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This article is about the form of government. For the formation of the Canadian government, see Canadian Confederation. For the Polish historical institution, see Confederation (Poland).
Not to be confused with Federation.

Template:Forms of government

A confederation (or confederacy), is a permanent union of political units for common action in relation to other units.[1] 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, the central government, and the distribution of powers among them is highly variable. Some looser confederations are similar to intergovernmental organizations and even may permit secession from the confederation. Other confederations with stricter rules may resemble federations. A unitary state or federation may decentralize powers to regional or local entities in a confederal form.

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

In Canada, the word confederation has an additional, unrelated meaning.[2] "Confederation" refers to the process of (or the event of) establishing or joining the Canadian federal state.[2]

In the context of the history of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, a confederacy may refer to a semi-permanent political and military alliance consisting of multiple nations (or "tribes", "bands", or "villages") which maintained their separate leadership. One of the most well-known is the Iroquois Confederacy, but there were many others during different eras and locations across North America; these include the Wabanaki Confederacy, Western Confederacy, Powhatan Confederacy, Seven Nations of Canada, Pontiac's Confederacy, Illinois Confederation, Tecumseh's Confederacy, Great Sioux Nation, Blackfoot Confederacy, Iron Confederacy, United Confederation of Taino People and Council of Three Fires.



Many authors are now speaking of Belgium 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."[3] Vincent de Coorebyter, Director of the CRISP[4] wrote in Le Soir "Belgium is undoubtedly a federation... [but] has some aspects of a confederation."[5] Michel Quévit, Professor at the Catholic University of Leuven wrote also in Le Soir "The Belgian political system is already in dynamics of a Confederation."[6] The same author wrote previously about this issue in 1984 with other professors.[7]

Nevertheless, the Belgian regions and communities lack the crucial autonomy to leave the Belgian state. As such, the federal aspects seems to dominate. Also for fiscal policy and public finances, the federal state dominates the other levels of government.

The limited confederal aspects appear to be a meager political reflection of the profound sociological, cultural and economic differences between Flemings and Walloons (or French-speaking Belgians). As an example, in the last several decades, over 95% of the Belgians have voted for political parties that represent voters from only one community. Parties that advocate Belgian unity and appeal to voters of both communities systematically get only a few percent of the votes[citation needed].

This makes Belgium fundamentally different from federal countries as Switzerland, Canada, Germany and Australia. In those countries, national parties get over 90% of the votes. The only comparable places with Belgium are Catalonia, the Basque Country and Scotland. These also have a majority voter turnout for local political parties, and national parties total less (or much less) than half of the votes.


In modern terminology, Canada is a federation and not a confederation.[8] However, at the time the Constitution Act, 1867, confederation was the normal British and Canadian term for a single sovereign nation-state of federating provinces. Canadian Confederation generally refers to the Constitution Act, 1867 which initially formed the Dominion of Canada from three of the colonies of British North America, and to the subsequent incorporation of other colonies and territories. Thus on July 1, 1867 Canada became a self-governing dominion of the British Empire with a federal structure under the leadership of Sir John A. Macdonald. The provinces originally involved were the Province of Canada (comprising Canada West, now Ontario, formerly Upper Canada; and Canada East now Quebec, formerly Lower Canada), Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. Later participants were Manitoba, British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, Alberta and Saskatchewan (the latter two created as provinces from the Northwest Territories in 1905), and finally Newfoundland (now Newfoundland and Labrador) in 1949. Canada is an unusually decentralized federal state and not a confederate association of sovereign states,[9] (the usual meaning of confederation in modern terms). A Canadian law, the Clarity Act, and a court ruling, Reference re Secession of Quebec, set forth the conditions for negotiations to allow Canadian provinces (though not territories) to leave the Canadian federal state; however, as this would require a constitutional amendment, there is no current "constitutional" method for withdrawal.

