[Programme] Workshop: ‘Conceptualizing Crises in Territorial Politics’

Programme of the Workshop ‘Conceptualising Crises in Territorial Politics’ (29-30 April 2021). Please note that only participants to the workshop can attend the sessions. Send any queries you may have to uacesterritorial@gmail.com

Thursday 29th April

12:00-12:15 – Welcome

12:15-13:45 – Panel 1: Managing Crisis and Intergovernmental Relations

Discussant: Paul Anderson

• ‘Crisis and the Constitution: The UK and the Covid-19 Pandemic’ (Coree Brown Swan, University of Edinburgh).
• ‘When Dual Federalism Meets External Crises: The effects of Crisis Response on Intergovernmental Cooperation in Belgium’ (Peter Bursens, Patricia Popelier and Petra Meier, University of Antwerp).
• ‘The Role of Intergovernmental Councils during the Covid-19 Pandemic in Germany and Switzerland’ (Johana Schnabel, Free University Berlin, Rahel Freiburghaus, University of Bern and Yvonne Hegele, ZHAW School of Management).

13:45-14:45 – Lunch Break

14:45-16:15 – Panel 2: Land, Spaces, Peoples and Territorial Crises

Discussant: Anwen Elias

• ‘The Nineveh Plain: a Contested Land, a Precarious Future’ (Erin Hughes, California State University Stanislaus).
• ‘The Changing Nature of Public Space in Jammu and Kashmir’ (Arshita Nandan, University of Kent).
• ‘Transhumant Mobility, Violent Criminality and Territorial Politics’ (Eyene Okpanachi, University of South Wales)

16:15 – Wrap up of Day 1

Friday 30th April

12:00-12:15 – Welcome back

12:15-14:00 – Panel 1: Multilevel governance and territorial crises

Discussant: Karlo Basta

• ‘Governing through Crises: A Case-study of New York State’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act’ (Laurie Buonanno, SUNY Buffalo State).
• ‘The Importance of Identity: Analysis Evaluations of Government Response in Covid-19 in a Multinational State’ (James Griffiths, University of Manchester, Jac Larner, Cardiff University).
• ‘Local Level in Spain and its Configuration through Constant Crises’ (Oscar Moreno Corchete, University of Salamanca).
• ‘The Crossroads of Covid-19: Entangled Narratives of Nationalism, Crisis and Populism in Flanders’ (Judith Sijstermans, University of Birmingham).

14:00-15:00 – Lunch break

15:00-16:30 – Panel 2: Secession and territorial crises

Discussant: Javier Carbonell

• ‘Advancing the National Cause? The Covid-19 Crisis and Secessionism in Catalonia and Scotland (Paul Anderson, Canterbury Christ Church University and Carles Ferreira, University of Kent).
• ‘Making a Secessionist Crisis out of Institutional Change’ (Karlo Basta, University of Edinburgh and Astrid Barrio, University of Valencia).
• ‘Justifying secession: Resolving grievances or a means to a better future?’ (Anwen Elias, Huw Lewis and Núria Franco-Guillén, Aberystwyth University).

16:30h – Wrap up of day 2 and next steps

CFP Political Organisations of Crossborder Minorities: June 15-16, 2021 Online Colloquium

Dear colleagues,

We welcome expressions of interest for participation in Online Colloquium “Political Organisations of Crossborder Minorities” organised jointly by the Institute for Minority Rights (EURAC), Centre for the Study of Ethnic Conflict (Queens University Belfast), IPSA RC14 Politics and Ethnicity , IPSA RC28 Comparative Federalism and Multilevel Governance, PSA Specialist Group Ethnopolitics and the UACES CRN Reimagining Territorial Politics in Times of Crisis, 15–16 June 2021

Political organisations of minorities play a unique role in giving ‘voice’ to electorates that oftentimes are deemed marginal in national politics. Our colloquium invites analysis of parties which build upon their relationships with ethnoregional, ethnocultural and/or ethnopolitical voter base in Europe’s nation-states. Existing scholarship is divided on the terminology calling such political organisations, ethnic, minority, regional, ethnoregional, as well as ethnoregionalist parties; and explores a wide variety of organisations serving a territorially distinct segment of the national electorate when operating in regions of states where borders have historically moved around people. A subsegment of such parties, however, is acknowledged to avail of unique mobilisation resource for their voters: they appeal to their constituency’s (real or perceived) kinship with the majority in a neighbouring state to mobilise at the electoral day.

We invite contributions focussing on political organisations that make use of and mobilise their ‘kinship appeal’ to leverage power at the centre of the national state, as well as in the regions where their constituencies are based. There are three potential avenues to explore the dynamics of  ‘kinship appeal’ in parties relationships with 1/ their voters, i.e. ethnic segment of the electorate, 2/ their competitors, i.e. other (domestic) parties, and 3/ state institutions, i.e. domestic and kin-state institutions.

Possible topics include but are not limited to:

·         Do voters encourage or tolerate parties engagement with cross-border, ‘kinship’ issues?, In which ways does the appeal to ‘kinship’ impact the relationships between voters and their elected representative from the parties?

·         How do minority parties engage programmatic issues in their interactions with other political organisations? Is ‘kinship appeal’ a strategic resource for opposition to or participation in government? How do minority parties balance and how they intertwine ethnocultural and other initiatives when engaging in legislative activity in domestic institutions?

·         Do parties engage with and advocate institutional reforms in their states and regions, while challenging the existing modes of political representation by aligning with an external kin-state? How do minority, ethnic, regional/ist parties address the challenge of dominant nation-state model as the foundations for participation in politics even if they mobilise their electoral segment around the ‘kinship appeal’?

·         Does ‘kinship appeal’ play a role in democratic reform of institutions, or is it an instrument allowing kin-states to ‘blackmail’ states of residence?

We invite proposals for individual paper contributions and/or panels that engage empirically, conceptually and normatively with these issues. We aim to feature the best of contemporary research on political representation of minorities and their contribution to democratic governance, including new research by established academics as well as by early career scholars.

Please submit your expression of interest here. Proposals for papers should include contact details of the author(s), title and an abstract of no more than 200 words. We are also open to panel proposals. Deadline for expressions of interest is May 16, though we will appreciate early expressions of interest. Given the short timeline, we anticipate that not all participants will be able to submit full papers for the conference and welcome contributions that set agenda for research and /or offer reflection on research contributions that can inform the debate on the role of ‘kinship appeal’.

The event is part funded by the grant CUP D54I18000060003 (Südtiroler Landtag, Nr. 693 17.07.2018) of the Autonomous Province of Bolzano/Bozen on the project ‘Minority Participation and Representation in National Societies‘.

UACES-JMCT ‘Territorial Politics’ Workshop Call for Proposals

Image source: European Union

The UACES-JMCT Research Network ‘Territorial Politics in Times of Crisis’ invites submissions for its first workshop under the theme ‘Conceptualizing Crises in Territorial Politics’, to be held online on April 29 and 30th, 2021. 

This will be the first in a series of workshops exploring the many pathways through which territorial politics is constructed and contested by a broad array of social actors (political parties and governments at various levels, civil society organizations, international actors, organized business and labour interests, and citizens). We are particularly interested in the way in which various overlapping crises intersect and influence territorial politics in states with multi-level institutional arrangements (including, but not confined, to federal systems).  

