A confederation (also known as a confederacy or league) is a union of sovereign states, united for purposes of common action often in relation to other states.[1] Usually created by a treaty, confederations of states tend to be established for dealing with critical issues, such as defense, foreign relations, internal trade or currency, with the general government being required to provide support for all its members. Confederalism represents a main form of inter-governmentalism, this being defined as ‘any form of interaction between states which takes place on the basis of sovereign independence or government.

The nature of the relationship among the member states constituting a confederation varies considerably. Likewise, the relationship between the member states and the general government, and the distribution of powers among them is highly variable. Some looser confederations are similar to international organisations. Other confederations with stricter rules may resemble federal systems.

Since the member states of a confederation retain their sovereignty, they have an implicit right of secession. Political philosopher Emmerich Vattel observed: ‘Several sovereign and independent states may unite themselves together by a perpetual confederacy without each in particular ceasing to be a perfect state. … The deliberations in common will offer no violence to the sovereignty of each member’.[2]

Under a confederal arrangement, in contrast with a federal one, the central authority is relatively weak.[3] Decisions made by the general government in a unicameral legislature, a council of the member states, require subsequent implementation by the member states to take effect. They are therefore not laws acting directly upon the individual, but instead have more the character of inter-state agreements.[4] Also, decision-making in the general government usually proceeds by consensus (unanimity) and not by majority, which makes for a slow and inefficient government. These problematic features, limiting the effectiveness of the union, mean that political pressure tends to build over time for the transition to a federal system of government, as happened in the American, Swiss, German and European cases of regional integration.



Many scholars have claimed that the Kingdom of Belgium, a country with a complicated federal structure, has adopted some characteristics of a confederation under the pressure of separatist movements, especially in Flanders. For example, C. E. Lagasse declared that Belgium was "near the political system of a Confederation" regarding the constitutional reform agreements between Belgian Regions (federated states with well-defined geographical borders: Flanders, Wallonia and Greater Brussels) and Communities (statelike authorities based on the mother tongue, not geography),[5] while the director of the Centre de recherche et d'information socio-politiques (CRISP) Vincent de Coorebyter[6] called Belgium "undoubtedly a federation...[with] some aspects of a confederation" in Le Soir.[7] Also in Le Soir, Professor Michel Quévit of the Catholic University of Leuven wrote that the "Belgian political system is already in dynamics of a Confederation".[8][9]

Nevertheless, the Belgian regions (and linguistic communities) lack the necessary autonomy to leave the Belgian state. As such, federal aspects still dominate. Also, for fiscal policy and public finances, the federal state dominates the other levels of government.

The increasingly confederal aspects of the Belgian Federal State appear to be a political reflection of the profound cultural, sociological and economic differences between Flemings (Belgians who speak Dutch or Dutch dialects) and Walloons (Belgians who speak French or French dialects).[10] As an example, in the last several decades, over 95% of Belgians have voted for political parties that represent voters from only one community, the separatist N-VA being the party with the biggest voter support among the Flemish population. Parties that strongly advocate Belgian unity and appeal to voters of both communities play usually only a marginal role in nationwide general elections.

This makes Belgium fundamentally different from federal countries like Switzerland, Canada, Germany and Australia. In those countries, national parties regularly receive over 90% of voter support. The only geographical areas comparable with Belgium within Europe are Catalonia, the Basque Country (both part of Spain), Northern Ireland and Scotland (both part of the United Kingdom) and parts of Italy, where a massive voter turnout for regional (and often separatist) political parties has become the rule in the last decades, while nationwide parties advocating national unity draw less (frequently much less) than half of the votes.


