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A confederation is an association of sovereign member states, that by treaty have delegated certain of their competences to common institutions, in order to coordinate their policies in a number of areas, without however constituting a new state on top of the member states. Under international law, a confederation respects the sovereignty of its members and its constituting treaty can only be changed by unanimous agreement.

A confederation in modern political terms is a permanent union of sovereign states for common action in relation to other states. Usually created by treaty but often later adopting a common constitution, confederations tend to be established for dealing with critical issues such as defense, foreign affairs, or a common currency, with the central government being required to provide support for all members.

The nature of the relationship among the states constituting a confederation varies considerably. Likewise, the relationship between the member states and the central government, and the distribution of powers among them, is highly variable. Some looser confederations are similar to intergovernmental organizations, while tighter confederations may resemble federations.

In a non-political context, confederation is used to describe a type of organization which consolidates authority from other semi-autonomous bodies. Examples include sports confederations or confederations of Pan-European trades unions.

The word "confederation" refers to the process of (or the event of) confederating; i.e., establishing a confederation (or by extension a federation). In Canadamarker, Confederation generally refers to the Constitution Act, 1867 which initially united three colonies of British North America (Province of Canada, Province of New Brunswickmarker and Province of Nova Scotiamarker), and to the subsequent incorporation of other colonies and territories; Canada, however, is a federation, not a confederation.



Switzerland, officially known as the Swiss Confederationmarker, has been the most notable modern example of a confederation. It has been a confederacy since its inception, in 1291, and so remains namely to the present day. The Old Swiss Confederacy was originally created as an alliance among the valley communities of the central Alps. The Confederacy facilitated management of common interests (free trade) and ensured peace on the important mountain trade. It should be noted, however, that Switzerland is a confederation only in name as, after the civil war of 1847 when some of the Catholic cantons tried to set up a separate alliance (the Sonderbundskrieg), the resulting political system acquired all the characteristics of a federation .

Iroquois Confederacy

The Iroquois Confederacy (also known as the "League of Peace and Power", the "Five Nations"; the "Six Nations"; or the "People of the Longhouse") is a group of First Nations/Native Americans that consist of six nations: the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, the Seneca and the Tuscarora. The Iroquois have a representative government known as the Grand Council. The Grand Council is the oldest governmental institution still maintaining its original form in North America. Each tribe sends chiefs to act as representatives and make decisions for the whole nation.

European Union

The EU is not de jure a confederation – but some academic observers conclude that it has elements of a confederation or a federation.

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)'.


Many authors are now speaking of Belgiummarker as a country with some aspects of a Confederation. C.E. Lagasse wrote it about the agreements between Belgian Regions and Communities : We are near the political system of a Confederation . Vincent de Coorebyter, Director of the CRISP wrote in Le Soir Belgian is undoubtedly a federation... [but] has some aspects of a confederation Michel Quévit, Professor at the Université Catholique de Louvainmarker wrote also in Le Soir The Belgian political system is already in dynamics of a Confederation . The same author wrote already about this issue in 1984 with other Professors

Confederation vs federation

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.

Historic confederations

Note that historical confederations, especially those predating the 20th century, may not fit the current definition of a confederation, may be proclaimed as a federation but be confederal (or the reverse), and may not show any qualities that are today recognized as those of a federation.

Some have more the characteristics of a personal union, but they are listed here because of their own self-styling.

See also


  1. Oxford English Dictionary
  5. Haller/Kölz, p. 147
  6. Jennings, p.94
  7. How the court made a federation of the EU [1].Josselin (U de Rennes-1/CREM) and Marciano (U de Reims CA/CNRS).
  8. BVerfG, 2 BvE 2/08 vom 30.6.2009, Absatz-Nr. (1 - 421)
  9. French Le confédéralisme n'est pas loin Charles-Etienne Lagasse, Les nouvelles institutions politiques de la Belgique et de l'Europe, Erasme, Namur 2003, p. 405 ISBN 2-87127-783-4
  10. Belgian research center whose activities are devoted to the study of decision-making in Belgium and in Europe
  11. French La Belgique est (...) incontestablement, une fédération : il n’y a aucun doute (...) Cela étant, la fédération belge possède d’ores et déjà des traits confédéraux qui en font un pays atypique, et qui encouragent apparemment certains responsables à réfléchir à des accommodements supplémentaires dans un cadre qui resterait, vaille que vaille, national Vincent de Coorebyter "La Belgique (con)fédérale" in Le Soir 24 june 2008
  12. French Le système institutionnel belge est déjà inscrit dans une dynamique de type confédéral Michel Quévit Le confédéralisme est une chance pour les Wallons et les Bruxellois, Le Soir, 19 september 2008
  13. Robert Deschamps, Michel Quévit, Robert Tollet, Vers une réforme de type confédéral de l'État belge dans le cadre du maintien de l'union monétaire, in Wallonie 84, n°2, pp. 95-111.

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