Austrian Federalism in Comparative Perspective

von Manfred Kohler, 13.10.2015

The volume edited by Bischof and Karlhofer is a very useful guide to and overview of the current state of Austrian federalism. An overall structurally balanced book with a multidisciplinary approach. The book greatly sheds light on all relevant aspects of Austrian federalism. A must-read.  

Ferdinand Karlhofer’s excellent introductory contribution parallels federalism research classifications of Austria as an almost unitary state due to the dominance of one legislative chamber over another with Austria’s real constitution based on informal legal and power-political mechanisms. Applying a historical-institutionalist approach, he shows that the Austrian Länder (federal states) started to change their constitutional government formation and direct democracy arrangements in the 1970s. A major sign of change affecting Austria’s cooperative federalism is the fact that there is not as much congruence between the federal government’s party composition and that of the Länder anymore, with new parties like the Greens entering coalitions with the once predominant Austrian People’s Party and the Social Democrats in six Länder. Karlhofer also shows that, as much as governors had been drivers of change in Austria, the heads of the Länder governments have also been stumbling stones in the way of reforming the competences between federation and states. The current migration crisis in Europe – unfortunately the book’s contributions cannot delve into this issue because it has been overtaken by events - has also revealed that there is a need for federal reform in Austria. Conflicting and overlapping competences and powers in the area of migration policy with all its facets have shown that the federal government is unable to react to monumental migration challenges like the current one.

Anton Pelinka’s contribution roots the failure to construct federal states in Central-Eastern Europe with equitable rights for minorities and nationalities in the Habsburg Dual Monarchy (pp. 1 and 10). The latter did not manage to create a federation of nationalities with equal rights during times of hyper nationalism. The Nazi regime, the Holocaust and Communism additionally contributed to making the central and eastern parts of Europe a rather homogenous bunch of nation-states, which also explains the collapse of multi-ethnic federations like the former Yugoslavia and former Czechoslovakia. All in all, a very nice and balanced tale of why federalism could not thrive in this part of today’s Europe.

Peter Bußjäger’s article well compares Austria’s real constitution with its informal, however powerful, cooperation mechanisms embodied by the Conference of Land Governors with Austria’s rather centralized federal constitution, showing that Austria’s cooperative federalism thwarts claims of Austria being simply a centralist state. He also suggests that Austria urgently needs to modernize the division of competences, because the federal system is too “complex and unclear” (p. 33). Bußjäger’s contribution is probably the most instructive one in the volume, since it profoundly examines all levels and actors making up the Austrian federal state.

The contribution by Fallend compares the second legislative chambers of Belgium, Canada and Switzerland with that of Austria. He shows that parliamentarism and strong bicameralism do not go well together. In parliamentary systems, the first chamber usually rubber stamps legislative proposals by the government, because the latter are supported by the parliamentary majority. A strong second chamber might otherwise risk effective and efficient central government action. Thus more legitimacy for the second legislative chamber in Austria, the Bundesrat, would have to go hand in hand with direct elections to it. The contribution is great in methodology and depth, but then lacks a coherent conclusion.

Margit Schratzenstaller provides a very balanced and sound overview of Austrian fiscal federalism. She shows that, despite decade-long claims and studies for reform, little has been done to that effect. The dominant rule of just two parties has cemented a system that is long overdue for reform. She argues that the long-due reforms in the health, public transportation, education/school sectors as well as the needs-based minimum benefit system have to be subject to functional analyses, casting an eye onto “…decision-makers, transactions of and structural links with other governmental levels as well as actors” (p. 62). She ultimately shows that, regarding the said policy areas, the links between the various levels of government are complex and everything but transparent.  In the end, she argues that evaluations of reform processes have to take place on a regular basis so that efficient political decisions can be made at all.

Heinrich Neisser’s contribution is very interesting since it also highlights the role of the Länder governors in implementing federal policy, which makes them rather strong actors, along with the informal meeting of the Conference of Governors. He rightly concludes that, as long as there is no consensus on the reform of federal state competencies, there will be no coherent and substantial administrative reform in Austria. The contribution could have addressed the implementation role of federal law by the Länder in more detail. The fact that the Länder manage citizenship, resident permits and even asylum requests is a quite unique characteristic of the Austrian federal political system, making the Länder quite important in areas that would long need more centralized execution due to efficiency gains, as has been seen in the weakness of the central government in terms of tackling the current migration crisis.

Eppler and Maurer, in their contribution, show how the EU has had both a direct and indirect impact on the competence relations between the member states’ (Austria here) different levels of government. One the one hand, there is a direct Länderbeteiligungsverfahren in order for the Länder to be able to act at EU level regarding their own powers, on the other hand, the EU has also had a direct impact on Austria’s federal structure by introducing a system of subsidiarity control by both national and sub-national parliaments. However, since subsidiarity control in Austria at the subnational level is mainly handled by the Länder executives, sub-national parliaments’ role in checking EU policies has further diminished, which is a contradictory and quite interesting insight (p. 105). Eppler and Maurer underline that cooperative federalist structures using informal channels of cooperation between Bund and Länder have worked better in terms of speaking with one voice at EU level than formal ones. A really valuable contribution in this volume.  

Alice Engl sheds light on an otherwise underilluminated body created by regulation at EU level in 2006, the EGTCs (European Groupings of Territorial Cooperation). They allow for the cross-border cooperation between regions across neighboring nation-states in the EU, further highlighting and substantiating the evolution of a Europe of regions. However, the author shows that the EGTCs tool is underused in Austria, a country that would actually be ideal for cross-border cooperation given the fact that it has eight neighboring states. She argues that, if these types of cooperation are not just used for self-interest by the Austrian regions or Länder, they can be great tools to enhance the powers of the Länder in Austria (p. 127).

Günther Pallaver’s very insightful contribution thoroughly outlines the role of Austria as a protective power over South Tyrol over time, starting with the Paris Treaty of 1946 that underlined Austria’s role as a watchdog over the special territorial autonomy granted to South Tyrol all the way to ultimate dispute settlement in 1992. However, it is actually Tyrol that informally determines Austrian foreign policy with South Tyrol, thus almost constituting a veto power vis-à-vis the federal government as the guarantor of “cultural and spiritual unity of Tyrol” (p. 145). 

Since the 1992 UN dispute settlement, South Tyrol has gradually emancipated from Tyrol, however, it continues cooperation with Tyrol in the framework of the Europe region of Tyrol-South Tyrol-Trentino. The matter is today more embedded within the European Integration process (p. 146), with Austria’s role as a protective power becoming gradually obsolete.  

In summary, what makes this volume a very valuable contribution to academia and interested readers alike is the inclusion of the European dimension in the volume’s analysis of Austrian federalism. The book is highly recommendable.

Günter Bischof and Ferdinand Karlhofer, eds., "Austrian Federalism in Comparative Perspective", Innsbruck and New Orleans: Innsbruck University Press and University of New Orleans University Press, 2015



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Manfred KohlerDr. Manfred Kohler war Lektor an der University of Kent und arbeitet derzeit als freelance Übersetzer.

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