A Europe of the Regions?
A Europe of the Regions?

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A Europe of the Regions?

1.2 What does this course cover?

This unit offers some responses to these questions by outlining the variety of regions and regionalisms, their growth and its causes, their development in the EU context, and different future scenarios. Section 2 attempts to define ‘region’ and ‘regionalism’ in the face of their extreme cultural, economic and political diversity. Regions come in all shapes and sizes, some clearly demarcated by a long history, others little more than figments of a central bureaucrat's imagination. Regionalisms likewise range from an almost non-existent sense of regional identity to fully-fledged sub-state nationalisms, a form of identity politics which sees the ‘region’ as a potentially separate, independent country. The terms ‘region’ and ‘regionalism’ thus mask a range of quite different phenomena which vary not only from state to state but also within particular states, as is demonstrated very clearly in the cases of the UK (see Figure 1) and Spain.

Section 3 then sketches how regions in their various senses have increasingly become more important since the zenith of the centralised nation state in the Europe of the 1930s and 1940s. Regions have become more prominent in the economic, political and cultural life of virtually all European states (Harvie, 1994). There are a variety of reasons for this, including uneven economic development (and the lack of it), regional languages and cultures being threatened with terminal decline, and federalisation as a means of reducing the power of central states or, alternatively, a means of containing separatist aspirations and conflicts.

The increased salience of regions as units for economic, political and cultural development is not in doubt, but what is its overall significance? Despite the diversity of its expressions and causations, there are a number of unifying factors which give the regionalising of Europe some coherence. Particularly since the 1970s, sub-state regions in general have been subjected to many of the same pressures from accelerated globalisation. These pressures have both curtailed the independent economic power of supposedly sovereign nation states, and simultaneously put a greater premium on regional and local authorities presenting themselves as attractive locations for multinational investors. Regions have been forced or encouraged, as the jargon has it, to ‘think globally and act locally’, rather than simply relying on nation states to do their ‘thinking and acting’ for them, as was often the case formerly. This is especially true of regions in the EU where these developments have advanced furthest, and the EU now has an increasingly important regional dimension (Jeffery, 1997).

Section 4 considers the EU itself as a product of more globalised competition and one of the most advanced political, as distinct from simply economic, expressions of globalisation. Here the impacts of globalisation, and particularly the encouragement of regionalism, are experienced in more heightened form than in the other major economic blocs in North America and East Asia, or in countries which have remained outside these blocs. For Western Europe's regions, economic integration in the Single European Market (SEM) since the late 1980s has brought additional threats and opportunities which have indirectly fostered regionalism, and increasingly this extends beyond Western Europe as the EU enlarges eastwards. In straightforward political terms, the member states have lost some of their individual sovereign powers to the EU collective, and the EU provides an institutional ‘umbrella’ for regions, and for would-be states, as well as for the existing member states. In focusing on regionalism in the EU, Section 4 studies EU regional policies, regional networking and alliances.

This is the context within which rosy scenarios of a ‘Europe of the Regions’ were propagated in the 1990s. Traditional nation states were seen as generally too small for global competition but too big and remote for cultural identification and active, participatory citizenship. States were apparently being eroded from above by the EU and from below by regionalism – a pincer movement transforming traditional conceptions of the so-called ‘nation state’ and the national basis of territorial sovereignty and identity. Europe's future seemed to lie with a loose, decentralised federation of regions. Furthermore, while traditionalists defend their misnamed ‘Europe of Nations’ (that is, the existing nation states), the conflicts generated by the unachievable ideal of the homogeneous ‘nation state’ in places like Ireland or the Basque Country are a further argument for the emergence of a ‘Europe of the Regions’, or so the story goes. But, as we shall see in Section 5, there are good empirical and normative reasons for questioning the benign ideology of regionalism and its assumption that ‘small’ is necessarily ‘beautiful’. While global economic competition and the SEM may indeed lead to a more federalised and regionalised Europe, the EU's integration is still largely controlled by the existing member states and they continue to define the regions within their national territories. Besides, the strongest regional threats to nation states, far from being opposed in principle to the nation state ideal, are themselves nationalist in inspiration: they come from ‘nations without states’ (Guibernau, 1999) where nationalist movements (in, for example, Scotland, Wales or Catalonia) reflect and foster strong cultural and political identities, and typically the ultimate (if not immediate or practical) objective is their own ‘nation state’. However, such nationally inspired or ‘national’ regionalisms are the exception in Europe's regions, and indeed the great diversity of regions constitutes a major reason why they are unlikely to become the basis for a ‘new Europe’.

On the other hand, reversing the rise of regionalism and returning to a traditional ‘Europe of Nations’, as advocated by an extreme nationalistic faction in the British Conservative Party since the 1980s, seems at least equally unlikely. Yet a fully federal European super-state, whatever its advantages in terms of democratic transparency and formal representation at different territorial levels, is also implausible – the process of federalisation is likely to be arrested long before giving birth to a ‘United States of Europe’ on the North American model. Section 6 considers different future scenarios and stresses that the future, like the present, will probably be more complex than any of these models suggests. But if a ‘Europe of the Regions’ is ruled out, how will increasingly important regionalisms relate to other ‘possible Europes’ – of cities, cultures, nations, states and transnational institutions? Rather than neatly displacing nation states or other forms of political and cultural identity, it seems more likely that enhanced regionalisms will have to coexist with them.

The regional question in Western Europe is thus inextricably bound up with wider empirical and normative debates about nation states and the EU, and issues of culture, politics, development, identity and democracy (Newman, 1996).


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