. doi:10.1080/09644009208404305. 
  4. ^ Oxford English Dictionary
  5. ^ CH: Confoederatio Helvetica - Switzerland - Information. Swissworld.org. Retrieved on 2013-07-12.
  6. ^ One of the most important recent books about the Belgian institutions, written by one of the leading French-speaking juristswho? concludes : Vers le confédéralisme (Toward a Confederation). See: Charles-Etienne Lagasse, Les nouvelles institutions politiques de la Belgique et de l'Europe, Erasme, Namur 2003, p. 603 ISBN 2-87127-783-4
  7. ^ Many Flemings would prefer two states, Flanders and Wallonia, and two special regions, Brussels and the German-speaking region. In Wallonia, there is a wider support for three states : Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels.
  8. ^ Some dictionaries, such as the Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (1989 ed.), state that federacy is synonymous with confederacy ("by aphesis"). In French, the English words federacy, confederacy and confederation are all translated by "confédération".
  9. ^ Mallet, Victor (18 August 2010). "Flimsier footings". Financial Times. Retrieved 25 August 2010. (registration required)
  10. ^ "A survey of Spain: How much is enough?". The Economist. 6 November 2008. Retrieved 25 August 2010. (subscription required)
  11. ^ Enrique Guillén López, JUDICIAL REVIEW IN SPAIN: THE CONSTITUTIONAL COURT, 41 Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review 541, 544 (2008).
  12. ^ La Communaute du Charbon et de l'Acier, p7 Paul Reuter with preface by Robert Schuman. Paris 1953.
  13. ^ Josselin, J. M.; Marciano, A. (2006). "How the court made a federation of the EU". The Review of International Organizations 2: 59. doi:10.1007/s11558-006-9001-y. 
  14. ^ Schuman or Monnet? The real Architect of Europe. p 129. Bron 2004
  15. ^ BVerfG, 2 BvE 2/08 vom 30.6.2009, Absatz-Nr. (1–421)
  16. ^ Economic Warlords by Gregory H. Fuller
  17. ^ Forum of federations http://www.forumfed.org/en/federalism/by_country/index.php
  18. ^ a b "Guidebook to the Somali Draft Provisional Constitution". Retrieved 2 August 2012. 
  19. ^ Federal structure of Russia, Article 65 of Russian Constitution.
  20. ^ see Political status of Crimea.
  21. ^ The United States Constitution, which replaced the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, was drafted in 1787 and was ratified in 1788. The first Congress and President did not take office until March 1789.
  22. ^ Gained independence in 1957, joined with Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore to form Malaysia in 1963.
  23. ^ The USSR was a federation according to the letter of its constitution, but, at least until its final years in the late eighties and early nineties of the 20th century, its governance was highly centralized in practice. See: Soviet Union section.
  24. ^ The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was officially proclaimed in 1963. Prior to this, the communist Yugoslav state was named Democratic Federal Yugoslavia in 1943 and then Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia in 1946. See: Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

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