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A federation (Latin: foedus, foederis, 'covenant'), also known as a federal state, is a type of sovereign state characterized by a union of partially self-governing states or regions united by a central (federal) government. In a federation, the self-governing status of the component states is typically constitutionally entrenched and may not be altered by a unilateral decision of the central government.

The form of government or constitutional structure found in a federation is known as federalism (see also federalism as a political philosophy). It can be considered the opposite of another system, the unitary state. The government of Germanymarker with sixteen federated Länder is an example of a federation, whereas neighboring Austriamarker and its Bundesländer was a unitary state with administrative divisions that became federated, and neighboring Francemarker by contrast has always been unitary.

Federations may be multi-ethnic, or cover a large area of territory, although neither is necessarily the case. Federations are most often founded on an original agreement between a number of sovereign states based on mutual concerns or interests. The initial agreements create a stability that encourages other common interests, brings the disparate territories closer, and gives them all even more common ground. At some time this is recognized and a movement is organized to merge more closely. Other times, especially when common cultural factors are at play such as ethnicity and language, some of these steps in this pattern are expedited and compressed.

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

Federations and other forms of state

A map of the United States of America, showing its fifty constituent states and the Federal District

A map of the United Mexican States (Mexico), showing its thirty one constituent states and the Federal District

In a federation the component states are regarded as 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.

Some federations are called asymmetric because some states have more autonomy than others. An example of such a federation is Malaysiamarker, in which Sarawakmarker and Sabahmarker entered the federation on different terms and conditions to the states of Peninsular Malaysiamarker.

A federation often emerges from an initial agreement between a number of separate states. The purpose can be the will to solve mutual problems or to provide for mutual defence, or to create a nation state for an ethnicity spread over several states. The former was the case with the United Statesmarker and Switzerlandmarker, the latter with Germanymarker. However, as the history of countries and nations varies, the federalism 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. Brazilmarker, otherwise, has experienced both the federal and the unitary state through its history; some present day States of the Federation retain the borders set during Portuguese colonization (i.e. previous to the very existence of Brazilian state), whereas the latest State (Tocantins) was created by the 1988 Constitution, chiefly for administrative reasons.

Eight of ten of the World's largest countries by area are governed as Federations.

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, 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.

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 argued that some modern unitary states are de facto federations.


Spainmarker is suggested as one possible de facto federation as it grants more self-government to its autonomous communities than most federations allow their constituent parts. For the Spanish parliament to revoke the autonomy of regions such as Galiciamarker, Cataloniamarker or the Basque Countrymarker would be a political near-impossibility, though nothing bars it legally. Additionally, some regions such as Navarramarker 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).

People's Republic of China

In the People's Republic of Chinamarker, 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). Constitutionally, the power vested in the special administrative region of the People's Republic is granted from the Central People's Government, through decision by the National People's Congress.

European Union

The European Union (EU) is based on supranational principles which are neither confederal or federal. 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. 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 the Europe should be organized on a supranational foundation. They envisaged a structure quite different from a federation called the European Political Community.

The EU is a three pillar structure of the original supranational European Economic Community and the nuclear non-poliferation 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 some academic observers conclude that after 50 years of institutional evolution since the Treaties of Rome it is becoming one. 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 possesses all the elements of a federal system, but each of the EU states is far more sovereign than in any other federal system. The EU has responsibility for important areas such as trade, monetary union, agriculture, fisheries. Nonetheless, EU member state 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. The proposed Treaty of Lisbon would codify the Member States' right to leave the Union, but would at the same time also provide the Union with more qualified majority voting (rather than unanimity) in many areas.

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)'. With this view, the European Union resembles more of a confederation.

Other forms of governance

The Swiss Confederation and its 26 cantons


A confederation, in modern political terms, is usually limited to a permanent union of sovereign states for common action in relation to other states.

In Belgiummarker, however, the opposite movement is under way. Belgiummarker 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.

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, Canadamarker, designed with a stronger central government than the U.S. in the wake of the Civil War of the latter, has always been called a Confederation by Canadians (also a Dominion and/or a Realm, but these do not bear on the current discussion). Ironically, legal reforms, court rulings, and political compromises have greatly decentralised Canada in practice since its formation in 1867.


