Changing Federal Constitutions – Lessons from International Comparison

"Dr. Anglica Schwall-Düren, Minister for Federal Affairs, Europe and the Media and Plenipotentiary of the Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia, opens the conference”

The Forum of Federations in cooperation with Prof. Arthur Benz of the Institute of Political Science, Technical University Darmstadt and the Bundesrat, Germany’s Federal Council, organized a two-day international conference in Berlin on February 24-25, 2011. This event, held at the Bundesrat, brought together one-hundred experts and practitioners from ten different countries. The aim of the conference was to discuss constitutional reforms in federal and devolving countries from a comparative perspective in order to identify structures, processes and strategies which have proven to be indispensable for successful constitutional amendment.

Participants addressed the external and internal pressures influencing these countries over the last decades; the globalisation of markets, the pluralisation or fragmentation of national societies, new demands on the state due to technological and social change (despite declining or stagnating resources), the struggle for power of state and sub state actors. These influences have caused, inter alia, requests and pressure to reorganise territorial constitutions. Under these conditions, federal countries and multi-national states have re-adjusted their multi-level structure through constitutional reforms, unitary states have decentralised, and mono-national federations have struggled to cope with the increasing complexity of intergovernmental politics.

Focusing on the modalities and procedures of various successful and failed constitutional reforms, participants tried to also identify practical suggestions as to how future reforms should be designed. The conference was structured along five topics:
1. Constitutional negotiations in co-operative federalism
2. Constitutional negotiations in federal systems with divided societies
3. Decentralization and regionalization in unitary states
4. Processes of ratification
5. Evolution after constitutional reform.
Case studies examined not only federations (Austria, Belgium, Canada, Germany and Spain) but also countries that are not fully federal but have started the processes of federalization, devolution or regionalisation (Italy, France and the United Kingdom). Prof. John Kincaid from Lafayette College (USA) provided an overview presentation on,"The Relevance of Constitutional Reforms in Federal Systems”. Presentations were also provided by Gerard Wettstein (Federal Department of Finance, Bern), Peter Bussjäger (Institut of Federalism, Innsbruck), Bernd Küster (Federal Ministry of the Interior, Berlin), Dave Sinardet (Universiy of Antwerpe), Nadia Verrelli (Queens University Kingston, Canada), César Colino/José Olmeda (National Long-Distance University, Madrid), James Mitchell (University of Strathclyde, Glasgow), Franco Bassanini (ASTRID, Rome), Patrick Le Lidec (CNRS Paris), Carlos Closa (Instituto de Politicas y Bienes Publicos, Madrid), Dieter Freiburghaus (IDHEAP, Lausanne), Arthur Benz (Technical University Darmstadt), Christoph Konrath (Congressional Research Service, Vienna), Marc-Antoine Adam/Martin Founier (Secrétariat aux affaires intergouvernementales, Québec) and Wolfgang Renzsch (University of Magdeburg).
The conference concluded with a panel discussion, moderated by Forum-director Felix Knuepling, of practitioners who have been actively involved in recent federal or constitutional reform processes (Prof. Michael Huber, Federal Constitutional Court; Georg Milbradt, former Minister-President of Saxony; Volker Kröning, former Senator of Bremen; Arnold Koller, former President of Switzerland, and Peter Bussjäger, Institute of Federalism, Austria). For the complete agenda see here.

While participants emphasised that each constitutional reform has to be understood in its particular context, certain patterns, caused by particular conditions, could be identified that are necessary to bring a federal/constitutional reform to a success: The pressure to reform a federal needs to be high enough and there needs to be political will and a wide consensus for reform, both among political parties as well as between federal governments and constituent unit governments. In some cases, incremental reforms are easier to implement than "total revisions” of constitutions. Overall, there seemed to be a consensus among participants that since federalism is not a static concept, but a dynamic and ongoing process, its reform is more or less always on the agenda.

This conference is part of the Forum’s continuing comparative work on constitutional change ("Constitutional Origins, Structure and Change in Federal Countries”, „Managing Constitutional Reform"). A conference publication will be brought out by Barbara Budrich publishers.

First row from right to left: Prof. Arthur Benz, Technical University of Darmstadt; Dr. Anglica Schwall-Düren, Minister for Federal Affairs, Europe and the Media and Plenipotentiary of the Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia; Prof. John Kincaid, Lafayette College, USA; Prof. Carlos Closa, Madrid
First row from right to left: Prof. Arthur Benz, Technical University of Darmstadt; Dr. Anglica Schwall-Düren, Minister for Federal Affairs, Europe and the Media and Plenipotentiary of the Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia; Prof. John Kincaid, Lafayette College, USA; Prof. Carlos Closa, Madrid



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