Federalism in Germany

Federalism in Germany

Federalism in Germany

Federalism in Germany is made of the states of Germany and the federal government. The central government, the states, and the German municipalities have different tasks and partially competing regions of responsibilities ruled by a complex system of checks and balances.


German federalism dates back to the founding of the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages, to the reforms that came with the Peace of Westphalia and to the constitution of the German Empire from 1871.

Following German unification, German federalism came into conflict with German nationalism. Nationalists argued for power to be concentrated in the central government in Berlin, but were resisted by monarchs and their governments in the various German states outside the Kingdom of Prussia, with the Kingdom of Bavaria in particular keen to defend the rights afforded to it in the Imperial constitution.

Since re-unification in 1990, the Federal Republic has consisted of sixteen states: the ten states of the Federal Republic before re-unification ("West Germany"), the five new states of the former East Germany, and Berlin.

Division of powers

The Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany divides authority between the federal government and the states (German: "Länder"), with the general principle governing relations articulated in Article 30: "Except as otherwise provided or permitted by this Basic Law, the exercise of state powers and the discharge of state functions is a matter for the Länder." Thus, the federal government can exercise authority only in those areas specified in the Basic Law. The states are represented at the federal level through the Bundesrat, which has a role similar to the upper house in a true bicameral parliament.

The Basic Law divides the federal and state governments' legislative responsibilities into exclusive federal powers (Articles 71 and 73), deviation powers (Article 72), competing powers (Articles 72, 74), and exclusive state powers (Article 70). The exclusive legislative jurisdiction of the federal government includes defense, foreign affairs, immigration, citizenship, communications, and currency standards, whereas the states have exclusive jurisdiction on the police (excluding federal police), most of education, the press, freedom of assembly, public housing, corrections, broadcasting and media affairs, among others.

In the areas of environment, nature conservation, and regional planning, among others, state legislation can deviate from federal guidelines.

The federal and state governments share concurrent powers in several areas, including, but not limited to: economics, civil law, land management, public welfare, consumer protection, and public health; in many concurrent powers, however, state legislation only remains in effect as long as there is no federal legislation that contradicts its contents, though the passage of such federal legislation may be subject to additional legal requirements, as stipulated by Article 72, Section 2 of the Basic Law.

The areas of shared responsibility for the states and the federal government were enlarged by an amendment to the Basic Law in 1969 (Articles 91a and 91b), which calls for joint action in areas of broad social concern such as higher education, regional economic development, and agricultural reform.

International relations, including international treaties, are primarily the responsibility of the federal level but, as in other federations, the constituent states have limited powers in this area. As provided in Article 23, Article 24, and Article 32 of the Basic Law, the states (Länder) have the right to representation at the federal level (i.e. through the Bundesrat) in matters of international relations that affect them, including the transfer of sovereignty to international organizations and, with the consent of the federal government, have limited powers to conclude international treaties.

Some older treaties between German states and other countries also remain in effect. The Bavarian–Austrian Salt Treaty of 1829 (German: Konvention zwischen Bayern und Österreich über die beiderseitigen Salinenverhältnisse vom 18. März 1829), for instance, is the oldest European treaty still in effect. 1957 the government of Bavaria used a revision of the treaty to actively claim the states' rights against the will and claims of the federal government.

Bundestag and Bundesrat

The Bundestag is Germany's federal parliament and the de facto lower house of Germany's federal legislature, and the Bundesrat, which is comprised of the various state governments and represents the states at the federal level, is the de facto upper house. The Bundestag is typically the dominant body in ordinary federal lawmaking, however the Bundesrat's explicit consent (an absolute majority of members voting in favour) is required for every approval law, i.e. bills that affect state finances or administrational duties in some way,[6] which makes up roughly half of all federal legislation, otherwise the bill is effectively vetoed and this veto cannot be overridden by the Bundestag. The Bundesrat also has the ability to veto every other type of legislation, so-called objection laws, by a two-thirds supermajority, though this veto can be overridden by a two-thirds supermajority in the Bundestag.

A two-thirds supermajority is required in both chambers for any constitutional amendment. Similarly, in a rotating fashion, half of the Federal Constitutional Court judges are elected by a two-thirds supermajority vote by the Bundestag, whereas the other half is elected by the Bundesrat. Other federal judges are elected collectively and coequally by both the federation and the states.


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