Regionalism refers to three distinct elements:
a) movements demanding territorial autonomy within unitary states;
b) the organization of the central state on a regional basis for the delivery of its policies including regional development policies;
c) political decentralization and regional autonomy.
The first may be seen as ‘bottom-up’ regionalism, the second as ‘top-down regionalism and the third as a response to the first.
The first regional movements are found in Europe in the late nineteenth century, directed largely against the centralizing and uniform nation state. They were often conservative in orientation, supported by traditional social classes and religious groups and opposing social change imposed by modernity. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were also more progressive and modernizing regionalisms, in the dynamic regions. Both types of movement can be seen as responses to the consolidation of the nation state, the closing of borders, the creation of national markets and efforts at cultural and social homogenization, which had an uneven impact on various sectors and territories. In some cases, as in Catalonia, Flanders or Brittany, such movements evolved into nationalist movements, participating in the ‘re-awakening of the nationalities’ in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In the mid-twentieth century there emerged a ‘functional regionalism’ inspired by states themselves in the context of national planning and economic modernization. Regional planning was a response to state failures in the inter-war period and to the work of academics and practitioners arguing on the basis of functional efficiency. It varied in ambition, being most fully elaborated in France, where it was an extension of national economic planning machinery. Regional policies were state policies intended to ensure even development across the national territory. They consisted of subsidies and tax incentives, together with infrastructure provision, to encourage the relocation of investment to lagging regions. They followed a triple logic. Economically, they were intended to maximize national production by mobilizing resources in regions of under-employment. Socially they represented the spatial extension of the principle of social solidarity and the welfare state by reducing regional inequalities. Politically, they secured support for the state and for ruling parties in under-developed or declining areas.
In some cases, regional planning and regional policy gave rise to new institutions intended to secure good implementation on the ground. Typically these consisted of specialized development agencies and consultative councils bringing together central and local government, business, trade unions and independent experts. Initially regional planning and policies were seen as technical matters and the institutions were rather technocratic and de-politicized. Inevitably, however, conflicts arose as to the direction of policy and its beneficiaries and the field was politicized. Regional actors, notably, complained about their subordination to central development strategies. The response was either the demise of regional planning machinery (as in the United Kingdom) or its evolution into elected regional government (as in France and Italy).
At the same time, there was a revival of regional political movements. In the post-war period, these were not as conservative as in the nineteenth century but their political complexion varied. Some were Christian Democrat in orientation, pursuing modernization without social revolution and upholding the principle of subsidiarity. Others were left-wing, as social democratic parties gradually abandoned the centralized attitudes which they held for much of the twentieth century and rediscovered older, decentralist traditions. Left-radical movements in some cases adopted regionalist principles, basing their arguments on theories of internal colonialism and inspired by the decolonization struggles of the 1960s. New left libertarian movements adopted regionalism to distinguish themselves from the centralist attitudes of the old left including social democrats and communists. The 1960s and 1970s saw a revival of cultural, ethnic and national movements within European states and, since most of these had a territorial base, they flowed into a revived regionalism.
From the 1980s there emerged the new regionalism (Keating, 1998). This was driven by economic change, globalization and European integration, and the transformation of the state. Globalization, the communications revolution and the rise of new technologies and modes of production have, in some ways, led to a de-territorialization of the economy. Migration, social change and secularization, have produced a greater uniformity of values across space. Political parties have homogenized electoral choice within states. Yet at the same time there has been a re-territorialization of economic, cultural and political life. New theories of economic development place a strong emphasis both on global trends and on the local factors that govern the adaptation of specific places to these influences. Economic change in the modern economy is responsive to the social configuration of particular places. Regions and localities have emerged as key sites of economic change and can be seen as local production systems rather than simply the location of economic activities. These local and regional production systems are in competition with each other for investment, technological advantage and markets. National governments no longer possess the instruments for managing their spatial economies which they had in the heyday of Keynesianism. Investors can leave the country rather than place their investments in poor regions, tariff protection is disallowed under international trading agreements and European regulations limit government intervention in the name of competition. So national regional development policies, in which regions were seen as complementary, have given way to competitive regionalism, in which regions must make their own way. In this competition, there is an advantage to those regions that have the right institutions to promote social co-operation and produce public goods.
This functionally-driven regionalism has been found in many parts of the world, as global economic trends have different impacts of territories. It has been encouraged by globalization but also by the rise of supra-state regionalism, as in the European Union, the North American Free Trade Area or Mercosur, which weaken the ability of states to manage their spatial economies and increase territorial competition. In Asia, selective integration into the global economy has increased territorial disparities and led to a new emphasis on place-based development policies.
In some regions and historic nations such as Catalonia, Flanders or Scotland, this economic dynamic coincides with cultural distinctiveness or revived identities. The same process can be seen in Quebec. In other cases, such as the movement for Padania in northern Italy, there have been efforts to invent such an ethno-cultural identity. So there is again a convergence of themes of regionalism and nationalism. In central-eastern Europe, in Latin America and in Asia there is less of an overlap between economic regionalism and ethnic or nationality movements.