The goal of our initial workshop is to explore the ways in which crises of territorial orders (that is, the institutional organization of territorial diversity, ranging from federations to federacies, devolved states to regionalized unitary states) can be conceptualized. We are thus seeking proposals that shed light on various ways in which we may think about the way different social, environmental, and political crises shape and are shaped by territorial politics in multinational states. The crises we have in mind include, but need not be confined to: 

  • Economic crises (both cumulative issues of geographic inequality and sudden economic shocks like the 2008 and 2020 financial and fiscal crises) 
  • Health crises (most obviously the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic) 
  • Crises of democratic legitimacy (both internal and external, notably as seen in the rise of far-right populism) 
  • Climate crisis 
  • Human migration crises 

All these challenges are of relevance to multi-level territorial orders. They raise questions about the intergovernmental coordination of responses to them; the political responsibility for failures and successes in managing them; the appropriate locus of decision-making authority; the associated issues of identity and sovereignty (especially in multinational states); the ways in which that identity is expressed through territorial institutions; and not least, the correspondence between the way in which territorial politics is experienced and ‘seen’ by political and social elites and the citizenry.  

At this stage, we seek contributions that address one or more of the following issues, though contributions broadly relevant to the theme of crises in territorial orders are also welcome:  

  • How can we best define territorial crises, or crises of territorial orders? This relates especially to our ability to distinguish them conceptually from other crises (fiscal crisis of the state, economic crises, climate crisis, etc.). Do territorial crises have a recognizable temporal texture? In other words, do they have a recognizable pattern and sequence through time or is each territorial crisis unique?  
  • How do multiple crises interact? Do different strands of crises (e.g. health/political) compound the pressures on territorial orders or do they counteract each other?   
  • How might the pre-existing crises of territorial orders interact with newly emerging challenges (e.g. Covid-19)? 
  • How is the idea of the crisis used/mobilized by political actors to achieve their goals? What is the political role of the crisis vocabulary in effecting political change or defending the political status quo?  


We invite abstracts for short position papers (maximum 3 pages) that begin to explore some of the aspects outlined above; we aim to hold a further workshop in July 2021 where participants will be invited to present full papers building on the ideas presented and feedback received at this first workshop. We are thus interested in proposals focusing on new research and work in progress, from scholars at all career stages (and particularly doctoral and early career researchers).

Abstracts should be approximately 300 words, and submitted to uacesterritorial@gmail.com by 12 February 2021.  For further information about the research network, please see: https://uacesterrpol.wordpress.com or contact Paul Anderson: paul.anderson@canterbury.ac.uk

Covid-19 and emergency grant: a Brazil’s populist policy?

Virus Money Coronavirus - Free photo on Pixabay

Carolina Gabas Stuchi is professor of Public Policy at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC) in Sâo Paulo, Brazil.

Vanessa Elias de Oliveira is professor and head of the Graduate Program in Public Policy at the UFABC.

Gilberto M. A. Rodrigues is professor and head of the Gradua Program in International Relations at the UFABC.

President Bolsonaro’s anti-science discourse and his position against the World Health Organization (WHO) have contributed to high levels of infected people and deaths by COVID-19, making Brazil the second country in the world’s ranking of the pandemic. The president acts against the federation pushing states and municipalities to fight for constitutional autonomy to manage the pandemic. Besides, the president has centralized the federal emergency grant approved to help poor people, avoiding existent intergovernmental mechanisms with subnational governments and turning this policy in a populist and electionist tool.

Despite having faced a set of defeats in the Supreme Federal Court regarding misconducting the pandemic, President Jair Bolsonaro still stands against the rule of law, ignoring wearing mask in public events and using public resources to buy medicines which are not certified by the WHO to combat COVID-19, promoting their widespread use by the population. By the end of September 2020, more than 4.5 million people were infected and more than 140 thousand have died with COVID-19, a catastrophe that could be mitigated or even avoided if the president would have taken responsibility to protect the population and cooperated with states and municipalities in dealing with the pandemic.

This critical situation is aggravated by the growing of poverty in the country since 2016, according to the Brazilian Geography and Statistical Institute (IBGE). In 2017 there were 54,8 million people in poverty and 15,2 million in extreme poverty. Besides, more than one third of the population faced food insecurity during the years 2017-18, the highest level registered by the IBGE since 2004, when the index was created.

Poverty and food insecurity as well as unemployment due to the pandemic have led public opinion to pressure the federal government for an emergency grant. Congress then approved a 600 reais (US$ 110) emergency grant, an amount three times higher than Bolsonaro proposed, to be paid for 6 months. However, the government decided to implement that emergency grant  without accessing the social assistance policy (SUAS), an intergovernmental mechanism in operation, which efficiency has been proved by the Family Grant Program (Bolsa Familia) in more than 15 years. The SUAS benefits vulnerable people and is funded mainly by federal resources but coordinated and executed at state and municipal levels. As part of this policy, there are 8419 centers for social assistance (CRAS) in all 5.570 municipalities, in which the family grant beneficiaries are registered and receive support and social services.  

Brazil’s social protection system is enormous and complex, with 4,6 millions of beneficiaries of a specific grant for elders over 65 and disabled persons and 14,3 millions of beneficiaries of the family grant program. As a result, 60 millions of people benefit from social assistance services. There were a huge, long term investment and strong political will to build that national capacity of policy implementation. However, the president is not committed to that and is constantly delaying financial transfers to subnational governments and excluding beneficiaries through new registration processes. Participatory committees with states and municipal representatives that played an essential role in the implementation and monitoring of that policy were weakened if not dismantled. By deciding to disregard the existing intergovernmental system, the federal government concentrated the distribution of the emergency grant in a public bank (Caixa Econômica Federal) that has units in almost all cities and included the federal postal service in the new strategy. The intergovernmental strategy was substituted by a centralized one, concentrated in the federal government bureaucracy.

The emergency grant is contradictory to Bolsonaro’s ultra-liberal Ministry of Economy, which target to implement deep state reforms and abolish socio-economic benefits such as the Bolsa Familia, a symbol of Lula da Silva (2003-2010) and Dilma Rousseff’s (2011-2016) governments, recognized as a best practice by many of the United Nations System organizations. Without having an alternative to implement the emergency grant approved by the Congress, Bolsonaro did it in a highly centralized, non-cooperative way, increasing his popularity as long as the benefit reached 120 million people, according to a federal government source. This growing popularity happened in a moment that the president has been accused of abusing his power, obstructing federal investigations and producing secret reports against political and civil society opponents, all together with great potential to generate an impeachment process against the president. The emergency grant timely emerged as a political lifebuoy for Bolsonaro.

Violating the principle of cooperative federalism, an axis of the federal system entrenched in the constitution of 1988, Bolsonaro maneuvers to make the emergency grant a permanent one, based on a discretionary policy to the detriment of other benefits that are much more related to rights and citizenship. Without accessing intergovernmental relations mechanisms to implement this new emergency grant, the federal government weakens local governmental capacities and erodes social protection based on states and municipalities.

