Guest lecture by Dr. Wolfgang Muno on the Role of Center-Periphery in Political Science

by: Daniela Martínez Garza

As part of the activities of the Haniel Spring School 2013, the students had the opportunity to attend a lecture on May 15th by Dr. Wolfgang Muno on the role of Center-Periphery in political sciences.  The purpose of this lecture was to prepare and provide the students with a solid conceptual basis on the topic of federalism.

Dr. Muno introduced the lecture exploring the concept of nation-state, which is the dominant form of political organization today and which is the fundament for both unitary and federal states. Furthermore, we were introduced to the definition of federalism and its alternatives: unitary systems and confederate systems. Nevertheless, considering the complexity of states nowadays, it makes more sense to study their political organization within a spectrum from unitary to federal states. For the purpose of our seminar, Russia was located in the middle of this spectrum and Germany tended to be the more federalized state.

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Some interesting facts correspond to the trends in federations. For instance, the most populous and largest countries, as well as the largest democracies, tend to be federations; however, some small countries are in this list. The lecture provided as well a comprehensive analysis of the historical waves of federalism and how federations are constituted. In this sense, states like Germany are constituted by the so called Länder, while Russia is a more diverse federation, constituted by regions, republics, autonomous areas, territories and cities of federal significance, making a total of 86 units.

When speaking about federal states, we identified two kinds: centralized or decentralized. Dr. Muno emphasized the importance of distributing authority between central governments and subdivisions, in order to construct a true federal state. On the other side, some states show asymmetries, not only between center and subdivisions, but also between subdivisions, as it is in the case of Russia.

After the revision of theory, Prof. Muno proceeded to analyze the specific cases of Great Britain, Switzerland, Spain, the United States and Germany. In Great Britain, for instance the case of Scotland is of high relevance, given the upcoming holding of a referendum on Scottish independence on September 18th, 2014. This event has been influenced by several factors, such as a strong sense of national identity and the increasing presence of the Scottish National Party, who in 2011 accomplished an absolute majority in Scottish elections.

In the cases of Belgium and Switzerland, these countries have very similar cultural and social characteristics. They are both federations divided between major language and cultural groups; nevertheless, federalism is received in a different way. While in Belgium there is a continuing antagonism between the regions of Flanders and Wallonie, in Switzerland, the country has successfully achieved a political compromise between the protagonists of a central state and the opposition who does not wish for a central state at all. Nowadays, federalism has given autonomy to the cantons, while protecting minorities and their diversity. Furthermore, there is a bottom-up approach, which has given birth to a semi-direct democracy. This principle, defined as subsidiary, provides cantons with the right to have their own parliaments, governments and courts.

Towards the end of the lecture Dr. Muno reviewed in a comparative analysis the advantages and disadvantages of federal systems. This comparison conducted later on to a dynamic discussion between the participants. Among the most important points discussed were if federalism may make decision-making processes rather slow and less effective? On the other side, are strong leaders better than strong institutions to actually permit a coherent and effective government?

At the end of the lecture, the Willy Brandt School Staff and the participants congratulated Dr. Muno for his valuable contribution to the School as an interim professor between 2011 and 2013, and wished him success in his future endeavors, followed by a farewell celebration.

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