5.3 Origins of the regionalist project
The origins of the regionalist project can be traced back to Leopold Kohr's The Breakdown of Nations, first published in 1957 (Kohr, 1986). By ‘nations’, Kohr actually meant nation states and in particular big states, for his book was a polemic against the ‘bigness’ of states as the source of modern ills. Indeed he saw excessive size as the main cause of all social problems and his ideas would later be successfully popularised by E.F. Schumacher's slogan and best-seller Small is Beautiful (Schumacher, 1973). The more recent adaptation of this idea to regions has several different sources which may help explain its appeal.
In part, the ‘Europe of the Regions’ model was developed as an ideology of EU integration and legitimation. Its rhetoric served to overcome, minimise or obscure some of the problems involved in creating the SEM after 1986, and later Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) as envisaged in the 1991 ‘Maastricht Treaty’. For example, in 1991, the Chef de Cabinet to the Regional Commissioner argued for a new Europe where regional authorities had greater political autonomy: ‘The Europe of the regions is already a cultural reality and in the new European single market there will soon be an economic one. Why not turn it into a political reality too?’ (see Harvie, 1994, Chapter 5). The idea was vigorously propagated by the ‘Four Motors’, and it lent heavily on their reputation for ‘success’ and that of other exceptional regions such as Emilia Romagna, rather than on more typical cases.
In the early 1990s the EU faced a legitimacy crisis as it sought to speed up integration. The Parliament was weak and perceived to be weak, and the Commission needed additional popular support. Linking regional identity to a putative European identity suggested a new more democratic EU, and it helped counter the largely top-down nature of integration and the perception that EMU would lead to a centralisation of economic power. It downplayed the difficulties faced by peripheral economies, particularly in times of economic depression when ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ generally diverge; and it provided a counter-balance (at least ideologically) to the neo-liberalism of the SEM and the threat it held for weaker regions, particularly as substantial help for them was ruled out by the dominant neo-liberalism.
Both the EU and the regions gained legitimacy by working directly together, and the normative ideology was picked up by interests in the regions themselves for their own reasons. A ‘Europe of the Regions’ would further the autonomy or even independence of places such as Scotland and Wales ‘in Europe’; it would help in creating regionalism in England and reforming the unwritten constitution of the British state with its archaic conception of sovereignty as the indivisible preserve of the Westminster Parliament.
The 1997-2007 Labour governments' programme of constitutional reform has involved, among other things, the creation of a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly (1999). It has also made possible through the Belfast Agreement (10 April 1998), and later the St Andrews Agreement (2006), the establishment of a devolved parliament in Northern Ireland.
When EU President Jacques Delors propagated the idea of a ‘Europe of the Regions’ he was supported by the Northern Irish MEP, John Hume, who counterposed to the ‘Europe of Nations’ of De Gaulle and Thatcher ‘a Europe which is much more comprehensive in its unity and which values its regional and cultural diversity while working to provide for a convergence of living standards’ (Hume, 1988, pp.48, 57). It was predicted that in the 1990s we would ‘leave the Europe of competing nationalisms behind us’; the nation state would break up and we needed to move beyond it to ‘a European federation of equal regions’ (Kearney, 1988, pp.8, 15–18). But a Europe of ‘equal regions’ is a utopian non-starter if ever there was one; and far from ending nationalism, some of the strongest regional movements – in Scotland, Ireland, the Basque Country and elsewhere – are themselves nationalisms whose core supporters seek not merely their own region but their own, reconstituted nation state.