The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







This article is about federal states. For alternative meanings, see Federation (disambiguation).

A federation (from the Latin fœdus, "covenant") is a state comprised of a number of self-governing regions (often themselves referred to as "states") united by a central ("federal") government. In a federation, the self-governing status of the component states is constitutionally entrenched and may not be altered by a unilateral decision of the central government.

Federations may be multi-ethnic, or cover a large area of territory, although neither is necessarily the case. Federations are often founded on an original agreement between a number of sovereign states. The component states of a federation usually do not have the right to secede unilaterally. Important modern federations include Brazil, Germany, India and the United States. The form of government or constitutional structure found in a federation is known as federalism.


Federations and other forms of state

A map of the United States of America, showing its fifty constituent states.
A map of the United States of America, showing its fifty constituent states.

In a federation the component states are regarded as in some sense sovereign, in so far 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 possess no independent status under international law.

Federations usually exhibit a single, two-tier structure of government across an entire jurisdiction. Exceptions may occur in which certain parts of the federation are under more direct control of the federal government, as is the case with the autonomous 'territories' of Canada and Australia, with Union Territories in India and with the United States District of Columbia. However it is not characteristic in a federation for small peripheral regions to be self-governing, while a central, much larger 'metropolis' region remains under the direct control of the central government.

A federation often emerges from an initial agreement between a number of separate states to come together in order to solve mutual problems, or provide for mutual defence. This was the case with the United States, Switzerland, Canada and Australia.

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 at 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.

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 if not federal in theory.

Spain 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 Catalonia or the Basque Country, or for the United Kingdom government to unilaterally abolish the legislatures of Wales or Scotland, would be a near political impossibility. 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".

Other forms of state

Confederation: While distinct from a unitary state, a federation is also to be distinguished from a confederation. This is a state or entity similar in structure to a federation but with a weaker central government. A confederation may also consist of states that, while temporarily pooling sovereignty in certain areas, are considered entirely sovereign and retain the right of secession. A confederation is sometimes a loose alliance but in other cases the distinction between a federation and a confederation may be ambiguous. For example Switzerland is formally the 'Swiss Confederation' but its structure is similar to that of many federal states.

Empire: An empire is a multi-ethnic state or group of nations with a central government established through coercion. 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 a emperor, although his or her constitutional role may be purely ceremonial. An empire may, in some cases, also consist of multiple kingdoms organised together with a high king designated as an emperor. One example for this was Imperial Germany.

European Union

The European Union (EU) possesses some of the attributes of a federal state. However, its central government is far weaker than that of most federations so it is usually characterised as an unprecedented form of supra-national alliance, confederation, or union. The EU has responsibility for important areas such as trade and monetary union, and today around sixty per cent of the legislation in member-states originates in the institutions of the Union. Nonetheless EU member-states retain the right to act independently in matters of foreign policy and defence, and also enjoy a near monopoly over other major policy areas such as criminal justice and taxation. Furthermore, member-states are separate, sovereign entities under international law and, currently at least, possess a de facto if not explicit de jure right of secession.

Russian Federation

Some argue that the 'Russian Federation' is not a federation in the strictest sense. It consists of the metropolis of 'Russia proper' and a number of small autonomous republics or oblasts. Russia proper includes the great majority of the population and, while it is organised into 41 provinces, these are under the direct control of the national government in Moscow. The remaining self-governing regions possess little actual autonomy.

Soviet Union

The constitution of the 1922-1991 Soviet Union (USSR) theoretically provided for a voluntary federation or confederation of 'soviet socialist republics'. Each was notionally governed by its own supreme council and had the right to secede. Furthermore, some republics themselves possessed further nominally self-governing units. In practice, the system of one-party government found in the USSR meant that governance of the Union was highly centralised, with important decisions taken by the leaders of the Communist Party in Russia and merely 'rubber stamped' by local institutions. Nonetheless, with the introduction of competitive elections in the final days of the USSR, 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. Thus the USSR's de jure federal structure played a key role in its dissolution.

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 defence. Were this not the case a federation would not be a single sovereign state. Beyond this the precise division of power varies from one nation to another. The United States Constitution provides that all powers not specifically granted to the federal government are retained by the states. The Constitution of Canada, on the other hand, provides the opposite: that powers not explicitly granted to the provincial governments are retained by the centre. In Germany, the division of powers is less one of content than of administration: the federal government often merely issues broad directives to the Länder (self-governing regions), which then have broad discretion as to how to implement them. In the People's Republic of China, regarded by some as a de facto although not de jure federation, the central government sets up general economic policy and goals, and leaves the implementation to provincial governments.

In Canada the federal government retains all powers the constitution does not grant to the territories and provinces.
In Canada the federal government retains all powers the constitution does not grant to the territories and provinces.

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 Navarre, Catalonia, and the Basque Country 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.

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 Bundesrat. 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 primer 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 referenda 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.

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 than it must be endorsed in the referendum held in each of those states. The German Basic Law provides that no amendment is admissible at all that would completely 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

Main article: Federalist

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, federalists in the United States and Australia were those who advocated the creation of strong central government. Similarly, in European Union politics, federalists are 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.

Internal controversy and conflict

The United Provinces of Central America was short-lived.
The United Provinces of Central America was short-lived.

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 due to 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 some cases internal conflict may lead a federation to collapse entirely, as occurred in Nigeria, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, the United States of Central America and the West Indies Federation.

List of federations


Federation Subdivisions article
Argentina Provinces of Argentina 23 provinces 1 federal district
Australia States of Australia 6 states 2 territories
Austria States of Austria 9 Bundesländer
Belgium Divisions of Belgium 3 linguistic communities 3 regions
Bosnia and Herzegovina Divisions of Bosnia and Herzegovina 2 entities 1 internationally supervised district
Brazil States of Brazil 26 states 1 federal district
Canada Provinces of Canada 10 provinces 3 territories
Comoros 3 islands
Ethiopia Regions of Ethiopia 9 regions 2 chartered cities
Germany States of Germany 16 Bundesländer
India States of India 28 states 7 union territories
Malaysia States of Malaysia 13 states 3 federal territories
Mexico States of Mexico 31 states 1 federal district
FS Micronesia 4 states
Nigeria States of Nigeria 36 states 1 territory
Russia1 Subjects of Russia 49 oblasts, 21 republics, 10 autonomius okrugs, 6 krays 2 federal cities
Serbia and Montenegro Divisions of Serbia and Montenegro 2 states 2 autonomous provinces
Switzerland Cantons of Switzerland 26 cantons
United Arab Emirates Emirates of the UAE 7 emirates
United States Divisions of the United States 50 states, 7 territories 1 federal district
Venezuela States of Venezuela 23 states, 1 federal dependency 1 federal district

Long form titles


List of unitary states with devolution

State Style Subdivisions article
Spain Kingdom Communities of Spain 19 autonomous communities 2 autonomous cities
Tanzania United Republic Zanzibar One self-governing region
United Kingdom Divisions of the UK 3 self-governing regions


  1. Whether or not the Russian Federation is a genuine federation is a matter of dispute. See: Russia and the European Union section.
  2. The USSR was a federation according the letter of its constitution, but, at least until its final days in the late eighties and early nineties, its governance was highly centralised in practice. See: Soviet Union section.
  3. The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was officially proclaimed in 1963. Prior to this the communist Yugoslav state was named Democratic Federal Yugoslavia in 1945 and the Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia in 1946. See: Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Related topics

The contents of this article are licensed from under the GNU Free Documentation License. How to see transparent copy