Thus, it seems that president Bolsonaro has used the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity as a new populist instrument, destroying a consolidated and well-organized policy of socioeconomic citizenship, based on cooperative federalism with states and municipalities working together with the federal government for taking a great part of the population from the poverty level. Now, the populist president is gaining political bonus from dismantling precious socioeconomic public and avoiding cooperative mechanisms. This deliberated strategy has produced misinformation about the new benefit exposing the population to large queues to receive it while excluding millions of beneficiaries due to federal mismanagement. At the same time, the consolidated and efficient social protection policy is gradually dismantled. Bolsonaro wins, the federation and the vulnerable people lose.

Pandemic as a Trigger for a Restart of Federalism in Russia?

By File:Map of Russian districts, 2016-07-28.svg: InsiderOwn work – File:Map of Russian districts, 2016-07-28.svg, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74124222

Elena A. Kremyanskaya, Public Law Chair Head, Associate Professor, Chair of Constitutional Law (MGIMO-University)


The history of Russia as a formal federation goes back to the year of 1918 when the Declaration of the Rights of the Working and Exploited People proclaimed that Russia is the federation of the Soviet national republics.

Most of the time Russia has been developing as a highly centralized federation with some features of asymmetry. It is fair to mention that from the year 1994 to 2000 the centralization trend changed to decentralization following the Russian President’s announcement to the governors of subnational units to “swallow as much sovereignty as they could”.

Later, after the “parade of sovereignties, when subnational units have started to proclaim unconstitutional powers, the federal government has changed its approach and have started building “vertical of power”, strengthening the legal and political forms of federal control over the subnational governments. In the same direction, the situation was developing until the beginning of the COVID-19 crises, when it hit Russia after most of the European countries.

The pandemic of COVID-19 in Russia

Russia met the pandemic 2-3 weeks after European countries. In March the Russian President made a speech and declared non-working days in Russia under the policy of self-isolation. Both regimes were new and were not regulated by the Russian legislation before.

People were prescribed to comply with self-isolation mode. It is a new concept. From first glance, it is should be done voluntarily, however, the legislation was rather quickly amended, and serious administrative penalties were subsequently introduced.

General legal regulation of such crisis cases is done per Article 56 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, where a state of emergency on the whole territory of Russia and in its subnational units may be introduced by the President in certain cases. A State of Emergency permits for partial limitation of rights, for example, the right for free movement. At the same time these limitations of the constitutional rights are possible but in the strictly limited number of cases and only per federal laws. Subnational units are not empowered by the Constitution to make such decisions directly and perform subsequent actions.

A Restart of Federalism?

Following the actions of the Russian government which did not announce a State of Emergency but introduced a new form as “High alert mode”, the Russian President signed the Decree “On determining the procedure for extending the measures to ensure the sanitary-epidemiological well-being of the population”. By this Presidential decree the governors of the subnational units were empowered by additional powers:

  • to determine whether it is necessary to introduce additional measures to prevent the dissemination of coronavirus and if these measures are necessary – introduce them.
  • to suspend the activity of entities, including commercial ones
  • to establish limitations of the right of free movement of people and prevent vehicles from movement.

The President of Russia has delegated wide rights to the governors, which they did not have before. But do the governors have constitutional permission to limit the constitutional rights of people? This is quite a discussible issue, provided that per art.56 of the Constitution limitation is permitted only by federal laws but not by decrees of the President or acts of Government.

The President left for the governors to decide how to deal with the coronavirus, at the same time in one of his speeches he proclaimed that all the responsibility for their actions would stay with them as well. After this delegation many respectable representatives of legal doctrine in Russia have started to express cautious optimism that this process of delegation shows signs of reincarnation of decentralized federalism. It looked like governors were getting back their powers and that federalism was starting to become more decentralized, albeit in its mild form.

At the same time with giving additional powers to the governors, the federal government had introduced new criteria for the assessment of their activity, for example, level of effectivity on COVID-19 prevention, level of medical support to the population, etc. Thus the provision of additional powers was balanced by the new forms of control and assessment of regional leaders by the federal government.

At a first glance, practically this delegation looks reasonable, since on regional level the governors have more day-to-day understanding of the level of threat and it might be easier to handle these activities. What is an area for concern is that the current situation is showing us that governors may act in a very different way and sometimes the measures introduced, including total control over the movement of people, is going far further limits, which provide them federal and regional legislation.

Reflecting on such transformation we should also take into consideration that after getting such huge powers the governors did not get any substantial political and financial support. It looked like the federal government was just watching how effective subnational units can be in carrying such a heavy burden. Only a few cases had forced the federal government to intervene when the situation with victims of COVID-19 had risen enormously. Among these cases is the case in the Republic of Dagestan – one of the Russian subnational units.

In Moscow, which is also one of the sub-national units in Russia, at the beginning of March the Mayor introduced a high alert regime. Most of the shops (except those selling food), cafes, restaurants, fitness clubs, were closed.

At first, it was quite mild, but starting from March 30, a regime of home self-isolation was introduced for all residents of Moscow, regardless of age. People were permitted to leave the house only for emergency medical assistance, for compulsory trips to work, going to the nearest store or pharmacy, walking pets just 100 meters around the apartment, and taking out the garbage. Similar measures were taken in the suburbs. Huge fines were introduced for violation of the “self-isolation”. Another subnational unit. Krasnodar Region introduced police block stations and prevented movement of people and transportation from one region to another. 

Governors of many subnational units introduced new forms of control over the citizens by requiring an application for official permissions to move from one part of the region to another, limiting the number of days when people can move and seriously penalizing them for any violation.

The federal government was trying to interfere from time to time, for instance, in the application by the Prime Minister to the Ministry of Justice with the request to give a legal assessment of the limitation measures, which were taken by the Mayor of Moscow. Finally, the Ministry of Justice expressed their opinion that that the measures introduced on the territory of the Russian Federation (including decrees of the Moscow Mayor and regulatory legal acts of the Moscow Government) were adopted within the competence of the relevant authorities, and meet the constitutional goals of protecting the life and health of citizens, commensurate with the threat of the spread of the epidemic in the territory of the Russian Federation.  No further analysis was provided to the public, however.


More than 75 subnational units in Russia announced quarantine measures in different legal forms. At the end of June 2020, most of them are suspended since the number of COVID-19 cases has fallen, but the practice is already tested, thus nothing prevents them to proceed with this practice in case of a negative scenario if COVID-19 cases will grow in a near future. The European experience is confirming this potential possibility.

Did the COVID-19 crisis become the test of the new Russian decentralized federation? As we think – no, external signs of decentralization are not confirmed by its internal sense. These thoughts are followed by the new amendments to the Russian Constitution, adopted in the year 2020 – Russia still is standing on the way of development of the significantly controlled centralized federation in order to keep stability as it is explained by the government.

New book! “Territorial politics and the Party System in Spain […]”, by C. Gray

Territorial Politics and the Party System in Spain: Continuity and Change since the Financial Crisis” (Routledge, 2020), by Caroline Gray

Caroline Gray is Lecturer in Politics and Spanish, Aston University

The 2008 financial crisis brought political upheaval as well as economic havoc. Many of the political manifestations of the crisis seen in other Western and especially Southern European countries also hit Spain, where the rise of challenger parties on the back of dissatisfaction with austerity and corruption led to unprecedented parliamentary fragmentation from 2015. Yet, Spain also showed important differences compared to the period of post-2008 party restructuring elsewhere. In a 2018 study, Hutter, Kriesi and Vidal highlighted that the level of political contestation related to regionalism differentiated Spain from other Southern European countries during that time. This raises core questions about why this was the case, and what the wider consequences were for Spanish politics. 

