Treaty Federalism as a Model of Policy Making: Comparing Canada and the European Union

By Hueglin, Thomas | Canadian Public Administration, June 2013 | Go to article overview

Treaty Federalism as a Model of Policy Making: Comparing Canada and the European Union


Hueglin, Thomas, Canadian Public Administration


For the Canadian social policy expert, a comparison of Canada and the European Union (EU) might seem far-fetched. Canada is a constitutional federal state with a strong central government. Federal program spending amounts to some 14 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) annually and includes billions of dollars in transfers to the provinces for such core social policy areas as health care, social assistance and postsecondary education. The EU still is a treaty-based union among mostly sovereign member states. Its common budget is limited to little more than one per cent of the EU GDP. Most of this limited program spending goes to policy areas that qualify as social only in a wider and indirect sense: agricultural subsidies and structural aid for the economic performance improvement of weaker regions. Although there are funds specifically targeted to youth and long-term unemployment and retraining, the EU lacks funding for programs such as general income support and unemployment benefits.

This article argues, however, that such a comparison does in fact provide valuable insight for governance and policy making, not only in Canada and the EU, but also in diverse and non-unitary political systems more generally. The key argument is that Canada and the EU are comparable cases of procedural federalism: policy making depends more on intergovernmental bargaining and agreement than on constitutional power allocations. This procedural way of policy making will become the rule rather than the exception in an increasingly complex and heterogeneous world. This contribution therefore offers a comparative federalism perspective on Canada and the EU, which may provide the institutional and procedural context for more specific comparative social policy analyses in other articles of this issue.

The first section begins with some methodological considerations on the comparability of Canada and the EU. The second section proposes a revised conceptual framework of comparative federalism as the most promising approach. The third section provides a preliminary analysis of what such a comparative federalism analysis of Canada and the EU might yield. A conclusion raises the question of whether the comparative analysis of the two systems allows for the conceptualization of a new model of non-unitary governance in complex and diverse societies, replacing the classical model of American federalism.

Methodological considerations

While the idea is not new (e.g., Simeon 2006), systematic comparisons of Canada and the European Union have, for the most part, remained on the sidelines of scholarly interest for several reasons. One has been the compartmentalization of political science into specialized subfields, such as comparative politics and international relations. Canada is typically put side by side with other federal nation-states in the subfield of comparative politics even though one of its untypical key characteristics has long since been identified as quasi-diplomatic intergovernmental bargaining (Simeon 2006). The EU, by contrast, often appears as altogether sui generis and therefore "incomparable" (Wolinetz 2011) because its negotiated treaty framework would put it into the subfield of international or transnational relations, whereas its direct regulatory authority over member states and even citizens indicates that it also possesses nation-state qualities. Across this national-transnational divide, the comparability of Canada and the EU has been recognized only on occasion (e.g., Fossum 2006).

Another methodological constraint has to do with the paradigm-based turn in political science famously described by Thomas Kuhn as "normal science." It is "directed to the articulation of those phenomena and theories that the paradigm already supplies." It "does not aim at novelties of fact or theory and, when successful, finds none" (Kuhn 1970: 24, 52).

The dominant paradigm or model for comparative research on non-unitary political systems has been American federalism, which fits neither the Canadian nor the European case. …

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