UNITARY STATE, FEDERATION, CONFEDERATION AND UNION
A Personal Experience
By Adrian Wijemanne
1. The first glimpse of such an alarming title may arouse the direst apprehensions in the approaching reader that a load of constitutional jargon is about to descend upon him or her. Have no fear, however, for this is a purely personal account of my life under these different forms of state. Learned treatises can be written, and have been written, on each one of them but I have no intention of inflicting such punishment on the reader. This will be just a light-hearted excursion though I do have a didactic purpose which I have reserved to the very end.
2. The title mentions four types of states but in fact the first and last have sub-species with which too I am acquainted at first hand – so there are six in all, of which I have personal experience. This is possible only for a very old man, which is what I am, for I am approaching 77 years of age. Living in six different types of state has really been a lot of fun and has had an educational effect. Now to get down to business.
3. The first 23 years of my life were lived in the colonial unitary state under imperial rule. I cannot recall any sense of oppression during that time though towards the end of that period I did desire independence in the sure and certain conviction that life would be better if we were independent.
4. Next came 25 years in the independent unitary state and a mounting sense of disillusion as to the poor quality of governance and the rising tide of physical violence in affairs of state. The new independent state attempted to function like the former colonial state by exercising state power by military means. No one, myself included, seemed to understand that the new state needed to be founded upon the freely given consent of the governed rather than on coercion.
5. During this period came an eye-opening experience of a short stay in another kind of state, a federation (the USA) in which there was an high level of participation by the public in governance at all levels – local, state and national. The state government, elected by the voters of the state, could not be overthrown by the Federal Central Government and ran its full term until the next election. Not only did state and federal government each have its different sphere of activity, within each of them there was a complete separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers. However, the armed forces of the country were under the Federal Central Government which recruited, paid, equipped, trained, supplied and deployed the military power of the country; in that area the states had no power. Each state had a lightly armed National Guard which could be activated for operations within the state by the President of the country at the request of the elected state governor to maintain law and order in the event of need. So, just as in the unitary state in the federation too the military might of the country was the exclusive monopoly of the federal central government.
6. Then came three years of residence in the world’s only Confederation, the CONFEDERATION HELVITIQUE, known also as Switzerland. The classical distinction between a federation and a confederation is that in the latter all powers vest in the constituent states of the confederation except those ceded by the constituent states to the federal central government. Switzerland is the best living example of this and makes constant and conscious efforts to balance centrifugal and centripetal forces which are in a steady flux. However, it too shares with unitary states and federations the central federal monopoly of the military might of the state within its borders.
7. The next 10 years were spent in an Union, the Benelux Union, in one of its participating countries, The Netherlands of which I am now a national. The Benelux Union is made up of 3 independent, sovereign countries, Belgium (BE), The Netherlands (NE) and Luxembourg (LUX). Each is an independent monarchy, with a separate parliament, cabinet of ministers, army navy and air force, currency, central bank and all the elements of independent countries. By agreement between these three countries, however, a social union was set up which enables the nationals of each of them to reside in either of the others, to do business within them, to travel freely within them and trade within them without import restrictions or tariffs or duties or taxes on the free movement of goods and services. When I went to live and work in The Netherlands in 1977 the total land area of these three countries added together was approximately the same as that of the island of Sri Lanka. However, during my stay there the government of The Netherlands completed the filling up of the 3000 square mile polder and brought it into occupation as the newest (the 12th) province of the country under the name Flevoland. It is only thereafter that the total land area of the three BENELUX countries exceeds that of the island of Sri Lanka by a small margin. The Union differs from all three of the preceding forms of government, namely, the unitary state, the federation and the confederation, in that it has no unified military force under a central command. On the contrary each country has its own independent military forces under the control and direction of each government.
8. Finally comes the second variant of the form of Union, the European Union, of which the three countries of the BENELUX Union, along with 12 other countries, are members. Unlike the Benelux Union the European Union has Union institutions – an European Parliament directly elected by the citizens of the fifteen member countries, an European Commission nominated by the member countries which functions as an executive and an European Court of Justice which is the final court of appeal in human rights cases. These European institutions have limited powers and function alongside corresponding institutions in each of the member countries. From the beginning of this year (2002) eleven of these countries, including the three BENELUX countries, have joined in a monetary union and have adopted a single currency, the euro, regulated by a common central bank, The European Central Bank headquartered in Frankfurt. However, the currency union has not been followed by an unification of the armed forces of the countries of the European Union. They remain under independent national control in each of the 15 countries. The European Union as it exists today illustrates the possibility of having an economic, social, judicial and monetary union without military unification.
9. Now for the lesson I wish to draw from these experiences. It is quite simply this. Where military unification is not possible it is still quite possible to have a viable social, economic and monetary union between states each of which has its own independent military structure. I am convinced this is the only practicable basis on which peace and prosperity can be founded in Sri Lanka.
3rd April 2002