Answering those is the purpose of my new book. In it, I seek to explain how and why the territorial dimension of politics contributed to shaping party system continuity and change in Spain in the decade following the 2008 financial crisis, with a particular focus on party behaviour. The territorial dimension encompasses the demands for varying degrees of sovereignty coming from certain parties within the historic regions of the Basque Country, Catalonia and, to a lesser extent, Galicia. It also encompasses where these historic regions sit within the broader dynamics of intergovernmental relations across decentralised Spain’s 17 autonomous communities in total, and how these dynamics in their entirety contribute to shaping state-wide party strategies and behaviour in Spain.  

The territorial dimension, which has long been a defining component of political cleavages and the party system in Spain, became particularly salient in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis since that coincided with the rise of the Catalan independence movement. One of the book’s chapters therefore analyses exactly what role the financial crisis played in the dynamics of the Catalan independence movement. I argue that while the economic and the political consequences of the 2008 financial crisis were not the primary cause of the independence movement, they did significantly influence the timing and shape of it. This contrasts with the political dynamics in the Basque Country, the subject of another chapter. There, the aftermath of the financial crisis put the brakes – at least temporarily – on the Basque Nationalist Party’s quest for some form of co-sovereignty with Spain.  

More broadly, however, the aim of the book overall is to assess the consequences of such core regional dynamics for party behaviour at national level. Thus, it assesses the extent to which the territorial dimension influenced the evolution of old and new party agendas and alliances on the left and right, focusing particularly on the period of parliamentary fragmentation from 2015 up to and including both 2019 general elections. Through an examination of party behaviour, the book suggests that the territorial dimension of politics has had significant implications for the behaviour of both left- and right-wing state-wide parties, but that overall it proved more decisive for the behaviour of the right.  

Fierce opposition to the Catalan independence movement became the most significant factor for the strategy and behaviour of right-wing challengers Ciudadanos and Vox, whose emergence was facilitated in part by defections from the furthest right of the conservative PP due to its handling of the Catalan crisis. On the left, however, I argue that the initial differences between the socialist PSOE and challenger Podemos over how to deal with Catalonia ultimately proved secondary to their focus on broader strategic considerations regarding the pros and cons of competing or collaborating with each other at different times. The broader ideological moderation that Podemos underwent in several areas ended up affecting its behaviour in the territorial policy area as well, where it ceased to present its initial calls for a referendum for Catalonia as a non-negotiable requirement. In policy terms, the PSOE and Podemos prioritised competition or compatibility on economic and social policy issues, rather than territorial ones. Yet, differences over the Catalan question still significantly affected both left-wing parties’ scope to form alliances with other parties and stable governments, and thus their ability to govern in practice.  

While focused on the Spanish case, the book situates Spain firmly in its European context, assessing Spanish similarities and differences with broader trends in the evolution of party systems both pre- and post-2008. With all eyes now on COVID-19, the 2008 financial crisis looks like a dry run for an even bigger economic calamity. The situation is also renewing debate over where exactly power should lie in decentralised or federal states to deal with such crises. By examining the post-2008 period up to and including 2019, this book provides the background and context to understand what stage Spain had reached in terms of its political and party system restructuring when the pandemic hit, and where the territorial dimension fits within that.  

Political and Fiscal Centring: India’s Territorial Response to Covid

Map of India. Source: talk, Ravikiran Rao, Nichalp (Wikimedia Commons)

Wilfried Swenden is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Edinburgh

Six year into the Modi-led administration, most political observers and scholars agree that the foundations of Indian federalism have been seriously weakened. Despite promises of a more competitive-cooperative federalism, the centralization of the Indian state has been linked to the Prime Minister’s deep association with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (Hindu volunteers organization), the mothership of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which propagates a centrist Hindu nationalist ideology. Commentators also pointed at Modi’s centralized leadership style and the return of a dominant party system after more than two decades of coalition or minority government, weakening the most important political check on centralization.  

The way in which India handled the COVID crisis so far, largely appears to have intensified these centralizing tendencies. Although this was expected, it was by no means unavoidable. After all, India’s constitution assigns health policy and public order (policing) exclusively to the states. Therefore, the states (with variable success) also initially took the lead in fighting the pandemic, before the federal government entered the fray. In general, the states of Kerala and Odisha set examples of best state practice. When confronted with India’s first COVID case in late January 2020, Kerala was quick to implement a test, trace, isolate and support mechanism. It combined aggressive testing with contact tracing (the state employed around 300 manual contact tracers early on, who relied on GPS data and CCTV footage to track the movements of those who had tested COVID positive, map their contacts and arrange their quarantine for 28 days). The ‘leadership role ’ of Kerala does not surprise: the state had built up a universal and decentralized health care system with well-resourced health centres in nearly every village. Furthermore, it learned lessons from the spread of the Nipah virus in 2018, which forced it to set up– in consultation with the local governments, contact tracing (including a government-supported app) and GPS tracking maps. In comparison, Odisha’s leadership role is more surprising as it lacks the universal health care infrastructure of Kerala. However the state has had stable political leadership for a long time and learned vital lessons from its experience with disaster management following the passing of a super cyclone in 1999. It mobilised primary school teachers and social health activists to assist in contact tracing and offered cash incentives to ensure medical care and the quarantining of migrant workers returning to the state, whilst persecuting those who violated these rules.  

As cases started spreading across the country, the need for a national response intensified. The constitution jointly entrusts the centre and the states with the responsibility to address the spread of infectious or contagious diseases from one state to the next. Both the Epidemic Diseases Act (1897) and the Disaster Management Act (2005) enabled the centre to take up its role, alongside the states and districts. These acts empower the centre to monitor the spread of an epidemic at ports of entry and exit, while enabling the states to halt public gatherings, close schools, colleges and universities and forces companies to switch to home working. In principle, the centre could have consulted the states on broad policy initiatives in relation to inter-state issues whilst leaving state and local authorities in charge of public health interventions and the implementation of the lockdown. Instead, several states (non-BJP states more openly) criticised the lack of consultation despite several video conferences involving the Prime Minister and Chief Ministers between mid-March and the end of May. They also lamented the urge of the union government to impose a single approach including to health interventions and the lockdown. Press reports suggest that Kerala’s Chief Minister boycotted the third video conference altogether in which only eight Chief Ministers were invited to speak (four BJP Chief Ministers and three Chief Ministers from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance). Only one non-NDA (Congress) Chief Minister, heading the union territory of Puducherry, was allowed to speak.  

