From March 9 to March 13, 2014, I was invited to Spain by Federalistes d'Esquerres, a gathering of Catalans and other Spanish citizens who oppose Catalunya's secession and instead advocate for a strengthening of the federative features of Spain and the European Union.
The group invited me to share my views on how federalism can help countries with diverse populations, including benefits generated thereof. Please find below the text on which I based my speeches on this theme.
As always, I will be pleased to read any comments you might have. Enjoy your read!
Federalism in the Face of Secessionist Pressure
Notes for an Address by the Honourable Stéphane Dion, delivered on March 10, 2014 at the Conference ‘La resposta federal a la tensió secessionista’ (University of Barcelona), on March 11, 2014 at a discussion panel entitled ‘Secessió, federalisme i democràcia’ (Cambra de Comerç de Tarragona), and on March 12, at a discussion panel entitled ‘El federalismo ante el dilema español’ (Madrid Palacio de Congresos).
The Honourable Stéphane Dion, P.C., M. P.
(Privy Council of Canada and Member of Parliament for St-Laurent / Cartierville)
House of Commons, Ottawa
Email : email@example.com
Can federalism eliminate the risk of secession? Is it in a country’s best interest to become a federation or—should it already be one—to reinforce its federative traits, in order to neutralize a powerful secessionist movement and avoid separation?
To these questions I answer that federalism encourages the productive cohabitation of heterogeneous populations within the same country, but that is still no guarantee that this mode of government is a foolproof antidote to the risk of secession. If federalism is misunderstood or poorly implemented, it could even be mistaken for a sort of precursor to secession.
Federalism is tailor-made for democracies that feature diverse and territorially concentrated populations. It is well suited to multi-ethnic and multilingual societies. In fact, for certain countries, federalism is the only constitutional form of government that works. That is certainly the case for Canada.
We can easily imagine that a group of people who are concentrated in a territory and see themselves as having a collective identity, either as a people or a nation, would need autonomy and institutions with which it can identify.
Federalism can give the group this autonomy, while allowing it to share in a larger country with other populations. For this to work, however, the members of the group must also feel they are citizens of the entire country and demonstrate solidarity with their fellow citizens, in complementarity with them. They must play their part in shared institutions across the federation: government, parliament, public service, central bank, etc. We must invite them to not view societal life only through the prism of their nationalism. As such, there is the need to maintain a balance between autonomy within a country on one hand, and solidarity with the rest of the country on the other.
Federalism allows populations with strong feelings of identity to form majorities within their respective constituent entities. But if those populations try to use that majority status in their region to secede, to transform the region into an independent country, then federalism, instead of strengthening a country’s unity, only serves to weaken it.
For a federation to work, not only do its diverse populations need to identify with their respective regions, they also need to feel a shared sense of belonging to the whole of the country. Federalism and pluralist identity are inseparable. Canadian federalism can work only if its citizens, including Quebeckers, also define themselves as Canadians.
That is what I will demonstrate today. I will begin by laying out the historic links between the two phenomena known as federalism and secession. I will then explain why I believe that a federation would be ill advised to bet its entire strategy for national unity on granting an increasing amount of autonomy to a nationalist region in order to satisfy it and dissuade it from the temptation of secession. That is an unbalanced strategy that may well fail, for the very principle of federalism is one of equilibrium between the autonomy of the regions and the unity of the country as a whole.
1. Federalism and secession
On the technical side, federalism can be defined as having two orders of government—the federal government and the government of each constituent entity in the federation, all of which are directly elected—as well as a constitution that attributes legislative jurisdictions to each order of government.
The European Union possesses federative characteristics, but it is not a federation because it does not have a government that is accountable to the European Parliament or that has a direct relationship with European voters.
Today, twenty-eight countries can be considered federations. According to experts, Spain is among them, even though the country does not define itself that way. In the words of Ronald L. Watts, Spain is “a federation in all but its name.”  But this classification of Spain as a federation is subject to debate. It is probably more difficult for a country to enhance its federative features – and above all, develop the federal spirit – if it doesn't recognize itself explicitly as a federation.
Secession, for its part, is the act of separating from a State in order to create a new one or to join up with another State. It is a most serious action, for it creates an international border between fellow citizens who suddenly are no longer so.