In Canada, the word confederation has an additional, unrelated meaning.[11] "Confederation" refers to the process of (or the event of) establishing or joining the Canadian federal state.[11]

In modern terminology, Canada is a federation and not a confederation.[12] However, to contemporaries of the Constitution Act, 1867, confederation did not have the same connotation of a weakly centralized federation.[13] Canadian Confederation generally refers to the Constitution Act, 1867 which formed the Dominion of Canada from three of the colonies of British North America, and to the subsequent incorporation of other colonies and territories. Therefore, on 1 July 1867, Canada became a self-governing dominion of the British Empire with a federal structure under the leadership of Sir John A. Macdonald. The provinces involved were the Province of Canada (comprising Canada West, now Ontario, formerly Upper Canada; and Canada East now Quebec, formerly Lower Canada), Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. Later participants were Manitoba, British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, Alberta and Saskatchewan (the latter two created as provinces from the Northwest Territories in 1905), and finally Newfoundland (now Newfoundland and Labrador) in 1949. Canada is an unusually decentralized federal state and not a confederate association of sovereign states[14] (the usual meaning of confederation in modern terms). A Canadian law, the Clarity Act, and a court ruling, Reference Re Secession of Quebec, set forth the conditions for negotiations to allow Canadian provinces (though not territories) to leave the Canadian federal state; however, as this would require a constitutional amendment, there is no current "constitutional" method for withdrawal.

European Union

Due to its unique nature, and the political sensitivities surrounding it, there is no common or legal classification for the European Union (EU). However, it does bear some resemblance to both a confederation[15] (or a "new" type of confederation) and a federation.[16] The EU operates common economic policies with hundreds of common laws, which enable a single economic market, open internal borders, a common currency among most member-states and allow for numerous other areas where powers have been transferred and directly applicable laws are made. However, unlike a federation, the EU does not have exclusive powers over foreign affairs, defence and taxation. Furthermore, laws sometimes must be transposed into national law by national parliaments; decisions by member states are taken by special majorities with blocking minorities accounted for; and treaty amendment requires ratification by every member state before it can come into force.

However, academic observers more usually discuss the EU in the terms of it being a federation.[17][18] As international law professor Joseph H. H. Weiler (of the Hague Academy and New York University) wrote, "Europe has charted its own brand of constitutional federalism".[19] Jean-Michel Josselin and Alain Marciano see the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg City as being a primary force behind building a federal legal order in the Union[20] with Josselin stating that a "complete shift from a confederation to a federation would have required to straight-forwardly replace the principality of the member states vis-à-vis the Union by that of the European citizens. As a consequence, both confederate and federate features coexist in the judicial landscape".[21] Rutgers political science professor R. Daniel Kelemen observed: "Those uncomfortable using the 'F' word in the EU context should feel free to refer to it as a quasi-federal or federal-like system. Nevertheless, the EU has the necessary attributes of a federal system. It is striking that while many scholars of the EU continue to resist analyzing it as a federation, most contemporary students of federalism view the EU as a federal system".[22] Thomas Risse and Tanja A. Börzel claim that the "EU only lacks two significant features of a federation. First, the Member States remain the 'masters' of the treaties, i.e., they have the exclusive power to amend or change the constitutive treaties of the EU. Second, the EU lacks a real 'tax and spend' capacity, in other words, there is no fiscal federalism."[23]

Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the chairman of the body of experts commissioned to elaborate a constitutional charter for the European Union, was confronted with strong opposition from the United Kingdom towards including the words 'federal' or 'federation' in the European Constitution, and hence replaced the word with either 'Community' or 'Union'.[24]

Indigenous confederations in North America

In the context of the history of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, a confederacy may refer to a semi-permanent political and military alliance consisting of multiple nations (or "tribes", "bands", or "villages") which maintained their separate leadership. One of the most well-known is the Iroquois, but there were many others during different eras and locations across North America; these include the Wabanaki Confederacy, Western Confederacy, Powhatan, Seven Nations of Canada, Pontiac's Confederacy, Illinois Confederation, Tecumseh's Confederacy, Great Sioux Nation, Blackfoot Confederacy, Iron Confederacy and Council of Three Fires.