This limited and primarily unidirectional flow of communication and command is in line with the general assumption that under Indian federalism, channels of intergovernmental coordination are not strongly developed, and those that exist usually operate under a ‘shadow of hierarchy’, especially when the centre is controlled by a single (and in this case also highly centrist) party. The centre is largely responsible for setting the agenda and free to determine the protocols or memorandums which may arise from such meetings. More robust intergovernmental bodies, such as the Inter-State Council remain largely unused (it only convened once since 2014). Evidently, the urgency of the matter, but equally, Modi’s centrist leadership style and majority, and his reputation as ‘a leader whom Indian citizens trust the most in its hour of need’ exacerbated centralised decision-making of which the imposition of a national lockdown with just four hours of advance warning, and without prior state consultation offers the strongest illustration. This especially jeopardized the personal health and wellbeing of the tens of millions of internal labour migrants, many of whom desperately sought to return to their state of origin, not knowing how long the lockdown would last and how they would pay for their bills.  

Moreover, some states accused the centre of ‘micromanagement’,  for instance when issuing ‘advisories’ to the states not to order personal protective equipment and ventilators but work through the union health ministry instead (in practice though, states have continued to order testing kit and PPE themselves, but requested further assistance from the centre to meet local demand). Furthermore, opposition-ruled states have condemned the centre for seeking to take credit for relief efforts by requesting relief donations to be gifted to a new PM CARES (Prime Minister Citizen’s Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations) fund instead of a Chief Minister’s fund or the more a-political Prime Minister’s Relief Fund that is used more customarily in the case of disasters. They also lamented the suspension of the MPLAD (Local Area Development Scheme), limiting the ability of MPs, irrespective of party political affiliation, to use these funds to address the pandemic within their constituencies and district. A lack of collaboration may also cause friction in exiting the lockdown, when intensive test-and tracing will be required, but equally localized lockdowns will still be in place while other areas will slowly resume a degree of normalcy, thus necessitating a territorially differentiated approach.  

Perhaps the greatest challenge will emerge in the aftermath of the pandemic. To what extent will the centre be willing to cede responsibility in health areas it has claimed under the Disaster Management Act when this is no longer in place? Will the centre assist the states in their economic recovery? Non BJP-ruled state governments have criticized the centre for not having received the full arrears of their GST (Goods and Services Tax) share yet (especially when future GST returns are likely to decrease further in the context of a shrinking economy). They also hold the centre accountable for additional revenue losses due to a centrally imposed ban on the sales of alcohol and tobacco (both sales taxes) during the pandemic. Although several Indian states have announced their own economic stimulus packages, they are limited in the size of the budget deficits they are allowed to accumulate. Furthermore the centre’s stimulus package (marketed at ’10 percent of India’s GDP’), allows states to borrow an extra 2 percent of their GDP on the market, above the 3 percent which they are normally allowed. However, only the first 0.5 percent of these borrowings are unconditional, with the remainder subject to conditions (such as the rolling out of a ‘One nation, one ration card’, state improvements in the ’ease of doing business’, power sector reforms and urban and local reforms). Some of these conditions not only pertain to matters of exclusive state competence, but, as Govinda Rao puts it; this is also the first time the centre has attached conditions to state market borrowing, potentially setting an important precedent. Overall then, there is little evidence to suggest that India is veering away from centralization during this pandemic, even though the management thereof in this exceptionally vast and diverse country very much requires a partially joined-up or collaborative and territorially differentiated approach.

Quebec, Canada and the Covid-19 Crisis: Making Federalism Work Again?

Province of Quebec in Canada. Source: Qyd (Wikimedia Commons).

Félix Mathieu is a PhD candidate in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal. 

Dave Guénette is a PhD candidate in law at the Université Laval (Quebec) and Université Catholique de Louvain (Belgium).

By definition, times of crisis are exceptional. Hence, they require exceptional responses by public authorities. And during such emergencies, it is now quite usual to witness the centralization of powers in federal systems. This echoes what K.C. Wheare had in mind when he wrote, in Federal Government, that “while it is the essence of federalism to be pluralistic, it is the essence of the war power to be unitary, to be centralized […]” (p. 187, Fourth Edition). Nevertheless, this is not what happened in Canada while engaging in this (kind of) war against COVID-19. In fact, the past few months have shown that non-centralization may be an effective way to cope with the crisis. 

Coping With the Crisis While Sharing Jurisdiction 

By the beginning of the pandemic, the honeymoon Justin Trudeau had experienced since the 2015 general election was long-gone. On October 21st, 2019, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have secured just enough votes during the federal general elections to form a new government, yet not enough to gain a parliamentary majority. And even Justin Trudeau’s own supporters were beginning to question the authenticity of his worldviews: although it seems like a decade ago, the year 2020 was first characterized, in Canada, by what was coined the “blockades crisis”. Indigenous communities were fighting against the construction of a pipeline (while Trudeau’s government is still investing a lot of money in this industry) that could amount to disastrous environmental consequences.  

However, instead of nourishing the dividing lines, the COVID-19 crisis appeared to bridge ideological gaps and even restored vivid collaboration schemes between orders of government. The possibility of using the Emergencies Act – which would have produced a highly centralized governing system in the federation – was soon discarded by political leaders. As Robert Schertzer and Mireille Paquet pointed out, “governments in Canada have been doing a remarkably good job at working together to protect the safety and lives of Canadians.” 

Of course, the federal government played an important role: it has closed the frontiers and put in motion several financial programs to help businesses, workers, individuals, students. But when we look closely at the situation, it appears that in Canada, the impacts of COVID-19 are felt very differently from one province to another. For example, New Brunswick – with a population of approximately 780,000 – only has 135 confirmed cases of COVID-19, none of which resulted in death (as of June 4th). This makes it, ceteris paribus, the least affected Canadian province. In contrast, its immediate neighbour, Quebec, with a population of 8.5 million, is the province most affected by the pandemic. With a total of 51,884 confirmed cases and 4,794 deaths (also as of June 4th), La Belle Province accounts for more than half of the confirmed cases and deaths related to COVID-19 in Canada, even though it represents only 22.5% of the population. 

While COVID-19 is affecting asymmetrically the Canadian population, the response by public authorities is also asymmetrical – while, in concreto, being still pretty similar. That is because the provinces, not the federal government, are playing the most important part in the governance network that is being deployed to deal with the pandemic. Indeed, Canadian federalism is based on the institutional logic that the provinces are responsible for implementing the vast majority of the health and epidemiological measures required to combat COVID-19.  

A Quebec Point of View 

The current government in Quebec, led by Premier François Legault, declared a state of health emergency on March 13, 2020, in its Order-in-Council No. 177-2020. Among other things, this Order-in-Council allowed the Quebec government: 

  • to order the closing of educational institutions or any other place of assembly; 
  • to order the suspension of services (with certain exceptions) in daycare centers and family daycare services; 
  • to order the prohibition of indoor gatherings of more than 250 people; 
  • to allow the Minister of Health and Social Services to make the expenditures she deems necessary and to enter into the contracts necessary to protect the health of the population. 

Since then, the state of health emergency, which is only valid for 10 days, has been systematically renewed. In the process, the initial measures put forward have been considerably tightened from the very beginning of the crisis. In fact, on March 15, 2020, the Quebec government announced that all institutions that receive public for cultural, educational, sports, leisure or entertainment purposes must suspend their activities. The same goes for restaurants, bars and other non-essential businesses, which have also had to gradually reduce or cease their activities entirely.  

