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The asymmetry rainbow

From the European Union to Australia, 
asymmetrical federalism comes in many forms

by Alan Trench

Asymmetry has become flavour of the month for federations, and nowhere more than in Canada. In reaction to the failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, the federal govern-ment’s insistence that each province had to be treated in the same way as every other province has collapsed. The denial of asymmetry this involved was always slightly ludicrous as there have been plenty of examples in Canada of asymmetric arrangements, but it was a doctrine rigorously applied by the federal government. Not surprisingly, many are trying to understand where the new road to asymmetrical federalism may lead.1 In this article I want to try to bring a comparative perspective to this particularly Canadian set of problems.

Asymmetry in Europe

Asymmetry can take many different forms. In Germany, for example, the formal status of the constituent units, the Laender, is consistently the same. But slightly unusual internal arrangements exist for the city states of Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen, and there is enormous inequality in the size of the units – Bremen has about 600,000 people, while North Rhine–Westphalia has 18 million (and Bremen has three votes in the federal upper house, the Bundesrat, while North Rhine–Westphalia has six). Even with such formal symmetry, there is an underlying asymmetry: what such units can do and what influence they can exercise vary widely.

More far-reaching asymmetries can be found in states that are decentralizing. The United Kingdom is perhaps the most startling example. The 85 per cent of the population living in England are wholly outside the scope of devolution, and following the clear rejection of elected regional government for North-East England in a referendum in October 2004 are unlikely to be offered it again for at least a decade. Devolution therefore affects only the 15 per cent living in the historic nations of Scotland and Wales and the contested territory of Northern Ireland.2 The devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales are very different from each other. In Scotland a Parliament, and an Executive accountable to the Parliament, are responsible for a wide range of domestic matters including health, education, local government and policing. In Wales the National Assembly has only limited powers to administer a number of U.K. policies by passing secondary, not primary, legislation. Party politics means that Scotland has a Labour–Liberal Democrat coalition and Wales a Labour administration with a majority of one seat. Because of the peace process the (now suspended) arrangements for Northern Ireland were yet more complicated, with a compulsory coalition of the four larger parties in the Assembly, two of which refused to speak to each other.

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About the Author

Alan Trench


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