Expert comment

Federalism and decentralisation in the age of Covid-19.

Expert comment

Federalism and decentralisation in the age of Covid-19.

Dr Soeren Keil looks at how states have implemented crisis management structures differently across Europe.

A pandemic, such as the spread of Covid-19, raises interesting questions about the state’s ability and structures in times of crises. This is particularly relevant for federal and decentralised states, in which the central government has to work together with regional governments, as they retain important competences in the areas of health care, education, and also in some cases calling for a state of emergency and imposing curfews.

Good example of the need for coordination and the power of lower levels of government can be found in Germany and the UK. In Germany, the administrative federal system gives the Länder a lot of autonomy in areas such as implementing social distancing measures and curfews. What is more, in key policy fields such as education, the Länder retain autonomy, this is why different Länder closed their schools at different times across Germany. While Angela Merkel has attempted to demonstrate leadership in this time of national and global crisis, her powers, and the powers of the German government, as a whole, are rather limited, and coordination between the 16 Länder and the national government is key. That is why Markus Söder, the Minister President of Bavaria has also managed to establish himself as a leading crisis manager.

Likewise, while the UK government acted later than many other governments in Europe, it too has to work with governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as they have substantial devolved powers in the areas of health care, education and social care. Initially, Scotland, in co-ordination with Wales took the lead, and the governments in Edinburgh and Cardiff were the first to agree on school closures before the UK government decided to close all schools in England as well, and Northern Ireland followed.

More recently, there is evidence for greater co-ordination between the UK government and the devolved governments, and joint actions have been taken for example when implementing key decisions in relation to the National Health Service (NHS). This is even more interesting, because forums of co-ordination and the political willingness to work together have been lacking in the UK, not least as a result of the Brexit referendum and the fall-out from the negotiations.

Other countries with decentralised systems have taken different routes. Spain, the second most affected country in Europe after Italy, has declared a state of emergency, meaning crisis management is co-ordinated and implemented by the central government in Madrid. For example, under the current state of emergency all regional and local policy forces are now under the control of the central Ministry of the Interior. This is particularly remarkable, because of existing tensions between Catalonia and the central government, in the wake of the 2017 unilateral referendum and declaration of independence of Catalonia, and also because Catalonia is now the second most affected area within Spain.

An interesting example to examine further is the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is one of the most decentralised countries in the world, and health care is a responsibility of the entities, rather than of the national government. However, in the wake of increased cases of Covid-19 across the country, there have been instances of political disagreement and a lack of proper enforcement of social distancing. In fact, many of the weaknesses of the state as a whole, and of the entities are displayed very openly during this crisis – the lack of proper healthcare provisions, including ventilators, the inability of political actors to take joint and decisive actions in times of crisis, and the unwillingness of ethnic elites to look beyond ethnicity and group belonging and find compromises for joint action.

The current global pandemic is a challenge for all states. It raises fundamental questions about political leadership, fundamental human rights and how states engage and enforce social distancing rules.

It is interesting to make a first comparison between different federal and decentralised systems, and how they have implemented crisis management structures differently. More comparative research on this topic is will certainly be forthcoming, not least to examine if federal and decentralised systems have the same level of efficiency when dealing with such a fundamental challenge.

Dr Soeren Keil is a Reader in Politics and International Relations and Director of the Centre for European Studies (CEFEUS).

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