by Cyrille Schott, Préfet (h.) de région, Member of Board of EuroDéfense France, Paris
If the performance of authoritarian regimes and democracies in the face of the pandemic has been questioned, another subject deserves consideration: that of the comparative effectiveness of unitary states and federal states. An accurate study of the issue will require sufficient hindsight, but initial observations are possible.
Federalism: between performance and dysfunction
The federal system has the advantage of the proximity of State power to the territories and their inhabitants and a better consideration of the diversity of situations. On the other hand, it can make it more difficult to define a coherent policy across the country. It requires good consultation between the federal government and the federated states.
In Australia, as early as March, Federal Prime Minister Scott Morrison created a national cabinet that included the premiers of the six federal states and the chief ministers of the two territories. This cabinet, whose aim is to “co-ordinate and provide a coherent national response to Covid-19”, determines national guidelines, which are supplemented by the federal states and territories according to local conditions.
In Germany, the Chancellor holds regular meetings with the Ministers-Presidents of the Länder, the 16 federal states, to harmonize positions. While the debates at these meetings are not always easy, some Länder, such as Bavaria, being committed to strict measures, others being more flexible, they will however result in agreement on the measures adopted at the federal level and those of each Land. At the end of the meetings, Angela Merkel appears on television, papers in hand, to summarize the federal guidelines, the Länder, even cities, adapting the measures to their population and the prevalence of the virus within it.
In the face of these powerful mechanisms, the United States and Brazil are experiencing dysfunctional federal systems: the U.S. and Brazilian presidents have not set up a forum for consultation with the federal states. On the contrary, they do not hesitate to oppose the powers of these states. President Trump wields a verb that varies, regardless of the division of powers between the federation and its members, or the creation of a consensus with the governors of the 50 states. He called for public vindictiveness to governors who had decided coronavirus restrictions and encouraged protests again them. President Bolsonaro systematically downplays the severity of the virus and criticizes federal states or cities that adopt protective measures.
The United Kingdom, without being a federal state but close to it because of devolution, has also suffered serious dysfunctions, linked to the contradictory speeches of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his difficult relationship with the Scottish First Minister.
So, the federal system leads to confusion in minds and confronts the different powers with their loneliness, their competition, or even their impotence. While local governance and civil society initiatives are trying to limit the scale of the disaster, this happens in an exceedingly difficult climate.
A unitary state facing its limits
The unitary state offers the advantage of a unified nationwide direction of maneuvering and a faster decision-making capacity. On the other hand, it runs the risk of less considering the diversity of territories and the desirable consultation with decentralized communities. Korea, New Zealand or, in Europe, Portugal and Denmark show the good results of unitary states.
In France, the State immediately stands in the heart of crisis management, relying on the instruments of sovereignty at its disposal. Decisions were taken for the whole country, with a strong presidential speech, which was willing to mobilize. First, local authority officials were hardly involved in the decision-making process. While the centralized lock down has been broadly effective, the role of local authorities has grown over time, whether it was for the supply of protective equipment, the declination of measures at the end of the lock down, or the discourse of proximity to populations. The central state has found its limits.
The idea of differentiated management by territory has become more and more popular. At the end of lock down, departments have been classified as areas more or less affected by the virus and, since the outbreak resumed at the end of the summer, restrictions, such as those for meetings or restaurants and bars, are determined according to the extent of the contamination observed in departments and cities. The prefects, who represent the government, must consult with local elected officials, especially the mayors, to take the decisions best adapted to the territory. This is within the framework of an overall leadership that remains national.
Building trust and bringing people together
The French prefects do not have the same decision-making autonomy as the ministers-presidents of German Länder, but, in a way, a balance has been sought, both in France and in Germany, between what is centralized management and what should be entrusted to territorial governance. Similarly, there has been a rapprochement in the report to medical expertise, with the political power listening carefully to it, but keeping its hand in defining the policy to be followed.
In the first phase of the pandemic, the effectiveness of national responses depended on factors other than the form, federal or unitary, of the state: among other things, the speed of the awareness by the leaders of the severity of the pandemic, the promptness of the first decisions, including in the logistics field, the early testing, the capacity of the hospitals to react, the attitude of the populations, the chance… With regard to the role of the State, what mattered most was the ability of national leaders to properly analyze phenomena and to create around them, if not unanimity, difficult in a democracy, at least trust, both of the federated or local powers and of the people, around the measures to be taken. In the present situation, marked by a resumption of the pandemic, this ability of leaders to generate confidence is all the more essential, as the crisis continues, fatigue appears among the populations, as well as a rejection of restrictions among certain minorities. We saw it in Marseille with the revolt of restaurateurs and elected officials, as well as in Berlin with the demonstration against the wearing of masks and the attempt of some extremists to enter the Bundestag. Societies must live with the virus. Whatever the nature of the state, the ability of our leaders to inspire trust must increasingly be accompanied by the fitness to establish dialogue and bring together the elected representatives of the people around pandemic actions. The current crisis is a test of these capabilities among the leaders.