Exactly one week after the initial declaration of the state of health emergency, on March 20th, the provincial government banned – with few exceptions – all indoor and outdoor gatherings, under penalty of receiving a $1,546 fine. Travels to several regions of Quebec were also banned – again, with some exceptions. Most work-related and professional activities had to be rearranged via teleworking. In Premier Legault’s words, it was time to “put Quebec on hold” for a few weeks in order to ensure an effective fight against the pandemic. At the height of the crisis, only essential services remained functional in Quebec.  

Since then, health measures were gradually relaxed and Quebec, like other provinces and most states around the world, entered a phase of deconfinement. For example, travel that had been banned to certain regions was allowed again, schools were partially reopened (outside the Greater Montreal, the epicentre of the pandemic in Quebec), and, subject to certain restrictions, outdoor gatherings of ten people or less were allowed. 

Responsive Population 

There has been little debate in Quebec and Canada, either in the public sphere or in the legal arena, about the adoption of measures to address the pandemic. Rather, there appears to have been a genuine social consensus in Canada in favour of the containment and temporary closure of several sectors of the economy. While it is true that a few politicians, columnists and citizens have expressed their dissatisfaction with certain measures, this remained very marginal. Indeed, public opinion polls tend to show strong support for both the federal and provincial governments, precisely at the time when the containment measures were the most severe. And according to the Google Community Reports (28 March 2020), Quebeckers actually respected containment measures much more than in other provinces and states in North America. 

The Elderly and Military 

But all is not rosy. The pandemic has stroked the elderly as hard as it gets. In Quebec, a significant proportion of the elderly lives in Residential and Long-term Care Centres (CHSLD). Between 18 and 35% of CHSLD residents in Quebec have been infected with COVID-19, while more than 2 200 have died from it. The Quebec government has thus announced the hiring of more than 10 000 people to help with the situation, but this is insufficient in the short term, as the emergency is happening right now.  

To deal with the situation, the federal government was asked and accepted to send military personnel (1 000 people) to help the staff. François Legault asked for this help to be sustained until mid-September, but Justin Trudeau’s government soon announced that the aid was highly temporary, and that Quebec needed to find a Plan B. 

Let us conclude by pointing out that, even though intergovernmental relations revealed quite positive and collaborative during the pandemic, the federal government’s refusal to leave the military personnel in the CHSLD up to mid-September, is representative of a long-lasting paternalist attitude in provincial-federal dynamics. Just as the British Empire used to treat its Dominions, the federal government often shows, by its actions, that it views provinces as the bearer of junior governments and Ottawa as the senior partner setting the rules. This was also the case when the Canadian Prime Minister mentioned the possibility – while quickly changing its mind afterwards – to include Residential and Long-term Care Centres into the Canada Health Act, as if the solution had to include more centralization in order to be effective. 

Since Canada is not involved in any significant international war zone at the present time, there seems to be absolutely no reasonable explanation to refuse the continued help of the military – whose personnel is doing a necessary and widely recognized work – in Quebec’s CHSLD, while the province’s government is actively working on a long-term solution to the problem. After all, Quebeckers like all Canadians pay their fair share for the Canadian Army.  

Coping with Covid-19: an encomium to Australian Federalism

A coloured map of Australia (with boundaries). Each state is respectively coloured. Source: Syed (Wikipedia)

Alan Fenna is professor at the John Curtin Institute of Public Policy (Curtin University).

There are three questions that an analysis of federalism in the time of pandemic might want to answer: what effect did divided jurisdiction have on the handling of the crisis; what effect, vice versa, did the crisis have on the system of divided jurisdiction; and, in both of those regards, did the system operate in predictable or ‘normal’ ways?   

Federalism might have hindered an effective response to the crisis by creating obstacles to action or leading to discoordination.  On the other hand, it might have encouraged a proportional and appropriate response by opening the way to regionally calibrated measures and by mustering the greater wisdom of a more collective decision-making process.  Meanwhile, the crisis might have elicited either or both a heavy-handed unilateralism from the central government in the immediate term, or yet another ratcheting up of the secular process of centralisation that has been broadly experienced by the established federations, particularly Australia, over the longer term (Dardanelli et al. 2019; Fenna 2019a). 

There are good reasons to think that the response might have exposed yet again some of the oft-noted inefficiencies of federal governance in Australia — after all, this crisis came immediately on the heels of a catastrophic bushfire season, where the federal system did not cover itself in glory. A recent effort to re-think roles and responsibilities reflected a general concern that the system had become dysfunctional (PMC 2015). In turn, the abrupt termination of that investigation by the Commonwealth itself reflected some of the dysfunctionality. 

In terms of pandemic threats in particular, some had earlier warned of the danger of relying on Australia’s ‘patchwork of legislative measures’, which would prove ‘cumbersome and difficult’ in an emergency such as this (Howse 2004). Others were more sanguine (e.g. Bennett, Carney, and Bailey 2012). 

In Australia, however, this crisis seems to have exposed neither the risks of, nor the risks for, federalism. The system has been lauded for its operation in the crisis and for the cooperative manner in which that has occurred (e.g., Williams 2020).  The COVID-19 response showcased both the continuing importance of the States and the potential for genuinely collaborative intergovernmentalism in Australia. Frictions there have been; however, as we shall see, these reflect the unavoidable tension between the necessity and the cost of prophylactic measures and do not seem to have had adverse consequences. 

Emergency management in the federation 

The Commonwealth’s constitutional authority in the area of pandemic response is based in its assignment of responsibility for quarantine (s. 51ix).  Using section 51.ix and sundry other provisions, the Commonwealth’s recently overhauled statutory framework for dealing with disease threats to plants, animals and humans, the Biosecurity Act 2015, asserts substantial control powers. They would seem to exceed by a substantial degree any equivalent powers of the federal government in the United States and, indeed, those of the federal government in Germany

It is the States, though, that operate the public hospitals, the government school systems, and the police and emergency services agencies.  They also have primary jurisdiction over public health, as well as criminal and civil law; they license and regulate the operation of all the thousands of businesses, facilities and services that are potential sites of contagion; and they provide thousands more public amenities of their own that likewise present risks. The States each have their respective public health Acts and emergency management Acts and have always shouldered the main responsibility for emergency management. 

In the wash-up of the bushfires disaster, the prime minister flagged his desire to expand the Commonwealth’s disaster management powers (Benson and Chambers 2020). We might have expected this to influence the COVID-19 response. Although the Commonwealth took important initiatives early in this crisis, these were in areas of its own responsibility — such as its prompt action to close borders to foreigners who had been in China and the development of the very successful COVIDSafe tracking app. Rather than the Commonwealth exerting its authority further, though, the two levels of government quickly moved to engage in collaborative decision making and the States took initiatives on their own.  If there were issues in the early days it was at border points where occasional coordination problems emerged between the Australian Border Force and State government control over harbours. 

A spirit of cooperation 

Like most other federations, Australia has an extensive array of arrangements through which intergovernmental relations in the form of ‘executive federalism’ is practised. The most important of these since 1992 has been the first ministers’ meeting, or ‘COAG’, the Council of Australia Governments.  However, COAG does not really ‘exist’, it merely occurs, and, even then, only at the whim of the prime minister, often very infrequently and for only a brief moment. It is a ‘summit meeting’ of Australia’s heads of government (Anderson 2008; Phillimore and Fenna 2017).   