An empire is a multi-ethnic state or group of nations with a central government established usually through coercion (on the model of the Roman Empire). An empire will often include self-governing regions but these will possess autonomy only at the sufferance of the central government. The term empire, except where used metaphorically, is usually reserved for an entity headed by an emperor, although his or her constitutional role may be purely ceremonial. One example of this was the British Empire. On the other hand, an empire may simply consist of multiple kingdom organised together in a federation with a high king designated as an emperor. One example of this was Imperial Germanymarker.

Russian Federation

The Russian Federationmarker has inherited its structure from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) that was one of the 15 republics of the Soviet Unionmarker and itself was considered a federation of national territories. The RSFSR consisted of autonomous republics, which had a certain degree of autonomy, at least de jure, and of other types of administrative units (oblasts and krais), whose status was the same as that of oblasts in other – mostly unitary – Soviet Socialist Republics. Today's Russia is defined as a federation in its Constitution (Article 5), and Russia's federal subjects, i.e., the constituent republics, oblasts, krais, the federal-level cities of Moscowmarker and Saint Petersburgmarker, as well as one autonomous oblast and four autonomous okrugs, are equal in legal terms, save for some symbolic features allowed to republics (constitution, president, national language). Some regions (Yakutia) have concluded agreements with the Federation so as to modify the degree of their autonomy.

According to an amendment passed in December 2004, governors and presidents of Russia's constituent regions, who were previously elected by popular vote, are now proposed by the President of Russia for the approval of the local parliament Local parliaments theoretically have the authority to reject the candidate, but if this occurs three times, the parliament may be dissolved by the President and new parliamentary elections held. This lets some argue that the Russian Federationmarker is not a federation in the strictest sense and that it has centralized features similar to a unitary system.

Soviet Union (USSR)

The constitutions of the Soviet Union (USSR) adopted since 1924 theoretically provided for a voluntary federation or union of Soviet Socialist Republics (SSR). Each was notionally governed by its own Supreme Soviet (parliament) and had the right to secede from the Union. Furthermore, some republics themselves possessed nominally self-governing units – Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics (ASSR) or autonomous oblast. Two of the USSR republics, Byelorussian SSR and Ukraine SSR, were even members of the United Nations in recognition of their role in World War II. In practice, the system of one-party government found in the Soviet Union meant that governance of the Union was highly centralised, with important decisions taken by the leaders of the Communist Party in Moscowmarker and merely 'rubber stamped' by local institutions. Nonetheless, with the introduction of free, competitive elections in the final years of the Soviet Union, the Union's theoretically federal structure became a reality in practice. This occurred only for a brief interim period, as the elected governments of many republics demanded their right to secede and became independent states in 1991–1992. The Soviet Union's de jure federal structure played a key role in its dissolution.


Myanmarmarker (formerly Burmamarker) is claimed to have adopted federation status (the country's official name is "Union of Myanmar"). However, after General Ne Win seized power Burma in 1962 and abolished the Constitution of the Union of Burma, the country adopted a unitary system under his military dictatorship.

Constitutional structure

Division of powers

In a federation, the division of power between federal and regional governments is usually outlined in the constitution. It is in this way that the right to self-government of the component states is usually constitutionally entrenched. Component states often also possess their own constitutions which they may amend as they see fit, although in the event of conflict the federal constitution usually takes precedence.

In almost all federations the central government enjoys the powers of foreign policy and national defense. Were this not the case a federation would not be a single sovereign state, per the UN definition. Notably, the states of Germany retain the right to act on their own behalf at an international level, a condition originally granted in exchange for the Kingdom of Bavaria's agreement to join the German Empiremarker in 1871. Beyond this the precise division of power varies from one nation to another.The constitutions of Germany and the United States provide that all powers not specifically granted to the federal government are retained by the states. The Constitution of Canada, on the other hand, states that powers not explicitly granted to the provincial governments are retained by the federal government. Much like the US system, the Australian Constitution allocates to the Federal government (the Commonwealth of Australia) the power to make laws about certain specified matters which were considered too difficult for the States to manage, so that the States retain all other areas of responsibility. Under the division of powers of the European Union in the Lisbon Treaty, powers are not either exclusively of European competence or shared between EU and state are retained by the constituent states.

