Presentation of the New IACL Research Group "New Frontiers of Federalism"


Erika Arban & Antonia Baraggia

Melbourne Law School & University of Milan

The new IACL Research Group

The newly formed IACL research group on “New Frontiers of Federalism” aims at exploring a number of emerging issues in classic federal theory and practice. Traditionally, federal arrangements have been adopted to deal with the complexity of divided societies, and thus to accommodate various forms of diversity (ethnic, religious, linguistic, etc.) existing within a constitutional legal order. If we look at the origins of the federal idea, we can see that, as Elazar once suggested, the federal principle has to do with the ‘need of people and polities to unite for common purposes yet remain separate to preserve their respective integrities’. Federalism has also been conceived as an effective instrument of “vertical separation” of powers, counterbalancing the centralizing power of federal institutions in order to better protect individual rights from the power of the state. Furthermore, the potential of federalism – conceived not as a static concept but as a process – has been explored also within the EU legal systems, despite the still debated and uncertain nature of the EU.

In addition to being an extraordinary tool for dealing with diversity in a given society, the federal principle is also considered one of the most promising constitutional mechanisms for helping deal with the challenges posed by the process of globalization and increasing inequality in comparative perspective. For this reason, this new IACL group intends to create a research community focused on the new challenges and potentials of federalism in dealing with the most pressing issues of our contemporary time. More specifically, the objective is to develop three initial distinct lines of research. The first limb of investigation would be the study not only of the most traditional levels of government, but also of the role of local government and cities as new key players in the management of public services and in the protection of rights. By doing this, the group will fill a gap in legal/constitutional literature which, until now, has often overlooked the role of the cities. Today, cities are key players in current globalization processes, and often they are at the forefront of rights protection, experimenting with new ways of governance, as the rise of “smart cities” clearly shows. A.J. Scott has coined the expression “global city-region” referring to huge urban extensions, either developed around a big metropolis or as juxtaposition of several metropolitan areas.  It may seem counterintuitive, but these metropolitan areas, rather than dissolve in light of the globalizing process, have acquired a pivotal role in the economic and social life of our contemporary societies. The research group will thus look at metropolitan cities as unique socio-economic and political spaces in our contemporary times, as strategic places for building new modes of governance, better capable of balancing the economic and social dimensions of society and fight economic inequalities. Cities are also actors of constitutional relevance: especially the phenomenon of so called “big-cities” is worth studying in a constitutional and comparative perspective within federal theory.

A second line of investigation aims at theorizing – from a constitutional law standpoint – socio-economic asymmetries to identify ways in which federalism-based mechanisms can provide answers to the socio-economic pressures that have emerged particularly in the Global South, as regions characterized by some form of economic asymmetry may also mobilize and seek forms of accommodation of their specificity. This specific strand of research will explore how federal constitutions can balance their unifying role while fostering economic diversity, and whether federalism could be regarded as a proper institutional and constitutional mechanism to foster reconciliation between unity (or social cohesion) and economic diversity in territories marked by a sharp divide between richer, wealthier and more developed regions, and territories that are poorer and less advanced. Economic asymmetries (whether based on natural resources or on successful industrial patterns) are linked to political issues, since these societies, groups or regions may have clear potential for self-government based on features such as strong governance, strong economy and strong social solidarity. However, claims for more autonomy raised by economically successful or resource rich regions are often associated with self-interest or egotistical desires that collide with the sense of national solidarity that should inform the relationships between the state and the various territorial components (vertical solidarity) as well as among the territorial components themselves (horizontal solidarity). This creates room to explore more thoroughly how federalism can help.

