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.

The U.K. therefore has a triple asymmetry: of the territories involved, of the institutions each devolved territory has and of the functions devolved. And each territory remains closely tied into the U.K. through a combination of financial arrangements (all money continues to be allocated by formula through the U.K. Treasury in London), the principle of the sovereignty of Parliament at Westminster, administrative habits and practices, the intricacy of policymaking in a complicated state still dominated by England, and the presence of Labour in government everywhere (save Northern Ireland, where the British parties do not campaign).

The U.K.’s arrangements create plenty of anomalies, of which the most important is known as the West Lothian question. There is only one class of MP at Westminster, so Scottish MPs vote on matters that do not affect Scotland, like health or education in England or policing in England and Wales; but they cannot vote for these matters as they affect Scotland, as they are matters for members of the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. Scottish electors get two bites at the cherry, voting for both MPs and MSPs, while voters in England can only vote for an MP. Yet despite frequent discussion of these problems, they have had little political impact – even when unpopular policies for England have been introduced using Scottish MPs’ votes. They do not seem to interest English electors very much – whether out of boredom (the number of votes involved is small) or out of tolerance for Scotland’s distinctiveness is hard to say.

Or take the European Union. The experts are unable to agree whether the EU is a federation, an international organization or something different. Two things are certain about it: that it has developed a number of federal features, at least in its key institutions (the Council of Ministers, Commission, European Parliament and European Court of Justice), and that it is crazily asymmetric.

Examples of its asymmetry abound. One is the limited rights for nationals of the 10 new member states in eastern Europe and the Mediterranean to work or claim welfare benefits in the other 15 countries. Another is the distinct arrangements for foreign and security policy, a recent add-on to Union functions sitting alongside national foreign and defence arrangements. A third is the continental free movement zone under the Schengen accord, meaning that passports are unnecessary to cross most borders in continental Europe – but still needed for the U.K. and Ireland. A fourth, and perhaps the most important, is the euro-zone – the single currency for many of the older member states, but not the 10 new members, the U.K., Sweden or Denmark. For the most part these asymmetrical features use the EU institutions, but exclude the member states not involved – so 13 interior ministers meet to discuss Schengen-related matters, but the whole European Parliament votes on such matters; and an inner group of euro-zone finance ministers meets to discuss currency matters, but the whole Council of Ministers decides on Union-wide matters that underpin the euro, like the Stability Pact regulating national deficits and public spending.

The mind-numbing complexity of the EU is perhaps not immediately apparent to the officials who work in it or through it. That may be why it has taken so long for officials and politicians to wake up to the damaging consequences of no one being able to understand how it works. Talk of the “democratic deficit” first emerged in the late 1980s, leading to demands to strengthen the power of the European Parliament and to introduce a clear principle of subsidiarity (the idea that things should be done at the lowest appropriate level) into the EU. Only with the recent Constitutional Convention and the debates about the European Constitution has any attempt been made beyond that to make the EU accessible to or understandable by ordinary voters. Even that has been limited, and the complexity is one of the causes of the real danger of rejection of the Constitution in referendums to be held in France (on May 29, 2005), the Netherlands (on June 1), the U.K., Denmark, Ireland and other member states.

The Australian case

Yet asymmetry also creates real advantages. Australia’s is one of the most symmetrical federal systems, and the country has no distinctive territorial populations comparable to the francophones of Quebec. Aboriginal peoples are to be found all over Australia, with a concentration in Queensland and the Northern Territory, and while the population is ethnically diverse this too has no regional dimension. Australia’s federalism is largely concerned now with making a large welfare state work, while coping with frequent major political differences between the two levels of government. Since 1996 the federal government has been controlled by a right-wing coalition dominated by the Liberal Party, while the state and territory governments are all currently Labor. Labor’s traditional centralism has been diluted by time, while the Liberals’ support for a more decentralized form of federalism has also dissipated and many influential figures in the party appear determined to move power away from the states and toward Canberra.

The tensions this system creates are interesting to observe. The common tendency for each order or level of government to shift blame or costs to others reaches a new level in Australia, where the federal government is responsible for treatment by family doctors and the states for treatment in public hospitals. One attempt at a way out of this has been a recent report commissioned by the government of the state of Victoria, suggesting that health care be provided by a Healthcare Commission funded by both governments and with members from both governments.3 The plan has little chance of being implemented across the whole of Australia; the opposition of several states will be enough to kill it. But some states are interested, and are starting to think in terms of going it alone and starting bilateral discussions with the federal government. Whether anything comes of this has yet to be seen. What is interesting is that even Australians are willing to think about asymmetry as a way through their problems.

The problems of asymmetry

What does this tell us about the implications of asymmetry? I want to draw six lessons.

First, asymmetry is inherently perfectly workable. There are many examples of asymmetric arrangements working satisfactorily across the world. Canada itself has long had some asymmetric features – the Canada and Quebec pension plans are a notable example. Asymmetry may be somewhat ad hoc, but it offers the advantages of the ad hoc too: flexible, tailored measures that respond to political or other needs in an appropriate and proportionate manner. In his book Plurinational Democracy: Stateless Nations in a Post-Sovereignty Era, Michael Keating argues that asymmetrical arrangements are ways of reconciling multinational states including “stateless nations” – such as the U.K. with Scotland, or Canada with Quebec – with liberal democracy for all their citizens.4 Certainly asymmetry is commonest in multinational systems and systems that are developing along federal or similar lines, where accommodating distinct national interests is part of the purpose of the federal system, but it can occur elsewhere too. Rather than identity politics, what drives asymmetry is the need to reconcile distinctive economic, social or political interests. Expressing those interests “nationally” is less important than recognizing them, and from a practical point of view it is the need to find a way to accommodate such differences that creates asymmetry.

