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

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A Europe of the Regions?

6 Has the future already arrived?

6.1 The complexities of a multifaceted Europe

If the ‘Europe of the Regions’ model is also ruled out – at least in its stronger versions which suggest that nation states are being replaced – the interesting question remains: how will significantly enhanced regionalisms relate to other ‘possible Europes’? These include the traditional ‘nation state’ and ‘Federal Europe’ models, both of which also reflect some continuing elements of reality, but in addition a ‘Europe’ of cities, of cultures, of national and ethnic minorities, and of transnational movements and structures which extend well beyond the institutional architecture of the EU. This multifaceted Europe is not captured by any of the three ‘models’, most obviously because they are too simplified. But, more fundamentally, they fail because they each focus on one of three ‘traditional levels’ of territorial government as if the future involved simply making a choice between these levels. They counterpose them as discrete ‘alternatives’ rather than focusing on how they interrelate, and how particular social processes span or include the different levels. They fail to appreciate the qualitative transformation in their interrelationships that is already well underway.

Political power and government are seen very simplistically in terms of a ‘zero-sum’ competition between discrete territorial levels, with more power at one level automatically meaning less at another. But political restructuring cannot be reduced to this simple arithmetic – there is no ‘fixed total’ of power to be distributed, and power is not only distributed between political institutions at different spatial scales, it is also located in the relations between these institutions and it is found outside them in civil society. As Susan Strange pointed out, nation states may be losing some of their autonomy not because power has ‘gone upwards’ to other political institutions such as the EU but because it has ‘gone sideways’ to economic institutions and global market forces, and in some respects it has ‘gone nowhere’ or just ‘evaporated’ as political control over economic forces is simply lost (Strange, 1994). Likewise, more power for regions does not necessarily mean less for states. We have seen that states may indeed be strengthened by devolving some political processes to their regions and by ‘pooling’ some of their sovereignty in the EU collective. Furthermore, while states may lose some autonomous power in one policy area (for example, industrial development), they may gain new powers in other areas (for example, labour training, and controls over labour migration), and such distinctions are increasingly important given the fact that globalisation is having very uneven impacts on different state functions. So the idea of the EU or the regions as alternatives to the nation state would seem to be fundamentally flawed.

The traditionalist limitations of this idea are well depicted by the metaphor of ‘Gulliver's fallacy’, in which new political forms can only be scale replicas of the existing nation state, either larger as in a ‘United States of Europe’, or smaller as in regional government (just as the two societies which Gulliver met in his Travels, one of giants, the other of midgets, were simply scale replicas of human society). This perspective sees only a change of geographical scale with no real appreciation that political processes and institutions at different scales are likely to be qualitatively (not just quantitatively) different, and no recognition that their new interrelationships may be a key factor potentially transforming the whole nature of politics. Much of the debate about Europe's future is vitiated by false polarisations between regions, states and other territorial levels.

Instead, it seems more fruitful to think of qualitative changes in the relationships within and between such levels, and to see them as being increasingly linked in ‘multi-layered’ or ‘multi-level’ structures of governance, with multiple identities and loyalties, albeit ones of varying intensity or importance (Guibernau, 1999). We also need to take into account the fact that regionalism, along with other territorial forms of politics, culture and identity, is increasingly in interaction with non-territorial transnational movements which cross-cut these levels.

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