Can an ‘EU of the regions’ offer an alternative to Catalan secession?

Some 15,000 students take part in a protest against Spanish police forces' actions during the '1-O Referendum' held the previous day, in Barcelona, Spain, 02 October 2017. [Juan Carlos Cardenas/EPA]

On Monday (9 October), local government officials from across the European Union will converge in Brussels for the ‘European Week of Regions and Cities’. As they meet, they will be well aware of the turmoil taking place in one region in particular – Catalonia.

The Catalan crisis has made newspapers across Europe turn their attention to other secessionist movements, from Scotland to Flanders to Bavaria. Will violence by the Spanish state against regional forces embolden these other movements? Is this when the EU comes apart at the seams?

The increasing regional desires for autonomy have been presented as a threat to the EU. But could the EU actually be the solution?

Though anti-EU populists such as Nigel Farage and Geert Wilders have championed the Catalan cause this week, the Catalan secessionists are not anti-EU. On the contrary, like other movements in places like Scotland and Flanders, their plan for independence depends on continued membership in the bloc. It is the EU that has emboldened them, because as a member state they would still have access to their country’s market.

In challenging the primacy of the nation-state, the EU has made regional independence a possibility in a way it never was before.

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Subsidiarity

Indeed, while many citizens think of the EU as something that transfers power from national capitals to Brussels, the original idea was that this transfer should move in two directions – up to Brussels and down to regions.

It is enshrined in the principle of ‘subsidiarity’: that decisions should be made at the level – European, national, or regional – that is closest to citizens while still being effective. It was codified in 1985 and inserted into the Maastricht Treaty in 1992.

To this end, the EU’s Committee of the Regions was created in 1994. Given that 70% of EU legislation needs to be implemented at the regional level, it was meant to give regional governments a greater voice in EU policy-making.

“The principle of subsidiarity is in the treaties, and if it’s to be taken seriously, decision-making should take place at the level of governance which is closest to the citizen,” said Michael O’Conchuir of the European Alliance group of regionalist-minded members of the committee.

However, the committee’s role has not worked out the way it was first envisioned. It has only an advisory role, with little say in EU lawmaking.

It has been consistently sidelined by the European Council, the body of national member state representatives, which usually ignores its advice. In a special report on the European Union earlier this year, The Economist called the institution “preposterous”, adding that “hardly anybody, even in Brussels, would notice if it disappeared tomorrow.”

But that may be about to change.

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A union of regions

Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, has proposed a series of “citizens dialogues” on EU reform to take place across the EU over the coming year. The idea has been backed by Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission. This dialogue may eventually lead to treaty change.

Some are positing that a change which gives more autonomy to Europe’s regions, in the context of EU lawmaking, could address the increasing mood of localism across the bloc.

“Over the last years there’s been an awful lot of voters moving towards parties which represent nations, which want more power to go to the regions and more autonomy – predominantly in larger member states,” said O’Conchuir.

He stressed that EU reform should address this. “The Committee of the Regions should be changed from an advisory body to a real institution, enshrined in the treaties.”

The idea is not new. The concept of a “Europe of the Regions” was coined by Denis de Rougemont, the Swiss regionalist philosopher, decades ago as a way to dilute the centralised power of the EU’s nation-states, the vast majority of which are less than 200 years old.

EU leaders have recently hinted that this focus on regionalisation could be part of the EU reform drive. Speaking to the Committee of the Regions last year, European Council President Donald Tusk denounced the separatism wave sweeping the continent and said more Europe could be a solution.

“A Europe of the regions would be freer and fairer than a Europe of new fatherlands,” he told the regional representatives.

“The idea of Europe is much older than Europe’s nations. That is why our heritage is as much about Wales, Provence or Lapland or Kashubia – and their diversity – as it is about single nation-states. Nationalism means being separate. And separatism, also on the regional level, does not lead to better democracy or greater diversity. For me, real regionalism is a strong antidote to nationalism and separatism,” Tusk said

A former prime minister of Poland, Tusk said diffusion of political decisions would help democracy. “Strong regions show a strong country,” he said. “The more a country is just about a capital city, the less healthy it is. Everything that is bad in European history is usually the result of the urge to centralise and make everything homogenous – communism, fascism, nationalism.”