If we were to review the examples of federations that underwent a process of secession or dissolution in the modern era, we would notice that none could have been considered a well-established democracy (meaning they had at least ten consecutive years of free and universal suffrage). I am thinking here of the West Indies Federation (1962), Rhodesia and Nyasaland (1963), Malaysia (1965), Pakistan (1971), the USSR (1991), Czechoslovakia (1992) and the Yugoslavian Federation whose dissolution, starting in 1991, triggered a chain reaction of separations.
These authoritarian or totalitarian regimes may have claimed to be formal federations, but the facts state otherwise. By its nature, federalism is a form of democratic government founded on the rule of law. For federalism to truly exist, there must be a judiciary independent of political power and able to hold each order of government to the responsibilities framed by the Constitution. Federalism also supposes that each order of government maintains a direct relationship with its citizens. It is not the federal government that determines the make-up of regional governments, it is the voters.
Federalism is truly tested when the federal government must share power with elected regional governments that are of a different political stripe. Mexico, Brazil and Argentina became true federations by becoming democratic. The governments of these federations set the example by showing their citizens that it is possible for people who do not share the same political convictions to work together for the common good.
We can thus state that, to this day, no true federation—meaning a democratic one—has ever known secession. In fact, there has not been secession in any well-established democracy that has had ten consecutive years of free and universal suffrage, be they federations or unitary states.
Often, authoritarian regimes merely put a lid on the cauldron of ethnic hatred. When the regime disappears, old conflicts boil over once more. Conversely, it could be that a democracy survives over the years only by creating genuine ties between its various populations.
Until now, democracy and secession were regarded as antithetic phenomena. The democratic ideal encourages all citizens of a country to be loyal to one another, above and beyond any consideration of language, race, religion, origin or regional identity. Conversely, secession asks citizens to break the solidarity that unites them, and almost always does so based on those considerations—linguistic, religious or ethnic—that point to a collective attribute. Secession is that rare and unusual exercise in democracy through which we pick those among our fellow citizens we want to keep, and those we want to turn into strangers.
The principle of mutual loyalty between citizens of a democracy applies as much to a federation as it does to a unitary regime. Indeed, in international law, a State’s territorial integrity is no less recognized in the case of a unitary state than it is in the case of a federation. In fact, it would be unjust and illogical that it be otherwise, since States would have no interest in becoming federations if their unity were less firmly rooted in law. Federalism itself induces loyalty among the federated entities. It is a principle that certain federations, such as Germany, have formalized in law:
“The constitutional principle of federalism applying in the federal state therefore places a legal obligation on the Federation and all of its constituent states to be ‘pro-federal’ in their behavior, that is to say, all members of the constitutional ‘alliance’ are required to cooperate with one another in a manner compatible with the nature of that alliance and to contribute to its consolidation and to the protection of its interests and the well-considered interests of its members”.
Many democratic federations declare themselves indivisible in the name of this principle of loyalty. Spain, the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Australia and India forbid secession—explicitly or implicitly—in their Constitution or jurisprudence. They believe that every inch of their territory belongs to all of the country’s citizens and, as such, can never be divided.
However, the fact that no well-established democracy has so far been divided does not mean that it is impossible for it to happen. There are secessionist movements in well-established democracies as well, and there is always the possibility that one of them may successfully secede. Among those democracies whose unity is most threatened, we find a decentralized federation (Canada), two formerly unitary states that became a federation (Belgium) and a quasi-federation (Spain), and a unitary state that has seen advanced regionalization (the United Kingdom).
In order to check the rise in secessionism, proponents of national unity must better weigh the concerns of dissatisfied regional groups. But they must also strive to reinforce the citizenry’s loyalty towards the country as a whole.
Giving in to nearly all the demands made by separatists within a country, in the hope that they will lose interest in separation, is a risky and probably illusory strategy.
I call this the appeasement strategy, and will now explain why such a strategy cannot help a federation build a solid foundation for its unity.
