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

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A Europe of the Regions?

2.2 Diversity between states

To attempt more precise definitions would run the risk of arbitrarily excluding many of the phenomena we need to address. In fact the intentionally loose, multifaceted nature of these definitions reflects the reality of regional diversity, which has many dimensions. The differences start with the states which in practical political terms largely define regions, for they are themselves very different in area and population size, in economic strength, in cultural homogeneity or heterogeneity, and in political structure. A diversity of state forms – unitary (for example, France, Portugal, Republic of Ireland), federal (Germany, Austria, Belgium), and ‘quasi-federal’ or with non-uniform limited regional autonomy (Spain, Italy, the UK) – produces a diversity of regions. In a fully federal state (for example, Germany), governmental activities are divided between the centre and the regional units (for example, Lander) so that each level has the right to make final decisions in some fields of activity. There is a wide spectrum between this and the extremes of authoritarian centralism (for example, in Spain under Franco's dictatorship). Likewise, there are many gradations on the identity spectrum, from full national separatism based on a distinct culture and language to, at the other extreme, the absence of any popular identification with a purely administrative division that lacks any historical basis or cultural significance.

Thus Europe's regions display huge variations not only in their economic development, but also in their degrees of political organisation and autonomy (if any), their status with respect to central state institutions, their historical basis or lack of it, their cultural distinctiveness, and so forth. Germany's federal region of North Rhine Westphalia with some 15 million people is over three times bigger than a member state such as the Irish Republic, while the latter's centralism has generally precluded effective regionalism (see Section 2.3 below). Some regions are administrative concoctions with little or no popular identity, and while some of the strongest are ‘national’ regions comprising historic nations (for example, Scotland and Catalonia which once had separate statehood), other strong regions, such as Baden-Wurttemberg and Lombardy, are not based on a national history or any very marked cultural distinctiveness.

There may, though, be some convergence between the ‘national’ regions and the stronger ‘non-national’ ones: the former may experience a ‘regionalising’ of sub-state nationalisms (settling for autonomy rather than full independence within the EU framework), while the latter may undergo a ‘(quasi) nationalising’ with further development of their autonomist identities and growing distinctiveness. Baden-Wurttemberg and Lombardy with Rhône-Alpes, Wales and Catalonia (see Figure 2) together formed the ‘Four Motors’ cross-border alliance of regions, all city-focused and examples of what Harvie (1994) calls economically successful ‘bourgeois regionalism’. (Wales was not one of the original four members, but has now joined these.) We shall come back to the ‘Four Motors’ as an example of regional networking in Section 3.2. In contrast, other regionalisms mobilise support around the problems of economic or cultural decline. Furthermore, many regions, whatever their problems, also have the problem of lacking a basis for regional mobilisation – they may have little or no cultural identity, or a weak and fractured geographical structure, or they may be riven politically by local rivalries and internal divisions between competing local authorities.

Distinctions must be drawn between, on the one hand, the bottom-up development or resurgence of sub-state nationalist and populist movements, often based on the identity politics of long-established regional cultures and languages which often pre-date the state, and, on the other hand, the top-down imposition of administrative or economic regionalisation, or the designation of ‘problem regions’ and ‘regional problems’ by central state bureaucracies. However, as in the Napoleonic system of regions administered by centrally-appointed ‘prefects’, top-down regionalism can be long established, and in some cases imposed regions can later become the basis for popular ‘bottom-up’ regionalism.

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