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A confederation, in modern political terms, is a permanent union of sovereign states for common action in relation to other states.[1] Usually created by treaty but often later adopting a common constitution, confederations tend to be established for dealing with critical issues such as defense, foreign affairs, or a common currency, with the central government being required to provide support for all members.

The nature of the relationship among the states constituting a confederation varies considerably. Likewise, the relationship between the member states and the central government, and the distribution of powers among them, is highly variable. Some looser confederations are similar to international organizations, while tighter confederations may resemble federations.

In a non-political context, confederation is used to describe a type of organization which consolidates authority from other semi-autonomous bodies. Examples include sports confederations or confederations of Pan-European trades unions.

The word "confederation" refers to the process of (or the event of) confederating; i.e., establishing a confederation (or by extension a federation). In Canada, Confederation generally refers to the Constitution Act, 1867 which initially united three colonies of British North America (Province of Canada, Province of New Brunswick and Province of Nova Scotia), and to the subsequent incorporation of other colonies and territories; Canada, however, is a federation, not a confederation.




Switzerland, officially known as the Swiss Confederation, is the most notable modern example of a confederation[citation needed]. It has been a confederacy since its inception, in 1291, and so remains to the present day. The Old Swiss Confederacy was originally created as an alliance among the valley communities of the central Alps. The Confederacy facilitated management of common interests (free trade) and ensured peace on the important mountain trade. It should be noted, however, that Switzerland is a confederation only in name, as its political system has all the characteristics of a federation[citation needed].

Iroquois Confederacy

The Iroquois Confederacy (also known as the "League of Peace and Power", the "Five Nations"; the "Six Nations"; or the "People of the Longhouse") is a group of First Nations/Native Americans that consist 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.[2] Each tribe sends chiefs to act as representatives and make decisions for the whole nation.

European Union

Some might argue that the EU is confederation – but this assertion turns out to be a simplistic approach, since it does not hold against critical appraisal. Indeed, contrary to the very definition of "confederation", the EU has very limited powers regarding external relations and defence. As far as money is concerned, only sixteen out of the twenty-seven Member States share a common currency, thus falling short of being a characteristic feature of the whole.

As a consequence, it is much more appropriate to conclude, as some academic observers do, that it has elements of a federation.[3] [4]

Europe has charted its own brand of constitutional federalism.
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, for the purposes of the analysis here, 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 (See for instance, Bednar, Filippov et al., McKay, Kelemen, Defigueido and Weingast).
— (R. Daniel Kelemen, Rutgers University)


Many authors are now speaking of Belgium as a country with some aspects of a Confederation. C.E. Lagasse wrote it about the agreements between Belgian Regions and Communities : We are near the political system of a Confederation [5]. Vincent de Coorebyter, Director of the CRISP [6] wrote in Le Soir Belgian is undoubtedly a federation... [but] has some aspects of a confederation[7] Michel Quévit, Professor at the Université Catholique de Louvain wrote also in Le Soir The Belgian political system is already in dynamics of a Confederation [8]. The same author wrote already about this issue in 1984 with other Professors [9]

Confederation vs federation

By definition, the difference between a confederation and a federation is that the membership of the member states in a confederation is voluntary, while the membership in a federation is not.[citation needed] A confederation is most likely to feature these differences over a federation:

  • (1) No real direct powers: many confederal decisions are externalised by member-state legislation.
  • (2) Decisions on day-to-day-matters are not taken by simple majority but by special majorities or even by consensus or unanimity (veto for every member).
  • (3) Changes of the constitution, usually a treaty, require unanimity.[citation needed]

Historic confederations

meet in Frankfurt in 1863.]]

Note that historical confederations, especially those predating the 20th century, may not fit the current definition of a confederation, may be proclaimed as a federation but be confederal (or the reverse), and may not show any qualities that are today recognized as those of a federation.

Some have more the characteristics of a personal union, but they are listed here because of their own self-styling.

Fictional confederations

See also


  1. ^ Oxford English Dictionary
  2. ^ Jennings, p.94
  3. ^ Josselin, Jean Michel; Marciano, Alain (2006), The political economy of European federalism, Series : Public Economics and Social Choice, Centre for Research in Economics and Management, University of Rennes 1, University of Caen, p. 12, WP 2006-07; UMR CNRS 6211,, "A complete shift from a confederation to a federation would have required to straightforwardly replace the principalship 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." 
  4. ^ How the court made a federation of the EU [1].Josselin (U de Rennes-1/CREM) and Marciano (U de Reims CA/CNRS).
  5. ^ French Le confédéralisme n'est pas loin Charles-Etienne Lagasse, Les nouvelles institutions politiques de la Belgique et de l'Europe, Erasme, Namur 2003, p. 405 ISBN 2-87127-783-4
  6. ^ Belgian research center whose activities are devoted to the study of decision-making in Belgium and in Europe
  7. ^ French La Belgique est (...) incontestablement, une fédération : il n’y a aucun doute (...) Cela étant, la fédération belge possède d’ores et déjà des traits confédéraux qui en font un pays atypique, et qui encouragent apparemment certains responsables à réfléchir à des accommodements supplémentaires dans un cadre qui resterait, vaille que vaille, national Vincent de Coorebyter "La Belgique (con)fédérale" in Le Soir 24 june 2008
  8. ^ French Le système institutionnel belge est déjà inscrit dans une dynamique de type confédéral Michel Quévit Le confédéralisme est une chance pour les Wallons et les Bruxellois, Le Soir, 19 september 2008
  9. ^ Robert Deschamps, Michel Quévit, Robert Tollet, Vers une réforme de type confédéral de l'État belge dans le cadre du maintien de l'union monétaire, in Wallonie 84, n°2, pp. 95-111.

Sources and external links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



Alternative forms



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confederation (plural confederations)

  1. A union or alliance of states or political organizations.
  2. The act of forming an alliance.


Derived terms


Simple English

A confederation is a group of countries that, by treaty, have given some of their powers to a central government. They do this in order to coordinate their actions in a number of areas. This is like a federation, but without the association being a new country.

A confederation is not the same as a federation, but they have a similarity. A confederation is a group of countries, a federation is a country.

The only example today, is the European Union. Switzerland has the latin name Confœderatio Helvetica, although it is not a confederation in this sense, but a federation.

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