5.2 The regionalism project
The regionalism project has normative as well as empirical elements – it says what ought to happen as well as what will happen – and its normative origins pre-date its contemporary usage in advocating European integration. It is open to criticism on these different grounds.
It presents a benign vision of regions and regionalism replacing or displacing nation states and nationalism. Strong versions proclaim the ‘death of the nation state’ and the ‘end of territorially based sovereignty’, while in weaker versions such ideas are only implicit, or the decline of states in favour of regions is seen as a relative, long-term matter. In EU circles weaker versions prevailed, not only because they are more plausible but also because the Commission's objective was to make allies in the regions rather than enemies in the states, which retained control over the general direction and pace of integration. However, the stronger version had more resonance at a popular level.
Empirically, the regionalist project suggests that the growing importance of a level of government between the levels of local municipality and the nation state is a trend which will continue inexorably and at the expense of nation states. It exaggerates this trend, and it inappropriately sees the relationship between regions and states as a simple ‘zero-sum game’, where more power to regions must mean less to states as if there was a fixed amount of ‘power’ that they had to fight over.
Regionalism, rather than being some independent rival, continues to be conditioned by the states. They define the regions, and in most cases still set the limits within which regionalism is possible. Far from being a preferable ‘alternative’ to the system of states, we have seen that the great diversity of regions and regionalisms often constitutes a poor basis for unified policy or cooperation. The Committee of the Regions has, for example, been hampered by the great heterogeneity and unevenness in the interests, power and democratic legitimacy of the regional representatives. The ‘death of the nation state’, like that of Mark Twain, is greatly exaggerated (Anderson, 1995). The member states of the EU largely control the direction and pace of EU integration, which is still mainly harnessed to their interests, and still dominated by the meetings of Heads of Governments and the Council of Ministers. Indeed, in some respects it has strengthened rather than weakened the member states, giving them more leverage over economic forces than they would otherwise have. Nor does regionalism necessarily weaken states. Spain, for instance, is arguably stronger as a result of devolving powers to Basque and Catalan parliaments, and it would be nonsense to argue that federal Germany is a ‘weak’ state because of its strong regions, or that Greece and Portugal are ‘strong’ because they are highly centralised. States in general have lost some economic power because of globalisation, but contrary to neo-liberal ideology they continue to have crucial roles in supra-state and sub-state developments.
The normative idea that regions are good in themselves and better than states or larger entities is also suspect for related reasons. The regionalist project suggests that regions in Europe express ‘diversity within unity’, that regions are economically efficient and powerful units yet close and cosy for politics and identity, that they express respect for cultural difference and are democratically responsive to local aspirations, and that regionalism provides a peaceful alternative to nationalism and national conflicts over sovereignty and territory. The contrast (sometimes implied rather than explicitly asserted) is with the supposedly greater economic inflexibility and inadequacy of ‘distant’ state institutions and policies, and a more bureaucratic Brussels where the Council of Ministers meets in secret. Such normative regionalism is not confined to the ‘Europe of the Regions’ project, but it is well exemplified by it.