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President’s Page • Words count in federations, where ‘shared-rule’ is a misnomer

crowd gathered recentl y in
Brussels to demonstrate the
need for the country’s politicians
to form a government
after months of fruitless
negotiations. One placard read: “One
Flemish plus one Walloon equals two
This apparently simple point actually
goes to the heart of the difficult politics
that have emerged in Belgium. All
elected politicians are identified exclusively
with one linguistic community or
the other. All political parties are either
Flemish or Walloon. Cabinet must be
composed equally of representatives of
the two communities. And many decisions
at the centre require both
communities to agree.
Belgium’s constitution opens with the
declaration that the country is “a federal
state made up of communities and
regions” – a stark contrast to the ringing
opening of the U.S. constitution: “We the
people of the United States, in order to
form a more perfect union …”
One of the most popular capsule
descriptions of federalism is that it combines
regional self-rule with shared-rule
at the centre. This applies particularly
well to Belgium, which has decentralized
many decisions for self-rule by its regions
and linguistic communities, while having
elaborate mechanisms of shared-rule
at the centre.
But does it truly help to distinguish
between self-rule and shared-rule
among the orders of government in most
federations? What does shared-rule
imply? That the regional units participate
in some central decisions, as in
Germany? Or that linguistic or cultural
communities have defined roles in sharing
central decisions? While some such
arrangements might exist in various federations,
they are, at best, only part of the
“Shared-rule” does not capture the
reality of how central governments function
in most federations, whose central
governments are made and unmade
through direct elections. The whole electorate
constitutes a community which
exercises “self-rule” in its own right.
Part of the genius of federalism is that
it can accommodate and give institutional
expression to “nested” identities of
citizens. Public opinion research has
shown how complex political identities
are. When, for example, Catalans are
asked to define themselves, there is a rich
range of responses, from “Catalan only”,
“Catalan first, then Spanish”, “both
equally”, “Spanish first, then Catalan”, to
“Spanish only.” We can map such
responses between sub-national units
within and across federations. They tell
us a lot about the likely dynamics of a
federation – centralizing or decentralizing;
symmetric or asymmetric. Of course,
religious, linguistic, class or caste identities
can also be important for political
In most federations, the majority of
citizens identify with both the national
(federal) identity and their regional communities
– the states, provinces, cantons,
Länder etc. A federation needs a critical
mass of citizens in most parts of the
country to have a national, as well as a
regional, identity, if its unity is to be
Of course, identities are not static.
Citizens of the European Union have
taken on a greater European identity,
alongside their national identities. But
the EU remains heavily based on sharedrule
between governments because its
citizens are not sufficiently strong in their
European identity to be ready for significant
European “self-rule” with a directly
elected federal government.
True federal government involves a
commitment to a national political community
that is more than the sum of the
constituent communities. It involves
national self-rule as well as national
shared-rule. This is why I avoid the selfrule/
shared-rule formula when talking
about federalism.