Where every component state of a federation possesses the same powers, we are said to find 'symmetric federalism'. Asymmetric federalism exists where states are granted different powers, or some possess greater autonomy than others do. This is often done in recognition of the existence of a distinct culture in a particular region or regions. In Spain, "historical communities" such as Navarremarker, Galiciamarker, Cataloniamarker, and the Basque Countrymarker have more powers than other autonomous communities, partly to deal with their distinctness and to appease nationalist leanings, partly out of respect of privileges granted earlier in history.

It is common that during the historical evolution of a federation there is a gradual movement of power from the component states to the centre, as the federal government acquires additional powers, sometimes to deal with unforeseen circumstances. The acquisition of new powers by a federal government may occur through formal constitutional amendment or simply through a broadening of the interpretation of a government's existing constitutional powers given by the courts.

Usually, a federation is formed at two levels: the central government and the regions (states, provinces, territories), and little to nothing is said about second or third level administrative political entities. Brazilmarker is an exception, because the 1988 Constitution included the municipalities as autonomous political entities making the federation tripartite, encompassing the Union, the States, and the municipalities. Each state is divided into municipalities (municípios) with their own legislative council (câmara de vereadores) and a mayor (prefeito), which are partly autonomous from both Federal and State Government. Each municipality has a "little constitution", called "organic law" (lei orgânica). Mexicomarker is an intermediate case, in that municipalities are granted full-autonomy by the federal constitution and their existence as autonomous entities (municipio libre, "free municipality") is established by the federal government and cannot be revoked by the states' constitutions. Moreover, the federal constitution determines which powers and competencies belong exclusively to the municipalities and not to the constituent states. However, municipalities do not have an elected legislative assembly.

Federations often employ the paradox of being a union of states, while still being states (or having aspects of statehood) in themselves. For example, James Madison (author of the US Constitution) wrote in Federalist Paper No. 39 that the US Constitution "is in strictness neither a national nor a federal constitution; but a composition of both. In its foundation, it is federal, not national; in the sources from which the ordinary powers of the Government are drawn, it is partly federal, and partly national..." This paradox stems from the fact that states in a federation maintain all sovereignty that they do not yield to the federation by their own consent. This paradox was corrected by Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which reserves some powers and rights to the people that even the states can't alienate. The sharing of sovereignty between a federation and its constituent states sometimes makes it difficult to differentiate between a sovereign state and a non-sovereign state.

Organs of government

The structures of most federal governments incorporate mechanisms to protect the rights of component states. One method, known as 'intrastate federalism', is to directly represent the governments of component states in federal political institutions. Where a federation has a bicameral legislature the upper house is often used to represent the component states while the lower house represents the people of the nation as a whole. A federal upper house may be based on a special scheme of apportionment, as is the case in the senates of the United States and Australia, where each state is represented by an equal number of senators irrespective of the size of its population.

Alternatively, or in addition to this practice, the members of an upper house may be indirectly elected by the government or legislature of the component states, as occurred in the United States prior to 1913, or be actual members or delegates of the state governments, as, for example, is the case in the German Bundesratmarker and in the Council of the European Union. The lower house of a federal legislature is usually directly elected, with apportionment in proportion to population, although states may sometimes still be guaranteed a certain minimum number of seats.

In Canada, the provincial governments represent regional interests and negotiate directly with the central government. A First Ministers conference of the prime minister and the provincial premiers is the de facto highest political forum in the land, although it is not mentioned in the constitution.

Federations often have special procedures for amendment of the federal constitution. As well as reflecting the federal structure of the state this may guarantee that the self-governing status of the component states cannot be abolished without their consent. An amendment to the constitution of the United States must be ratified by three-quarters of either the state legislatures, or of constitutional conventions specially elected in each of the states, before it can come into effect. In referendums to amend the constitutions of Australia and Switzerland it is required that a proposal be endorsed not just by an overall majority of the electorate in the nation as a whole, but also by separate majorities in each of a majority of the states or cantons. In Australia, this latter requirement is known as a double majority.

Some federal constitutions also provide that certain constitutional amendments cannot occur without the unanimous consent of all states or of a particular state. The US constitution provides that no state may be deprived of equal representation in the senate without its consent. In Australia, if a proposed amendment will specifically impact one or more states, then it must be endorsed in the referendum held in each of those states. Any amendment to the Canadian constitution that would modify the role of the monarchy would require unanimous consent of the provinces. The German Basic Law provides that no amendment is admissible at all that would abolish the federal system.