The response of governments in European states has been to put in place systems of regional or meso-level government, between the central and the municipal level. In North America, it has led to an increasing emphasis on state and provincial governments at the interface between local society and global trends. In existing federal systems such as those of Latin America and in India, there are centrifugal pressures as wealthier regions seek their own path to development, although the geography of federalism does not often correspond well to that of economic patterns. Systems of meso-government vary greatly in their powers and competences but all are concerned with managing the insertion of their territories into continental and global markets. Some have responded with neo-liberal strategies, seeking to reduce costs and attract inward investment. Others have placed more emphasis on social solidarity and environmental considerations. In all cases, the region has become a key level at which the competing demands of economic competitiveness and social cohesion are played out.
Some exaggerated accounts have claimed that such regions are displacing nation states as the principal regulators of economic and social life (Ohmae, 1995). A more realistic view is that they are emerging alongside states, creating new and complex patterns of regulation. Interpretations of the phenomenon, however, differ from one discipline to another. Economic geographers emphasize economic change and the emergence of new production systems, but often draw simplistic conclusions as to the impact on politics and institutions. Indeed the kind of functionalist argument – that the economic determines the political - now widely rejected as an explanation for European integration, has come back at the regional level. Political scientists generally see the region as a construction, made of several elements, which coincide more or less well in space. Bringing these together and establishing a common meaning is a task of political leaders, who create regions from existing materials. Legal scholars do not use the concept of the region much, since it has no common juridical status, but do recognize that it is a level of government between the state and the local level and as a constitutional mid-point between the unitary and the federal state.
Another problem is in determining just what a region is and whether it has to be of a particular size or have fixed boundaries. Economists, sociologists, political scientists and constitutional lawyers tend to have different ideas on this. Geographers increasingly incline to the view that regions have rather indeterminate boundaries, depending on exactly what function we are talking about. They are not closed boxes like the archetypal nation state, but rather open spaces that blend into each other.
During the 1990s there was a debate about the concept of the Europe of the Regions, the idea that regions were emerging as a third level of government alongside the European Union and its Member States. In the 1992 Treaty on European Union, regions gained recognition in the form of the consultative Committee of the Regions and the right, subject to national law, to participate along with their respective states in the Council of Ministers. Since then they have made little constitutional progress, partly because of their heterogeneous status and powers, and they were not accorded a significant role in the negotiation of the draft Constitutional Treaty. There does remain an interest in cross-border regions as a way of promoting European integration and in mitigating national conflicts in the case of nations and minorities that cross state borders. There is also a literature on paradiplomacy, tracing the emergence of regions as actors in international affairs, alongside, and not replacing, nation states.
Regionalism in the sense identified here is a product of the west European state. In international relations it refers to something quite different, groupings of states such as the European Union, the North American Free Trade Area or the Association of South East Asian Nations. In the United States, it refers to a more local level, the co-operation among municipal governments on common tasks. In central and eastern Europe, there are signs of regionalism in the west European sense, but it is much less advanced. This is because these states have not had the same experience since the Second World War and the various meanings of the region have not converged. Elsewhere in the world the idea exists but in a less developed form, and mainly referring to regional development policies rather than self-government.
The formula of devolution to meso level governments has become a principal means for resolving nationalities conflicts in west European states, including Spain, Belgium, the United Kingdom and, so some degree, France and Italy. It is less suited where nationality groups and territory do not coincide. Even in those cases, however, partially territorial solutions may play a role. The Northern Ireland peace agreement combines a territorial/ regional form of autonomy with a consociational regime of power sharing and a set of extra-territorial mechanisms that allow the nationalist and unionist communities respectively to express their identities as Irish or British. In the Basque Country, moderate nationalists have made proposals for stronger regional self-government for the existing Basque autonomous community in Spain, while fostering relations with the other Basque or partially Basque territories in Spain and France. Asymmetrical devolution has allowed the United Kingdom to accede to demands for autonomy in some parts of the state, while England remains under the control of the central government. Such asymmetrical arrangements have been much more controversial in Spain and Canada. In India and Nepal, there is a tension between organizing federalism on the basis of language or ethnicity, and on the basis of economic regions, which could be viable units. Regionalism has been less successful as means of addressing the question of indigenous peoples, who are often few in number and not always territorially concentrated.
There has been a tendency for convergence between the nationalism of minorities and stateless nations on the one hand, and regionalism on the other. The transformation of the state and the questioning of traditional ideas of sovereignty under the impact of globalization and European integration has opened up prospects of new forms of accommodation of nationalities short of secession. Many nationalist movements have responded by adopting a language of post-sovereignty in which they emphasize democratic self-determination and control of powers and resources rather than the formal trappings of sovereignty. Regionalism provides one mechanism for this, particularly in its new regionalist form, which emphasizes self-regulation, a shared development project, social solidarity, paradiplomacy, and the ability to project the region in world markets.
Regionalism does not resolve the old dilemmas of self-determination but it does make a contribution.
Keating, Michael (1998), The New Regionalism in Western Europe. Territorial Restructuring and Political Change, Aldershot: Edward Elgar.
Ohmae, Kenichi (1995), The End of the Nation State. The Rise of Regional Economies, New York: The Free Press.