COAG’s latest meeting, on 13 March 2020, announced the signing of the National Partnership Agreement on COVID-19 between the Commonwealth and the States and Territories. It was immediately followed by the prime minister’s announcement that a new intergovernmental forum would swing into operation, the ‘National Cabinet’. It is this innovation — superseding COAG — that has attracted particular attention as embodying the new spirit of collaborative federalism in Australia. While consensual policymaking is mandated by the German system of interlocking federalism, it is by no means assured in the Australian system. 

NatCab: what’s in a name?  

The National Cabinet is not a cabinet in any proper sense of the term. Most importantly, as with other intergovernmental meetings in Australia and other federations, decisions are not binding.  It is executive federalism at work. However, it is more than just COAG re-badged: National Cabinet meetings have been held weekly and are apparently characterised by genuine discussion and consensus decision making.  Reflecting its raison d’être, the National Cabinet’s main supporting body has been the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, comprising Commonwealth and State medical officers.  

Because the National Cabinet is such an unusual case of collaborative leadership and joint decision-making, it has been hailed as unprecedented and a step forward in Australian federalism. Some premiers even called for it to continue after the crisis, and on 29 May, the prime minister announced that it would supersede COAG permanently. Its focus would shift from combating the pandemic to restarting the economy. 

This take on the National Cabinet must be regarded, however, misleading and naïve. It is misleading, first, because in its heyday COAG was also highly collaborative. In the mid-1990s, the Commonwealth sought broad and dramatic micro-economic reform in areas of State responsibility and had to work with the States to achieve that (Painter 1998; Fenna 2019b). And it is misleading because the name-change does nothing to address one of COAG’s major problems, its complete lack of institutionalisation (PMC 2015).  

It is naïve because the idea that somehow there is a ‘new normal’ defies logic and experience.  Extraordinary circumstances bring forth extraordinary action.  Once the crisis has passed and only the yawning budget deficits remain, the bonhomie will be soon exhausted. The post-COVID National Cabinet may have ‘an initial single agenda — to create jobs’ (Prime Minister 2020), but that is a very different kind of challenge from stopping the spread of disease.  It is one that opens up the familiar range of ideological and party-political as well as intergovernmental differences native to normal politics.  

National Cabinet is testimony to how uncharacteristic and how successful this paroxysm of collaboration has been but it is very hard to see that it is more than a cosmetic change to Australian federalism. 

Refracted dilemmas 

As always, frictions get plenty of attention.  In this case, the friction has been between the Commonwealth’s desire to minimise the economic disruption and the States’ insistence on containing the disease. This is to be expected, and reflects the fundamental challenge of a crisis like this.  

The Commonwealth bears the primary financial and economic cost of the crisis.  Fiscally, it has threatened to be a disaster for the Commonwealth.  The current government built its economic strategy around restoring the public finances — public finances that are still recovering from Australia’s aggressive response to the last crisis, the global financial crisis, a decade ago.  To shore up the economy in this crisis the Commonwealth committed a vast sum to its ‘JobKeeper’ and ‘JobSeeker’ programs.  The longer the economy was to be kept in hibernation, the more those would cost.  In addition, the Commonwealth carries primary macro-economic responsibility and will be judged by voters on its performance in restoring business activity and jobs. 

The States, meanwhile, are at the frontline of the pandemic and containment must be their dominant concern. A public health emergency was first declared by the State of Queensland (29 January).  In the National Cabinet, it was the States who pushed for stronger measures to contain the spread of the virus — and indeed the two big jurisdictions pre-empted National Cabinet decisions with their own ‘lockdown’ announcements in mid-March. Four States also closed their borders to inter-State travel. Then, once it became apparent that the measures were succeeding, the Commonwealth made clear its desire to see the lockdown measures relaxed and normality return, but again the States were cautious. The resumption of face-to-face classroom teaching in Australia’s schools was a particularly contentious point. While National Cabinet agreed to a ‘three-step framework’ for winding back the restrictions, announced on 8 May, implementation has occurred to the extent that each State has judged it appropriate to their specific circumstances. 

The friction is thus unsurprising and can be seen in other federations — though, interestingly enough, not in Germany

The Biosecurity Act equips the Commonwealth with potentially enormous powers to shut things down, but that has not been much use in this crisis since the States have been more than willing to take those actions themselves.  What the Commonwealth lacks is the power to force the States to open things back up. The Commonwealth exercised a modicum of brute power to get its way: using its dominant fiscal position to bribe Australia’s extensive array of private schools into reopening.  This represented considerable restraint because the private schools are de facto within Commonwealth jurisdiction. While the Commonwealth has not hesitated in the past to use its spending power to coerce the States in regards to schooling more generally, such heavy-handedness has not occurred in this crisis. 

In sum 

Australia’s federal system has proven adept at handling this crisis and, in turn, if anything to have been enhanced by the crisis. It does seem that the balance between the Commonwealth’s interest in minimising fiscal and economic damage and the States’ interest in minimising infection has ensured a good compromise.  The National Cabinet has proven to be such an impressive exercise in collaborative intergovernmentalism because the Commonwealth has little choice but to rely in the main on the States for management of the crisis. Frictions have occurred, but there is little indication that they have been an impediment.  In many ways, they are a healthy sign that the States retain some ability to act in defiance of the Commonwealth — a crucial trait of a federal system.   

By contrast with other federations such as Germany, things have not simply been ‘business as usual’ for Australian federalism in this crisis. There is little doubt, though, that as conditions return to normal, Australian federalism will revert to type.


Anderson, Geoff. 2008. “The Council of Australian Governments: a new institution of governance for Australia’s conditional federalism.” University of New South Wales Law Journal 31 (2): 493–508. 

Bennett, Belinda, Terry Carney, and Richard Bailey. 2012. “Emergency Powers & Pandemics: federalism and the management of public health emergencies in Australia.” University of Tasmania Law Review 31 (1): 37–57. 

Benson, Simon, and Geoff Chambers. 2020. “PM’s bid to boost disaster powers.” The Australian, 29 January, 2020, 1. 

Dardanelli, Paolo, John Kincaid, Alan Fenna, André Kaiser, André Lecours, and Ajay Kumar Singh. 2019. “Dynamic De/Centralization in Federations: comparative conclusions.” Publius 49 (1): 194–219. https://doi.org/10.1093/publius/pjy037. 

Fenna, Alan. 2019a. “The Centralization of Australian Federalism 1901–2010: measurement and interpretation.” Publius 49 (1): 30–56. https://doi.org/10.1093/publius/pjy042. 

—. 2019b. “National Competition Policy: effective stewardship of markets.” In Successful Public Policy: lessons from Australia and New Zealand, edited by Joannah Luetjens, Paul ’t Hart and Michael Mintrom, 191–206. Canberra: ANU Press. 

Howse, Genevieve. 2004. “Managing Emerging Infectious Diseases: is a federal system an impediment to effective laws?” Australia and New Zealand Health Policy 1 (1). 

Painter, Martin. 1998. Collaborative Federalism: economic reform in Australia in the 1990s. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. 

