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

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A Europe of the Regions?

3.3 Reasons for – and effects of – nationalisms and federalisation

Most of these regions had their own distinctive history and culture, often including their own ‘minority’ languages. However, there were contemporary reasons for the nationalist or regionalist resurgence, including economic and cultural problems and changes in the power and authority of central state administrations. In some cases (for example, in Ireland and the Basque Country) inspiration was derived from the example of anti-colonial liberation struggles and newly independent (often small) states in the ‘Third World’. In general, Europe's resurgent ‘regional’ nationalisms tended to be toward the left of the political spectrum (sometimes in contrast to antecedents in the 1930s, as in the Breton case), though, like all nationalisms, they encompassed a variety of views, and a small minority (for example, Flemish nationalism) was dominated by the extreme right and fascism.

The other major cleavages were between ‘constitutional’ nationalists who used only peaceful means of opposing the status quo and those who took up arms against the state, and (an often related cleavage) between those prepared to accept limited regional autonomy and those holding out for complete separation and a new state. Armed conflicts erupted in several regions, most seriously in Northern Ireland and the Basque Country, and the ensuing state repression generally fuelled the conflict rather than solved it. However, in no case did a nationalist movement succeed in its separatist aims. On the other hand, whether through peaceful means, armed struggle, or an uneasy cooperation/competition between the two, most of the regional nationalisms have achieved a greater degree of regional autonomy.

In some previously ‘unitary’ states (as in Spain) they also helped bring about a more general, though often partial or ‘arrested’, process of federalisation or devolution. Where states had only one parliament or representative assembly, and no political institutions representing distinct regions or cultural minorities, devolving or decentralising some political powers to regional assemblies in a more federal state structure was a means of containing separatist conflict. It might ‘buy off’ or deflect tendencies which threatened the territorial integrity of the entire state. This was the case not only in Spain but also in bilingual Belgium with its divergent Flemish and Walloon aspirations. To prevent the Belgian state disintegrating, there has been a continuing process of constitutional reform since the 1970s, resulting in a very high degree of autonomy for the two main regions, and also for Brussels which is inside the Flemish-speaking area but has been dominated by a francophone elite. This containment strategy can work – it has worked so far in Belgium. Out-and-out separatists may reject it as a ‘sop’, but they may become politically isolated if others accept that ‘half a loaf is better than no bread’. Autonomists are placated while more ‘moderate’ separatists can present federalisation as a relative gain and a ‘stepping stone’ or stage on a road which promises full independence. This, however, is an argument which also tends to be accepted by centralists who identify strongly with state nationalism (for example, British in the UK, Spanish in Spain), except that they see federalisation not as a promise but as a threat to ‘their’ state. They therefore generally oppose anything but the most minimal forms of centrally-controlled administrative devolution, and where more substantial types of devolution or federalisation exist they may act to curtail or remove them. But – in a further twist to the argument – this can be counter-productive, stimulating resentment in the regions and encouraging the very tendencies it is supposed to destroy.

There is thus a continuing dialectic between centralism and federalisation or devolution. The various arguments about their likely effects not only separate the pro- and anti-regionalist forces, they also divide each ‘camp’ internally, leading to political situations of great complexity. In consequence, the historical trends are by no means all ‘one-way’ – as was seen for instance in Britain where the very centralist Conservative governments of Mrs Thatcher reversed the previous trend toward regionalism. However, like Franco's centralism in very different circumstances, her centralist policies were to prove spectacularly counter-productive in their own terms in some of the key regions. She provoked Scottish nationalist opposition and growth, and the decimation of the Conservative Party in Scotland, and to a lesser extent in Wales. And by what was seen as her callous treatment of dying IRA hunger-striking prisoners protesting against her attempted ‘criminalisation’ of them, she inadvertently launched Sinn Fein as a successful electoral machine in Northern Ireland.


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