Other technical terms

  • Fiscal federalism – federalism involving the transfer of funds between different levels of government.
  • Formal federalism (or 'constitutional federalism') – the delineation of powers is specified in a written constitution.
  • Executive federalism (also known as 'administrative federalism').

Federalism as a political philosophy

The meaning of federalism, as a political movement, and of what constitutes a 'federalist', varies with country and historical context. Movements associated with the establishment or development of federations can be either centralising or decentralising. For example, at the time those nations were being established, factions known as 'federalists' in the United States and Australia were those who advocated the creation of strong central government. Similarly, in European Union politics, federalists are mostly those who seek greater EU integration. In contrast, in Spain and post-war Germany, federal movements have sought decentralisation: the transfer of power from central authorities to local units. In Canada, where Quebec separatism has been a political force for several decades, the 'federalist' force is dedicated to keeping the federation intact and adapting the federal structure to better suit Quebec interests.

Internal controversy and conflict

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 and Switzerland. In the case of Malaysiamarker, Singaporemarker 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 Nigeriamarker, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, the United Provinces of Central America and the West Indies Federation. Somaliamarker, despite its Transitional Federal Charter, Transitional Federal Parliament, and Transitional Federal Government, has a weak central government: federal institutions control only parts of Mogadishumarker (though this is changing) and the Somalilandmarker region in the northwestern part of the country is autonomous.

List of federations


Federation Federating Units Major Federating Units Minor Federating Units
Provinces of Argentina 23 provinces 1 federal district
States and territories of Australia 6 states 1 federal district/territory, 1 major territory, several minor territories
States of Austria 9 Länder or Bundesländer
Divisions of Belgium 2 Communities, 2 Regions and 1 merged Community and Region
Divisions of Bosnia and Herzegovina 2 entities (out of which one is itself a federation, consisting of 10 cantons) 1 district
States of Brazil 26 states 1 federal district and 5,561 municipalities
Provinces and territories of Canada 10 provinces 3 territories
3 islands
Regions of Ethiopia 9 regions 2 chartered cities
States of Germany 16 Länder or Bundesländer
Republic of Indiamarker States and territories of India 27 states 7 union territories including a national capital territory The disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmirmarker is not recognised by Pakistanmarker and Chinamarker
Governorates of Iraq 18 governorates, including the autonnmous region of Kurdistanmarker.
States of Malaysia 13 states 3 federal territories
States of Mexico 31 states 1 federal district
4 states
States of Nigeria 36 states 1 territory
Provinces and territories of Pakistan 4 provinces 4 federal territories including a federal capital territory
Federal subjects of Russia 21 republics, 46 oblasts, 9 krais, 1 autonomous oblast, 4 autonomous okrugs, 2 federal-level cities
Islands/parishes of Saint Kitts and Nevis 2 islands/14 parishes
States of Sudan 26 states
Cantons of Switzerland 26 cantons
Emirates of the UAE 7 emirates
The 50 states 50 states 1 federal district; 1 incorporated territory, 13 unincorporated territories
States of Venezuela 23 states 1 federal district, 1 federal dependency

Long form titles


Some of the proclaimed Arab federations were confederations de facto.

See also


  1. Forum of Federations
  2. Economic Warlords by Gregory H. Fuller
  3. La Communaute du Charbon et de l'Acier, p7 Paul Reuter with preface by Robert Schuman. Paris 1953.
  4. How the court made a federation of the EU.[1] Josselin (U de Rennes-1/CREM) and Marciano (U de Reims CA/CNRS).
  5. BVerfG, 2 BvE 2/08 vom 30.6.2009, Absatz-Nr. (1 - 421)
  6. Oxford English Dictionary
  7. One of the most important recent books about the Belgian institutions, written by one of the leading French-speaking jurists 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
  8. 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.
  9. Constitutional definition of Russia as a federation Article 5 of Russian Constitution.
  10. YAKUTIA: AUTONOMY AND DIAMONDS, December 1, 1996
  11. Yakutia (Russia) CRW Flags
  12. Amendments to the law on appointment of heads of Russia's federal subjects, 11 December 2004.
  13. Russia's year of shrinking liberties BBC News
  14. Federal structure of Russia, Article 65 of Russian Constitution.
  15. 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 centralised in practice. See: Soviet Union section.
  16. 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.
  17. Gained independence in 1957, joined with Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore to form Malaysia in 1963.

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