3.4 The trend towards increased regionalism
However, despite the complexities and reversals – mostly temporary – the dominant trend since the 1960s has undoubtedly been toward increased regionalism. Prior to 1970, the Federal Republic of Germany was the only major west European country with elected governments at a level between local municipalities and the central state (with the exception of Northern Ireland, an ‘exception which proved the rule’ for the UK); and even in Germany there had been some centralisation of power, and federalism was weak and getting weaker (Newman, 1996). Unitary states with varying degrees of centrally-controlled regional administration then dominated the scene. But that is no longer the case, thanks in part to separatist pressures, but also to processes of democratisation, globalisation and European integration.
Germany's federal Länder were originally established as a means of reducing the power of the post-war German state, countering authoritarian centralism and rekindling democracy. Similarly motivated concerns to dismantle fascist or semi-fascist legacies of over-centralisation were involved in the decentralisation in Spain (and to a lesser extent Portugal) in the 1970s and 1980s, with Italy having led the way by excising some of its authoritarian legacy in 1970. It created fifteen regions, implementing regional devolution which had been envisaged in its 1945 constitution but not carried out. In these countries the process of setting up elected regional authorities reflected a general concern to revive democratic participation, as well as absorbing centripetal pressures and preventing geographical fragmentation, and their constitutions have now granted substantial autonomy to island regions and ‘historic nations’.
In different contexts, Holland and Denmark have created provincial assemblies, and even in France, the epitome of Jacobin centralism, a leftish government introduced a major decentralisation programme, setting up twenty-two regions and establishing regionally elected councils. True to its Jacobinism, however, France allowed these councils only limited autonomy within a fairly uniform and centralist all-France political structure; and it continued, for example, to refuse to recognise a distinctive ‘Corsican people’. The statutes of Corsica's regional government allowed the expression of sub-state identity only in so far as it conformed to the state's definition of the French ‘nation’ (Anderson and Goodman, 1995). An opportunity to reverse this trend was defeated in 2003, when the island's electorate rejected limited proposals for autonomy by 51% to 49%. As a consequence, France remains a highly centralised unitary state. Although the implementation of plans for decentralising was often slow (particularly in Portugal and Greece), and some of the regional bodies have quite limited powers (for instance in France), elected regional bodies have now established themselves as a permanent feature of political life in several of the smaller EU states and in the five largest ones, most recently in Britain.