However, the challenge is that each country has different experiences of regionalism. The EU has federal countries like Germany and Austria, where states exercise huge power. But it also has extremely centralised countries like France or Sweden, where regional governance is almost non-existent.

Then it has centralised countries like the UK and Spain, where some territories have been given devolved authority, but not others.

The problem, O’Conchuir noted, is that while some regions are clamouring for autonomy, others don’t care.

Given that Macron comes from a centralised country without strong independence movements outside Corsica, it is unlikely that a regionalisation idea will be his main focus. But it could be an idea coming from Germany, where politicians have often suggested that their federal structure of governance would be beneficial for countries like Spain.

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Cooperation today

EU regions already have more power today as a result of being in the EU. The regional development funds given out by Brussels go directly to regional authorities, which are able to independently take the decisions on how they are spent.

This situation has, however, been the subject of criticism because it has sometimes resulted in corruption and lack of transparency.

Regions are also creating co-governance frameworks with regions in neighbouring countries through EU programmes. In 1990, the EU created the Interreg programme to foster this cooperation. Today it has a budget of €10bn and oversees 60 cross-border regional partnerships.

“The aim is to find common solutions for cross-border problems such as roads, rivers, water quality and environmental issues,” said Erwin Siweris, the programme’s director.

Notably, these partnerships are done directly between the regional governments. This has empowered regions to take decisions at home.

Siweris said it has worked to help regions recognise their own power. “The purpose of the programme is to give regions a voice, and that’s what they have,” he said.

“I think the programme can perfectly help to overcome national or regional divides. This is a programme for the regions by the regions. If you take the example of Belgium, in national politics the regions have some troubles, but in the programme, they speak with one voice. They’re working perfectly together.”

Tusk has also encouraged these cross-border partnerships, noting in his speech that “regions cut across borders and pre-date them”. He gave the example of Tyrol, which transcends the Austrian-Italian border and in which three languages are spoken interchangeably.

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Threats to the nation state

But some have felt threatened by these regional partnerships. Since its launch, British tabloids have periodically picked up on Interreg’s activity and splashed headlines across their pages saying the EU is trying to erase the nation-state.

The Sun first raised alarm in 1997, after discovering a “new” Interreg map dividing the UK into regions for the purposes of regional administration. That England was divided into nine regions was seen as “Brussels wiping England off its new euromap…clearly an attempt to divide and rule.” The story was repeated again in 1999 as a “new” map.

In 2006 The Telegraph was incensed when it discovered the map of regional partnerships and found something labelled as the “TransManche Region” – an area of partnership between regions on either side of the English Channel.

“They have tried to redraw the map of Europe before – now a German-led conspiracy of cartographers stands accused of trying to use a new European Union directive to give Brussels the power to change national boundaries,” the paper wrote.

Such reaction to the mere suggestion of increased regional autonomy and cooperation from media entrenched in national capitals shows what the drive to create a “Europe of the regions” would be up against.

Speaking on Belgian radio this week after the events in Catalonia, Karl-Heinz Lambertz, the president of the Committee of the Regions, noted that the Commission’s refusal to engage directly with the Catalan government during the crisis shows that national capitals still hold a monopoly on power in the EU. The EU, he said, should not be afraid to go around national capitals and speak directly to regions.

“The situation we’re now living in Catalonia is obviously disrupting the overall balance a little,” he said. “We must arrive at this multi-level government, of which we hear so often, where each level of power can develop and work in coherence with others from Europe.”

Corina Creţu, the EU’s regional policy Commissioner, will address the local representatives at the start of their activities on Monday. Will she bring up the Catalan situation? If she were to suggest a ‘Europe of the regions’ solution to the rise of secessionist sentiment, she would probably find a receptive audience in the room.

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