Examining federalism from the bottom up

James Gardner giving a lecture in Italy.

James Gardner giving a public lecture at the European Academy's Institute for Studies in Federalism and Regionalism in Bozen-Balzano, Italy.


Published April 30, 2015

After two recent trips to do field research in Europe, UB Law Interim Dean James A. Gardner is back in Buffalo with a laptop full of notes and new insight into the struggle for power between central governments and their states.

The research, Gardner says, will be grist for a book about “the connection between constitutional design and how federalism plays out on the ground.” Toward that end, he interviewed scholars and government officials about how the federal systems really work in their countries — about what happens when a nation’s federal government and one of its states or provinces disagree with each other.

In two separate trips, Gardner was in Italy, Switzerland and Austria — but not Rome, Bern and Vienna. “The national capitals are places where people tend to favor centralized power,” he says. “I like to go out into the provinces, and in particular places where there is resistance to central power.” And so in January he conducted interviews in the French-speaking west of Switzerland and in western Austria, more rural and conservative than in cosmopolitan Vienna; and in February he did research in northern Italy, in a German-speaking area near the Alps.

“I got very positive reactions,” he says. “They were eager to talk about this.”

Jim Gardner and Thomas Fleiner.

James Gardner, right, and Thomas Fleiner, professor at the University of Brig, visit the National Council’s chamber in Vienna.

At issue was the question of how the struggle for power plays out in everyday governance and how national constitutions both enable and limit that process. “How do Swiss cantons, Austrian Länder and Italian regiones use their power against the central government to get what they want?” Gardner asks. “How does this play out, in what forums, by what means and using what tools?”

So, for example, during his 10-day trip in January, he interviewed a Swiss legislator, a member of the lower house of the nation’s Federal Assembly called the National Council, who spoke about “a very live and vital direct democratic check on the national legislature.” Any legislation passed by the Federal Assembly can be challenged by a popular referendum, which can land on the ballot with a mere 50,000 petition signatures. It seems to be an independent check on government power, Gardner says, but the legislator himself is part of a civil society group that could mobilize that many signatures in a heartbeat. So the referendum provision becomes essentially “a second bite at the apple,” Gardner says, for legislators who voted against a law and want another shot at torpedoing it.

The weeklong February trip combined field research with Gardner’s appointment as Federalism Scholar in Residence at the European Academy’s Institute for Studies in Federalism and Regionalism. Under the appointment — for which Gardner was selected after a competitive process — he spent one week at the academy in Bozen-Balzano in northern Italy. There, he presented an academic paper on federalism and regionalism, addressing an audience of European Union and member state government officials and scholars from all over the world, including Asia, Africa and North and South America. He also attended and took part in sessions of this prestigious program on federalism, so important in the EU.

Planned for the summer is field research in Germany and Argentina. Gardner’s work is supported by a grant from the Baldy Center for Law & Social Policy. “I am building up a broadening base of knowledge and work in comparative federalism, and trying to study as many governments as I can,” he says.