European Union

Due to its unique nature, and the political sensitivities surrounding it, there is no common or legal classification for the European Union (EU). However, it does bear some resemblance to both a confederation[10] (or "new" type of confederation[11]) and a federation. The EU operates common economic policies with hundreds of common laws, which enable a single economic market, open internal borders, a common currency and allow for numerous other areas where powers have been transferred and directly applicable laws are made. However, unlike a federation, the EU does not have exclusive powers over foreign affairs, defence and taxation. Furthermore, laws sometimes must be transcribed into national law by national parliaments; decisions by member states are taken by special majorities with blocking minorities accounted for; and treaty amendment requires ratification by every member state before it can come into force.

However, academic observers more usually discuss the EU in the terms of it being a federation.[12][13] As international law professor Joseph H. H. Weiler (of the Hague Academy and more recently New York University) wrote, "Europe has charted its own brand of constitutional federalism."[14] Jean-Michel Josselin and Alain Marciano see the European Court of Justice as being a primary force behind building a federal legal order in the Union[15] with Josselin stating that "A complete shift from a confederation to a federation would have required to straightforwardly replace the principality of the member states vis-à-vis the Union by that of the European citizens. ... As a consequence, both confederate and federate features coexist in the judicial landscape."[16] Rutgers University political science professor R. Daniel Kelemen has observed: "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 ... 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." [17] According to Thomas Risse and Tanja A. Börzel, "the EU only lacks two significant features of a federation. First, the Member States remain the 'masters' of the treaties, i.e., they have the exclusive power to amend or change the constitutive treaties of the EU. Second, the EU lacks a real 'tax and spend' capacity, in other words, there is no fiscal federalism."[18]

Valéry Giscard d'Estaing found opposition from the United Kingdom towards including the word "federal" in the European Constitution, and hence replaced the word with "Community".[19]

Iroquois League

The Iroquois League, historically the Iroquois Confederacy, is a group of Native Americans (in what is now the United States) and First Nations (in what is now Canada) that consists 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.[20] The League has been functioning since prior to major European contact. Each tribe sends chiefs to act as representatives and make decisions for the whole nation.

Serbia and Montenegro

Serbia and Montenegro (2003–2006) was a confederation that was formed by the two remaining republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFR Yugoslavia): Montenegro and neighboring Serbia were sole legal successors to FR Yugoslavia, which consequently ceased to exist. The country was reconstituted as a very loose political union called the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro. It was established on February 4, 2003.

As a confederation, Serbia and Montenegro were united only in very few realms, such as defense, foreign affairs and a very weak common president of the confederation. The two constituent republics functioned separately throughout the period of its short existence, and continued to operate under separate economic policies, as well as using separate currencies (the euro was and still is the only legal tender in Montenegro, while the dinar was still the legal tender in Serbia). On 21 May 2006, the Montenegrin independence referendum was held. Final official results indicated on 31 May that 55.5% of voters voted in favor of independence. The state union effectively came to an end after Montenegro's formal declaration of independence on 3 June 2006, and Serbia's formal declaration of independence on 5 June.


Switzerland, officially known as the Swiss Confederation,[21][22][23] is an example of a modern country that refers to itself as a confederation. However, at the time Switzerland adopted the Latin name Confoederatio Helvetica, no distinction existed in Europe between the words 'confederation' and 'federation' regarding the strength of federal authority. 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.[24] It had been a confederacy since its inception in 1291 as the Old Swiss Confederacy, originally created as an alliance among the valley communities of the central Alps, and retains the confederal name. The confederacy facilitated management of common interests (free trade) and ensured peace in the important mountain trade.

Historical confederations

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 21st-century political scientists might classify as those of a confederation.

Some have more the characteristics of a personal union, but appear here because of their self-styling.

See also


External links

  • P.-J. Proudhon, The Principle of Federation, 1863.
  • The Fathers of Confederation
  • Confederation: The Creation of Canada — Illustrated Historical Essay
  • WorldStatesmen - here South Africa
  • United Confederation of Taino People
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