Second, asymmetric arrangements work only if they result from broader social agreement. This agreement needs to relate more to the framework within which asymmetry operates – the basic constitutional rules – as much as to the particular bargain or set of bargains. Asymmetry obviously needs at least two parties to agree: the federal or central government and the constituent unit involved. But there are other constituent units that need to consent to it too, at least passively. If they do not see merit in special provision for those benefiting from asymmetric arrangements, they may demand an end to that special treatment. If western Canada resents special treatment of Quebec, the whole scheme may be threatened – not just asymmetry, but also relations between Quebec and the west generally, and perhaps even the governability of Canada. That is not to say that a small measure of asymmetry is the first step along a slippery slope leading to Quebec independence. However, asymmetry can create new and possibly greater tensions than existed before, and all involved need to recognize that this may happen and that they will need to respond accordingly.

Third, asymmetry can create a dynamic demanding increasing autonomy, at least for one or two units. Such units may have pioneered asymmetric relations in the first place and wish to maintain their distinctive status when others start to catch up with them. Part of what drives the Basques’ desire for greater autonomy (and debates within Catalonia too) is the belief that their hard-won status, reflecting their historic nationhood, is undermined by the growing (and increasingly uniform) powers of all of Spain’s autonomous communities. There can be a sort of competitive dynamic, with regions trying to outdo each other in gaining autonomy. Yet this is not inevitable, and may be more about symbols of status than about formal powers. And it emphasizes the need for all involved to be conscious of the process on which they have embarked.

Fourth, asymmetry can create new and deeper divisions of interests among constituent units, as smaller or weaker units feel threatened by bilateral bargains. Solidarity among states or provinces when facing the federal government is a common response in federations (and something federal governments will often spend much time seeking to undermine). But asymmetry can create such divergent interests between the units that this becomes harder to achieve. The weaker units find it more and more difficult to trust the larger units, which have succeeded in getting advantageous asymmetric deals, not to abandon them. For a long time Quebec has nursed a form of persecution complex because the English-speaking provinces have allied themselves with Quebec in negotiations with the federal government, only to break ranks when they get a reasonably good offer from the federal government while Quebec is left alone on the sidelines. What is seen as preferential treatment for Quebec may risk the obverse of this, with the Atlantic and prairie provinces deciding they cannot trust Quebec not to reach its own special deal with Ottawa. Quebec has to decide how important it is to maintain solidarity with the other provinces, not just out of a spirit of fellow-feeling but for the pragmatic 
reason that it may find them useful as allies in the future.

Fifth, asymmetric systems are much more complex than perfectly symmetric ones. That complexity presents problems for all those involved; such systems are harder to understand or make work than simpler ones. Why that is so is not hard to see. Federal and constituent-unit governments have to deal with different issues and bargaining positions, and their administrators need to be aware of variations in their functions and powers. For people in business or lobbying organizations and ordinary citizens trying to work out who is responsible for what, the situation can be confusing. This can have negative effects on the quality of public administration. More profoundly, democratic accountability can be undermined if people do not know who is responsible for particular policies.

Sixth, the consequence of that is that asymmetry will create constitutional anomalies. Different orders or levels of government will have responsibility for different matters in different places. The powers of elected representatives even in the same order of government will vary. Asymmetry substitutes reasonableness or proportionality for equality – and for that to work takes a good deal of tolerance. If it creates alienation from the political process, the risks are huge.

We can already see some of these problems starting to manifest themselves in Canada. The Quebec health deal and the fiscal imbalance have fuelled demands for special financial treatment for Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, particularly in how their resource revenues are treated for the purposes of equalization. That in turn has led to demands for special treatment from other provinces including Ontario, British Columbia and New Brunswick. One does not need a crystal ball to foresee Quebec seeking some further special advantage fairly soon, both to respond to its political needs and to underline its status. How will western Canada respond to that?

Managing such a dynamic relationship will prove difficult for the federal government as it seeks to reconcile or balance the various interests involved. It also poses problems for a federalist government in Quebec: how far can it stretch the elastic of the existing constitution without straining that constitution, and its relations with other provinces, to the breaking point? But perhaps the hardest question asymmetrical federalism poses is for the English-speaking provinces: how do they see their place in Canada, and what sort of relationship with Quebec do they wish to have? All of these questions will need to be addressed if Canada is to develop the reasonableness, proportionality and tolerance that will make asymmetrical federalism work.ν


1 The Institute of Intergovernmental Relations at Queen’s University has commissioned a particularly interesting series of papers, which can be strongly recommended. They are available on its website at

2 The devolved institutions in Northern Ireland have in any case been suspended since October 2002. See John Loughlin, “Devolution in the U.K. and Peace in Northern Ireland: How Europe Helped Make it Happen,” Inroads, Summer/Fall 2004, pp. 36–44.

3 The report, Governments Working Together: A Better Future for All Australians is available at

4 Oxford University Press, 2001; paperback edition, 2004.