Phillimore, John, and Alan Fenna. 2017. “Intergovernmental Councils and Centralization in Australian Federalism.” Regional and Federal Studies 27 (5): 597–621. https://doi.org/10.1080/13597566.2017.1389723. 

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Covid-19 and Federal Dynamics in Germany: Business as Usual

Map of Germany.

Johanna Schnabel is Lecturer of Comparative Politics at the University of Kent and Research Fellow at the University of Lausanne.

Yvonne Hegele is Senior Researcher at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences, School of Management and Law.


On 2 March 2020, the first COVID-19 cases were reported in Germany, in Thuringia and Saxony. By 10 March, COVID-19 had reached all 16 Länder. The disease has thus affected the entire country – though Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, and North Rhine-Westphalia more so than other areas. Overall, Germany has been able to keep infection and death rates relatively low. Despite initial concerns, German hospitals have never been overwhelmed.  

The response to the coronavirus outbreak was swift. By 16 March, schools and kindergartens were closed in most Länder, as were the borders with the neighbouring countries. The country has been subject to social distancing measures and curfews. Restaurants, non-essential shops, and cultural facilities were closed. These measures were renewed on 1 April for a further three weeks, after which restrictions were eased. 

In line with a tradition of coordination and a strong focus on harmonization, a central characteristic of German federalism, the federal government and the Länder closely coordinated their responses to COVID-19. Management of the COVID-19 crisis has been consistent with Germany’s cooperative approach to federalism. Rather than changing federal dynamics, it confirms the coordinated approach to policymaking that leaves scope for diversity only at the margins. Overall, the same, or at least very similar, measures have been introduced throughout the federation, though their timing has varied in some instances, especially when it came to easing the restrictions.  

Germanys cooperative federalism 

In Germany’s cooperative system, the federal government and the constituent units, or Länder, closely coordinate policymaking. This coordination occurs vertically, between the federal government and the Länder as a group, and horizontally, between the Länder. Vertical coordination is necessary given the functional distribution of powers, whereby the federal government passes legislation that the Länder implement. Moreover, vertical coordination is needed because the second chamber of parliament, the Bundesrat, consists of the Länder governments and gives them co-decision rights in federal legislation. In those instances that federal legislation directly affects the Länder, for example because they must implement it, they enjoy a power of veto.  

To make federal legislation work, close coordination between the two levels of government is very common and induced by the federal architecture. Regarding horizontal relations, there is also a strong tradition of coordination between the Länder themselves. For this purpose, the Länder have established intergovernmental councils (Ministerkonferenzen) in 18 different policy areas. These councils aim at harmonizing legislation (in areas where the Länder have exclusive jurisdiction, e.g., in education and domestic affairs) or implementation (in areas where the Länder implement federal law). This tradition of coordination, driven by a strong will to achieve harmonization and the constitutional principle of “equality of living conditions”, has proven resilient during crises. The current COVID-19 epidemic is no exception. 

Powers and responsibilities for infectious disease control  

Even though infectious disease control relates to the powers of the Länder regarding emergency management (Gefahrenabwehr), “measures to combat human and animal diseases which pose a danger to the public or are communicable” are concurrent powers (Article 74 of the constitution). The German constitution allows the federal government to pass legislation regulating the response to an epidemic or pandemic, which it has done by adopting the Protection against Infection Act (Infektionsschutzgesetz, IfSG) in 2001. In line with the functional distribution of powers, the IfSG authorizes the Länder to take a range of measures to prevent and control infectious diseases through executive orders or administrative regulations. It is important to note that while the IfSG enables the Länder to enact measures, the ultimate decision is at the discretion of the individual Länder. The latter also decide on their strictness and scope. The IfSG introduces the possibility for the federal government to coordinate the measures enacted by the Länder and to formulate recommendations. Because it enables the Länder to pass measures while allowing the federal government to issue recommendations to the Länder, the IfSG strongly induces coordination but provides scope for Länder actions.  

Coordination of infectious disease control in Germany  

Given the strong emphasis on coordination and cooperation in German federalism and the IfSG, it is not surprising that the federal government and the Länder closely coordinated their responses to the current COVID-19 pandemic.  

During the first few weeks of the pandemic, where government action aimed at containing the spread of the virus, ‘lockdown’ measures were enacted. Early on, some Länder — especially those with higher numbers of infections or at the borders to regions and countries with high infection rates — enacted measures such as school closures without prior consultation with the other Länder or the federal government. However, in line with the IfSG, the federal government soon started to make recommendations and to coordinate the responses to the COVID-19 outbreak. The chancellor and the premiers met on a weekly basis to coordinate the introduction of measures such as social distancing; a ban on mass gatherings; and the closure of bars, restaurants, shops, and theatres.  

In contrast to Australia, where a new intergovernmental forum called the National Cabinet was created, Germany’s federal government relied on the existing coordinative mechanisms. The aim of the weekly meetings of the chancellor and the premiers was to ensure a uniform approach. The decisions reached at the meetings were implemented by the Länder through executive orders and administrative regulations that the local authorities executed. Consequently, the Länder governments could calibrate the strictness of the different measures to their exposure to the virus or political preferences. Yet, they tended to follow the federal recommendations or agreements reached at the meetings with the federal chancellor rather closely. Divergence only occurred with regard to details — for example the number of people from another household one would be allowed to meet or the actual date of closures. 

In the second phase, once Germany reached the — apparent — peak of infections and deaths in mid-April, coordination continued as the chancellor and the premiers maintained their regular meetings. However, many Länder pushed ahead and eased restrictions before an agreement with the federal government was reached. The IfSG provides them with the scope to do so. The federal government was more reluctant to relax the restrictions – even though it would have to bear the economic and fiscal costs of a prolonged lockdown (see Australia here). Yet, with the Länder having created a fait accompli, it was agreed by the chancellor and the premiers that, for the majority of measures, every Land could decide on its own whether, when, and how to ease restrictions. Yet, a failsafe mechanism applying to all the Länder would be activated if infection rates were to rise above a certain threshold in a given district. The federal government and the Länder also agreed that social distancing continue and the ban on mass gatherings remain across the country.  

Besides the regular meetings of the chancellor and the premiers, intergovernmental councils, such as the conference of ministers of education (Kultusministerkonferenz, KMK) followed up on joint decisions and prepared guidelines and recommendations. The Länder coordinated both the implementation of restrictions and their decisions to ease them via horizontal councils. Consequently, there was variation in the responses to COVID-19 only with regard to details, such as when and how to open restaurants or schools, even in the second phase of the epidemic.  

In summary, there is little sign of a change in powers and responsibilities between the federal government and the Länder during or due to the COVID-19 crisis. On the contrary, established powers and responsibilities are largely intact and untouched. The strong emphasis on coordination and cooperation in intergovernmental relations has also persisted. Intergovernmental meetings even increased in number and led to, even for German standards, remarkably detailed and comprehensive resolutions. With regard to federal dynamics, the German way of managing the COVID-19 pandemic is hence closer to continuity than change. It has been driven by a strong will to achieve unity when needed but allowed for diversity at the margins — which means that, at least in this regard and in contrast to Australia, policymaking has been «business as usual.»

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