Finally, a third stream of research will focus on the role of federalism broadly understood as a tool to deal with the new challenges posed by the economic crisis, large-scale human migration and the globalization to our constitutional systems, not only looking at traditional federal systems but also at the particular experience of the European Union as a composite constitutional space. The theory of federalism is key in order to explore the future of our constitutional democracies which are experiencing an unprecedented set of challenges and tensions: from the economic and monetary crises to the refugee emergency, and then to democratic, and rule of law, backsliding in several countries around the world.  Looking at the EU experience, it is quite clear that all of the crises show a latent tension in the relationship between the EU and the member states: on one hand, Member States are inextricably tied to the EU in view of their interdependence, and they are bound to respect the core values and fundamental principles of the organization in order to guarantee the effective functioning of the Union’s legal and political order; on the other hand, they are still attached to the principles of national sovereignty and of national identity and strive to maintain some sensitive areas free from EU influence or determination. It is a tension quite common in federal states - that, in the case of the EU however, acquires unprecedented dimensions. What we witness indeed is the rise of “federal questions” within the EU, accompanied by the lack of constitutional instruments, including means of enforcement, to address them. The research group aims to address these new “frontiers” of the federal theory and to discuss their potential in dealing with the multiple crises of our contemporary democracies.

Planned activities for the research group

As part of the group’s activities, the idea is to plan one large event (in the form of a conference/workshop) every two years, open to members of the research group but also to the wider community and eventually leading to a publication. In alternate years, smaller workshops reserved only for group members and/or invited speakers may also be organized. In this sense, the first initiative of the research group will be a joint-workshop that will take place on two different dates and in two different places: on 19 February 2020 at Melbourne Law School and in late June 2020 at the University of Milan. The workshop in Melbourne will focus on the second limb of investigation identified above, more precisely on federalism and economic inequalities, whereas the event in Milan will be devoted to the “federal tensions” experienced by the EU legal order, especially with regard to the multiple challenges posed by the economic crisis, large-scale human migration and the rule of law crisis. Further details on these events will be provided in due course.

Names of members of the research group

The group will gather both senior and junior members, coming from different regions of the world (Europe, the U.S., Latin America, Asia and Africa) in order to ensure diversity and foster dialogue among different constitutional experiences. The following are the names of academics who have expressed an interest in being a member of the group:

Professor Nick ARONEY, University of Queensland
Prof. Eva Maria BELSER, University of Fribourg
Dr. Matteo BONELLI, University of Milan
Professor Jaap DE VISSER, Dullah Omar Institute/University of Western Cape
A/Professor Yonatan FESSHA, Marie-Curie Fellow, EURAC Bolzano
Dr. Karl KOSSLER, EURAC Bolzano
Dr. Roberto NIEMBRO, ITAM Mexico
Professor Francesco PALERMO, EURAC Bolzano/University of Verona
Professor Johanne POIRIER, McGill University, Montreal
Dr. John STANTON, City University London
Professor Arun THIRUVENGADAM Azim Premji University, Bangalore
Professor Stephen TIERNEY, University of Edinburgh
Professor Lorenza VIOLINI, University of Milan

Convenors/Leaders for this research group:

Dr. Erika Arban is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the ARC Laureate Program in Comparative Constitutional Law at Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne. Her research interests include comparative federalism, comparative constitutional law and legal research methodology. She also lectures in Comparative Federalism at the University of Antwerp (Belgium) and is co-editor of the Blog of the International Association of Constitutional Law (IACL). Erika received her PhD at the University of Ottawa (Canada), where her doctoral thesis “Italian Regionalism and the Federal Challenge” was awarded the Governor General Gold Medal for the best thesis in the Humanities. She also holds a LLM from the University of Arizona (USA) and a Bachelor in Law from the University of Trieste (Italy).

Dr. Antonia Baraggia is Assistant Professor of Comparative Law at the University of Milan, Department of National and Supranational Public Law. She is Principal Investigator of the project CONFEDERAL on fiscal federalism and social rights, awarded by the Cariplo Fundation. She has been Visiting Fellow at Fordham University School of Law and at the Institute of Federalism (University of Fribourg). She holds a PhD in Public Law from University of Turin. She serves as one of the members of the Executive Board of the Younger Comparativists Committee (YCC), American Society of Comparative Law. Her research interests include the role of courts, economic and financial crisis, socio-economic rights and fiscal federalism considered in a comparative perspective. She authored three books and several publications in Italian and in English on the effects of the financial crisis on national constitutional systems and on the European Union, on the economic conditionality, on fundamental rights protection in comparative perspective and on the dialogue among Courts.

Suggested citation: Erika Arban & Antonia Baraggia, “Presentation of the New IACL Research Group ‘New Frontiers of Federalism’” IACL-AIDC Blog (29 July 2019)