Centralization vs. Decentralization Against COVID-19

Centralization or decentralization: what works best against pandemics? Which one has proven to be the most effective strategy during the past few months? How federal political systems reacted to an emergency crisis such as COVID-19? What practices could we learn from federal and decentralized countries? Do inter-governmental relations play an important role in fighting the COVID19 crisis? Is COVID19 going to centralize existing federations and regionalized political systems? What will be the long-term impact of the political response to the pandemic on the territorial models? What should be improved for better cooperation and in order to provide a better response if there happened to be another outbreak?

In an online debate co-hosted by the Centre for Contemporary Studies (CETC) and the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia (DIPLOCAT), experts on the territorial politics Nicola McEwen, Francesco Palermo, Mireia Grau and Johanna Schabel exchanged views on the topic and analysed the way United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Spain have dealt with the coronavirus crisis. The discussants focused on the role of sub-state entities in the COVID-19 context, especially in the idea of cooperation between central and regional governments in multi-level governance political systems. The panellists agreed that the coronavirus crisis has shown that political systems are more centralized than they look on paper. They also stressed the importance of the political culture to analyse and understand the COVID19 institutional response in each country. Marc Sanjaume, political scientist and professor at Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, moderated the debate.

The discussion was introduced by Pere Almeda, director of the Centre for Contemporary Studies and IDEES magazine, followed by Laura Foraster i Lloret, Diplocat’s secretary general, and Elisabet Nebreda, Secretary for Foreign Action and EU of the Government of Catalonia, who pointed out that “there’s no denying the COVID-19 crisis has put us through some challenging times: the threat to our health systems, the economy and our rights and freedoms has been almost unprecedented”. Nebreda compared the situation of COVID19 between Canada, where there is a “strong federal background”, and Spain, “where the autonomous regime is less firmly stablished”. “Spain declared the state of alarm and withdrew the autonomous communities’ competences”, stated.

The United Kingdom and the devolution system

Nicola McEwen, Professor of Territorial Politics and Co-Director of the Centre on Constitutional Change at the University of Edinburgh, analysed the situation in England and Scotland and argued that “the peculiar nature of multilevel government in the UK with the devolution of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has shaped the response to COVID”. McEwen explained that the coordination of policy responses varied throughout the chronological evolution of the pandemic. While during lockdown, which she defined as phase 1, intergovernmental cooperation was strong mostly due to the fact that policies were based on scientific evidence, during the easing of lockdown —phase 2, in which we are at— each administration is making slightly different decisions at slightly different times and the collaborative approach has been set aside.

According to McEwen, this trend will be aggravated during the economic recovery —phase 3—, as that is where the big political differences will spring up. McEwen also pointed out that uniformity and centralization are not the same thing, nor are they necessarily the most effective. For example, centralized authority is not sustainable in a multilevel state. Concerning cooperation, she argued that it does not necessarily have to slow things down. McEwen also highlighted that “the United Kingdom has a lack of federal culture, especially in England regarding devolution”.

Italy: the lack of formal intergovernmental relations

Francesco Palermo, Professor of Comparative Constitutional Law at the University of Verona and Director of the Institute for Comparative Federalism (EURAC) agreed with professor McEwen’s description of the evolution of cooperation between governments, a model that is also applicable to Italy, and explained the particular conflicts that arose between the regional and the central governments in this country. The territorial model of the Italian state is a strongly asymmetrical one and, just like the Spanish model, it is a much more centralized system in actual terms than what it looks like in theory. The fact that the regions were given little margin to act during phase 1 made the tension rise when the measures imposed by the central government started to ease, because the regional governments wanted more powers.

The problem, according to Palermo, can be attributed to the fact that intergovernmental relations are not institutionally defined, and that they are currently regulated by informal mechanisms. The debate whether federalism should be deepened or not is now at its peak, but what is clear for Palermo is that a better response and better instruments are needed in order to ensure a better coordination between regions, which is essentially what federalism is about. About the European Union and its political response to the pandemic, Palermo argued “the expectations on the EU are wrongly posed, as it is not the fastest responding institution”.

The cases of Germany and Switzerland

Johanna Schnabel, Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the University of Kent (UK) and Assistant editorial at Swiss Political Science Review, mainly focused on the territorial organization of Germany and Switzerland, two great examples of federalism. According to her, “we are seeing a strong degree of decentralization in Germany and a surprisingly high degree of centralization in Switzerland”. During the pandemic, the degree of cooperation between the regional governments and the Federal government in Germany has been high, and the Länder even took initiatives before coordinating with the Federal government.

In Switzerland, we witness an unusual degree of centralization, as the cooperation was limited to implementation measures and the Cantons did not have as much autonomy as the German Länder had. Nevertheless, during the ease of restrictions the Federal government is returning the powers to the regional administrations. Schnabel also commented on the fact that the dilemma between decentralization or centralization is not the one we should have in mind when discussing federalism or territorial politics, as they can both have advantages and disadvantages. Rather, coordination should be prioritised. Schnabel placed emphasis on the crucial role of intergovernmental councils and arrangements that encourage it.

Spain: an hyper centralised approach

Mireia Grau, Head of the Research Area of the Institute for Self-Government Studies (Institut d’Estudis de l’Autogovern) of the Government of Catalonia, explained the hyper centralised approach which the Spanish government has tackled the pandemic and highlighted how easy it was to suddenly centralize governmental action. The pandemic “has shed light on the hyper centralized spanish system”, and has revealed a void in the intergovernmental setting, showing that there is no practice of deciding jointly and proven that the autonomous communities have no access to state decision-making.

Grau claimed that the negotiation and cooperation process started at some point in relation to party politics, but from the institutional setting there was no room for a shared rule negotiation, which proves that leaving autonomies aside was not an institutional choice, but the only thing that could have been done. She argued for the need to have institutional mechanisms that ensure cooperation, especially after the lessons learned from COVID-19. “In this crisis all countries must learn from the failure of coordinating different levels of government”. Regarding the EU, she pointed out the pandemic has shown that states hold the real power instead of the European supranational institutions.

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