2. The pitfalls of the appeasement strategy
The appeasement strategy seeks to satisfy nationalists in a given region by transferring more powers and resources to that region in the hope that the vast majority of the people living there will be satisfied with this increased autonomy, and the hard-core separatists will be marginalized. This strategy, while reasonable in certain circumstances, fails to be so when pushed to its limits. It can then be described as follows:
“Since secessionists want all the powers, we will grant them a part in the hopes that the less radical will be satisfied. If they remain dissatisfied, it is because we have not transferred sufficient powers. We must thus transfer more.”
There is no reason to believe this type of thinking works. Secessionists do not want powers granted piece-meal. They want a new country. So they greet each concession, in the shape of a transfer of powers, as one more step towards independence.
A centralized unitary state affords a lot of constitutional leeway to appease various types of nationalism, first through the regionalization and then the federalization of the country. But once the federation is formed, the appeasement strategy becomes more difficult to pursue. In an already decentralized federation, the strategy might entail granting just about all public responsibilities to the regional government tempted by secession.
Canada is one of the most decentralized federations in the world; Belgium has already stripped the central government of most of its public responsibilities; “Spain today is one of the most decentralized countries in Europe”; the United Kingdom has granted the Scottish parliament significant autonomy. And still, secessionism is alive and well in all these countries and we could say it is knocking at their door more than ever. Secessionists everywhere use the same two arguments: “the degree of autonomy we have already won does not satisfy the nation that we are but it brings true independence within our reach;” and “by transforming our region into an independent state, we will have perhaps a smaller country, but one that will be truly ours, instead of a large one we have to share with others.”
The proponents of federal unity must be aware that there are several pitfalls the appeasement strategy might run into. I will review each of them in turn.
The first danger is that of a growing psychological distancing between the region tempted by secession and the rest of the federation. With each new concession via transfer of powers to placate the secessionists comes the risk of encouraging the region’s inhabitants to lose all interest in the federation, to entrench themselves ever more in their territory and to define themselves as an “us” that excludes “them.” There is also the risk that they will have less and less contact with their fellow citizens from other regions, and that they will reject the federal government and those institutions shared by all citizens as a threat to their nation—a foreign body.
The second danger of the appeasement strategy is that it might overshadow public interest as the reason for reform and change. In other words, we would no longer change policies for the sake of improving public services, but rather to try to placate the region tempted to secede. This approach applies primarily to the transfer of powers and resources from the federal government to the region, done not because we believe these responsibilities will be better handled by the regional government but because we hope to appease secessionism.
The third danger is that the issue of secession become trivialized. The appeasement strategy may create the impression that the difference between an increasingly decentralized federation and secession is merely one of degree. It thus looks like a small step to take, and no longer a traumatic schism. We would feel as though in an in-between space: unity on one side, secession on the other, a sort of semi-separation.
Fourth danger: even as it trivializes the extreme act of secession, the appeasement strategy is likely to overdramatize the very normal disagreements that occur in any federation. Indeed, this strategy encourages each side to present the resolution of its grievances as the only way to save the country, namely, “give me what I want or this country explodes.” The slightest disagreement—about a budget or a reform—takes on existential proportions. This exaggeration causes everyone to lose all sense of nuance. Federalism cannot eliminate conflicts. All it can do is deal with them in a way that takes regional differences into consideration.
Fifth pitfall: the appeasement strategy risks exacerbating tensions between regions. In order to strengthen its nationalist claims and its distinctive status, the region tempted by secession may demand for itself—and it alone—powers, resources and legal recognition. Of course, federalism can fulfill these particular demands, but only up to a certain point. In a federation, we must be careful not to upset the balance and equity between regions for fear of seeing those regions that are not threatening separation fret about missing out on their fair share of federally allocated resources and being disadvantaged as more and more privileges are granted to the secessionist region. With time, this exacerbation of regional tensions tarnishes the country’s image in the eyes of its own citizens. They come to see their country as a place of perpetual quarrels. Some may even conclude that separation is the way to finally get some peace, when in fact it is the ease with which separation is considered that undermines the foundations of loyalty among fellow citizens.