The Iroquois League, historically the Iroquois Confederacy, is a group of Native Americans (in what is now the United States) and First Nations (in what is now Canada) that consists of six nations: the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, the Seneca and the Tuscarora. The Iroquois have a representative government known as the Grand Council. The Grand Council is the oldest governmental institution still maintaining its original form in North America.[25] The League has been functioning since prior to major European contact. Each tribe sends chiefs to act as representatives and make decisions for the whole nation.

Serbia and Montenegro

Serbia and Montenegro (2003–06) was a confederation[citation needed] that was formed by the two remaining republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFR Yugoslavia): Montenegro and neighboring Serbia were sole legal successors to FR Yugoslavia, which consequently ceased to exist. The country was reconstituted as a very loose political union called the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro. It was established on 4 February 2003.

As a confederation[citation needed], Serbia and Montenegro were united only in very few realms, such as defense, foreign affairs and a very weak common president of the confederation. The two constituent republics functioned separately throughout the period of its short existence, and continued to operate under separate economic policies, as well as using separate currencies (the euro was and still is the only legal tender in Montenegro, while the dinar was still the legal tender in Serbia). On 21 May 2006, the Montenegrin independence referendum was held. Final official results indicated on 31 May that 55.5% of voters voted in favor of independence. The state union effectively came to an end after Montenegro's formal declaration of independence on 3 June 2006, and Serbia's formal declaration of independence on 5 June.


Switzerland, officially known as the Swiss Confederation,[26][27][28] is an example of a modern country that traditionally refers to itself as a confederation. This is due to the fact that the official (and traditional) name of Switzerland in German (the majority language of the Swiss) is Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft (literally "Swiss Comradeship by Oath"), an expression which was translated into the Latin Confoederatio Helvetica (Helvetic Confederation).

After the Sonderbund War of 1847, when some of the Catholic cantons of Switzerland tried to set up a separate union (Sonderbund in German) against the Protestant majority, the resulting political system established by the victorious Protestant cantons acquired all the characteristics of a federation.[29] It had been a confederacy since its inception in 1291 as the Old Swiss Confederacy, originally created as an alliance among the valley communities of the central Alps, and retains nowadays the name of Confederacy for reasons of historical tradition. The confederacy facilitated management of common interests (e.g. freedom from external domination, especially by the Austrian Habsburgs, development of republican institutions in a Europe composed of monarchies, free trade, etc.) and ensured peace between the different cultural entities in the central alpine area.

Other Languages
Afrikaans: Konfederasie
Alemannisch: Staatenbund
العربية: كونفدرالية
asturianu: Confederación
azərbaycanca: Konfederasiya
беларуская: Канфедэрацыя
беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Канфэдэрацыя
български: Конфедерация
bosanski: Konfederacija
català: Confederació
čeština: Konfederace
Deutsch: Staatenbund
español: Confederación
Esperanto: Konfederacio
euskara: Konfederazio
한국어: 국가 연합
hrvatski: Konfederacija
Bahasa Indonesia: Konfederasi
עברית: קונפדרציה
қазақша: Конфедерация
Кыргызча: Конфедерация
latviešu: Konfederācija
lietuvių: Konfederacija
lumbaart: Confederazion
македонски: Конфедерација
Bahasa Melayu: Konfederasi
Nederlands: Confederatie
日本語: 国家連合
norsk nynorsk: Konføderasjon
occitan: Confederacion
ਪੰਜਾਬੀ: ਮਹਾਂਸੰਘ
polski: Konfederacja
português: Confederação
română: Confederație
русский: Конфедерация
Simple English: Confederation
slovenčina: Konfederácia
slovenščina: Konfederacija
српски / srpski: Конфедерација
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Konfederacija
svenska: Konfederation
Türkçe: Konfederasyon
Türkmençe: Konfederasiýa
українська: Конфедерація
Tiếng Việt: Bang liên
中文: 邦联制