Public Governance Diaries - The Politics of Multinational States

In a recent episode of the Public Governance Diaries, Professor Eric Champagne interviews Professor André Lecours. André is a professor of political sciences at the University of Ottawa School of Political Studies and a research director at the Center on Governance. He is also a world-renowned specialist in federalism and has received several prestigious awards and distinctions for his academic contributions.

During their conversation, they delved into the politics of multinational states, exploring the types of democratic arrangements that can favour the survival of these states and the role of federalism in this context.

Defining Multinational States

André began by defining multinational states, explaining that they are not nation-states, where the nation and state are congruent, such as the United States or France. Instead, multinational states are those where the nation promoted by the central state is challenged. Canada, for instance, is a multinational state, with Quebecers identifying their nation as Quebec and First Nations identifying their primary national identification as not Canada.

André's research focuses on multinational states where there is a significant nationalist movement. These movements, led by nationalist parties, seek either autonomy within the state or outright independence.

Political Dynamics in Multinational States

One of the unique aspects of multinational states, according to André, is that their very existence cannot be taken for granted. In these states, politicians must ensure that territorial conflicts and cleavages do not escalate to the point where the country might break up. This adds a layer of complexity to the usual left-right opposition and discussions on public policy questions.

Democratic Arrangements for Multinational States

When asked about the types of democratic arrangements that can favor the survival of multinational states, André pointed out that states have several tools at their disposal. They can extend rights regimes, empower the national minority within central institutions, or establish a power-sharing arrangement between majority and minority groups.

However, providing significant autonomy to a national minority, which is often what nationalist movements want, can be challenging. Many political cultures and traditions view autonomy as threatening to the survival of the state. André argues the opposite, suggesting that federalism—an idea and principle of governance that allows some reconciliation between unity and diversity—maximizes the chances of a multinational state to survive and thrive.

Further Reading

For those interested in delving deeper into the topic, André has recently published two books. "The Constitutional Politics and Multinational States," co-edited with colleagues and published by McGill-Queens University Press, explores the unique challenges of formulating, reforming, and negotiating a constitution in multinational states.

His most recent book, "Nationalism, Secessionism, and Autonomy," published by Oxford University Press in 2021, investigates what makes a nationalist movement seek independence as opposed to being satisfied with autonomy. André concludes that a multinational state will be most successful in getting a national minority to be satisfied with autonomy if it offers an autonomy that can be adjusted over time and keeps the relationship between the national minority and the state open to discussion and ongoing negotiation.

The conversation between Eric Champagne and André Lecours was enlightening and offered a deep dive into the complexities of multinational states. André's research is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the politics of these states and the role of federalism in their survival.

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