Finally, the sixth pitfall to avoid with the appeasement strategy is that of freeing secessionist leaders from the burden of proving that their plan is appropriate and feasible, and transferring the onus to the proponents of national unity. It then becomes the latter's responsibility to deliver major reforms that will solve all the problems! They have to bear the burden of proof! This is how secessionists avoid any reflection, and any discussion, on the how and why of secession. Secessionist leaders no longer have to justify or explain their option, and their job of persuasion is made much easier if instead of demonstrating how the inhabitants of their region will be better off separating, they simply need to repeat: “Since federalists were unable to deliver the great reform, we are leaving!”
To sum up, I will say that the appeasement strategy could have adverse effects of which we must be aware. It sets up a perverse logic of concession that can make us lose sight of the public’s well-being and interests. It is likely to render secession—and the fracture it represents—banal. It can engender jealousy between regions as well as confusion and apathy among citizens. It risks freeing secessionist leaders from the obligation to justify their plans.
What could help proponents of national unity avoid these pitfalls is the following approach: repeat that, in their view, nothing justifies breaking up the country, and propose changes to improve the State’s governance, by constitutional means or otherwise. All the better if these changes convince those tempted by secession to change their minds. But we should not present these improvements as so critical that separating is the only option if they are not delivered. Instead, they should be considered as a means to respect the autonomy of the federated entities while promoting the overall cohesion of the federation and plural identity of the citizens.
I believe it is in that perspective that Federalistes d’Esquerres—to take an example—are proposing that Spain's federative features be enhanced in order that overall cohesion is improved and the country's diversity better taken into account, notably through the creation of a Chamber of federated entities, better recognition of regional languages, clarification regarding the respective jurisdictions of both orders of government, and a relaxation of the State's framework legislation.
The stakes are high, not only for those federations threatened by secession, but for all of humankind. It is easy to imagine what the world’s reaction would be if ever a democratic and decentralized democracy like Canada broke up. They would say of the now defunct federation that it overdosed on a cocktail of decentralization and tolerance—democracy, in short. “Do not be as tolerant, as decentralized or as open as Canada was,” they will say, “for your minority or minorities will turn against you and threaten the unity of your country, if not destroy it outright.”
It is precisely because I want to hear the opposite that I entered politics in 1996!
I want everyone in the world to say: “We can trust our minorities and allow them to flourish in their own way, because they will strengthen our country, exactly as Quebec strengthens Canada.”
The Canadian federation brings together people and peoples who do not all speak the same language or share the same history or cultural references, but who trust and support each other. This is a precious and enviable asset that we must seize and preserve for future generations. This is the message that we, as Canadians, must send to the world. But to do so, we must fully understand what federalism is.
Yes, federalism is defined by the autonomy of its constituent entities, but it also entails the sharing of resources, and the pooling of the efforts and aspirations of all regions and all citizens. Federalism’s success requires that each order of government adhere to a genuine culture of cooperation.
Federalism is the combination of liberty and solidarity: the liberty of each level of government to legislate in those jurisdictions that the Constitution assigns to them, and the solidarity that unites all governments and citizens in the goal of promoting the interests of the country as a whole. Believing in federalism means believing in the pluralist search for solutions, a process to which each government brings its experience and point of view, in order for all to arrive at concerted action. Believing in federalism means the emulation of governments seeking to surpass themselves and inspire one another, all the while maintaining a firm solidarity that reflects that of the citizens across the country.
Federalism supposes and encourages respect for human rights, the rule of law, the pluralist quest for best practices, solidarity rooted in mutual respect—all of them values that are compatible with democracy and that foster it in return.
A fully efficient federalism is much more than a system of governance. It is a regime that merges the lessons of negotiation with the art of conflict resolution, beyond the complex twists and turns of intergovernmental relations.
The challenge of federalism is recognizing that diversity in a country is not a problem: it is an opportunity, a strength, a precious asset. And the Canadian federation must meet this challenge. Of course, I leave it to you to decide which fate you would prefer for yours.
 George Anderson, Federalism: An Introduction, (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2007), p.1.
 Comparing Federal Systems, Second Edition, (Kingston: Queen’s University, 2002), p.4.
 Joaquim Coll, Federar España, Cronica Global, March 5, 2014. Also found online at: http://www.cronicaglobal.com/es/notices/2014/02/federar-espana-5302.php
 Watts, op. cit., p.113
 A 1954 decision of the German Federal Constitutional Court. (Translation)
 Watts, op. cit. p.33