Some critical thoughts regarding regional reform in Romania

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The danger regarding regionalisation in the EU in general, and Romania in particular, is that it may change from innovation into mere fashion, writes Alina Bargaoanu.

Alina Bargaoanu is the rector of the National School of Political and Administrative Studies (SNSPA) of Bucharest.

The envisaged regional reform in Romania has been hotly debated recently. According to official announcements, the legal package should be ready by July 2013, and this should be introduced in the Constitution (planned to be amended through a referendum in September or October this year). Here are some thoughts regarding the state of the reform and the debate sparked by it.

Development should lie at the core of a regional reform

Regional reform is to be designed and perceived as an essential means for a country’s development. Despite this rather commonsensical statement, the regional reform in Romania has been transformed into an end in itself, while its role in economic growth and development is rather indirect: to create the necessary conditions and frameworks conducive to such objectives. Hence the exaggerations, the inflated expectations, the “cure-all” type of approach.

By development I understand not only economic growth, but also an inclusive growth that fights regional backwardness, tackles poverty and inequality. Development involves the transformation of the whole society and a development strategy “needs to set forth the vision of the transformation, what the society will be like 10 to 20 years from now” (Stiglitz). Unless the vision of how we would like Romania to be like 20-25 years from now is clarified, efforts towards regionalisation are largely ineffective, and means will be perpetually be confused with ends. 

The identity of the regions

The internal debate has focused on the territorial delineation of regions, their naming and capitals. The reform should tackle more substantive issues: the role and responsibilities of the new regional authorities; their power and relationship to the local, national and the European authorities; the inter-regional relations, the creation of regional networks. Regions should be defined in functional terms, by exploring whether “a set of conditions conducive to development apply more than they do in larger or smaller areas” (F. Barca), what is referred to as the “identity of the region”. Identity is multilayered:

  • economic identity (demographic facts and trends, qualification and costs of the labor force; existence of raw materials; previous specialisation in manufacturing/ agriculture/ services);
  • institutional identity – responsibilities; funding mechanisms; relations with the counties, with the national government and with the EU; the decentralisation rhetoric is all powerful, but it cannot obscure pregnant European trends, such as "joined-up government", "intraterritorial cooperation", "intraregional cooperation", "transregional cooperation";
  • cultural identity, the sense of belonging; what legitimacy do the new structures have?; what role do citizens have?; do they elect regional representatives?; how could the regions be empowered?.

One aspect regarding the identity of the regions has to do with the balance between cohesion-driven and competitiveness-driven regions, a concern which is missing from the official discourse. Starting with the 2007-2013 programming period, the Cohesion Policy shifted its focus from purely cohesion-type objectives towards competitiveness-driven ones. This new focus is in line with the awareness that growth and development cannot be achieved only by eliminating weaknesses and backwardness (cohesion), but also by exploiting strengths and stimulating excellence (competitiveness). Coming back to Romania, I wonder which regions are designed to be competitive, hubs of excellence in areas such as IT, R&D, creative industries?

Regionalisation should not lead to fragmentation

Efforts towards regionalisation – in Romania and elsewhere in the EU – should not run contrary to the fact that today’s economic competition is between giants – countries, continents, or continental countries. EU has to respond to multiple, transnational challenges: ageing; migration; climate changes; energy security; the innovation race; the pressures exerted by traditional contenders and by newcomers (BRIC); the economic and financial crisis; the ascent of the global markets.

The danger regarding regionalisation in the EU in general, in Romania, in particular, is that it may change from an innovation into a mere fashion. Above all, regions should be established according to their capacity to meet the needs of the people who inhabit them. In an open economy, created either by globalisation or by European integration, regions depend on the global and European markets. The causes of problems and changes are global, but the effects are felt at a regional and local level. The paradox of regionalisation is that, the more autonomy regions gain from states, the less protected against markets they are and the more dependant they are on global, transnational forces. Therefore, regions should be seen systems of action, as functional systems that can provide for the welfare of their inhabitants and protect them from the unleashed markets (Habermas’ term).

Regionalisation should not serve ideological (neoliberal) purposes that “dictate” the rollback of government. The practice of development worldwide has revealed that development needs to be driven by a combination of actors: the EU, the state, the regions, the markets, the non-governmental sector – in new combinations. Differentiating between ideology and an awareness of what combination of actors and policies work best could provide a new impetus to the process of regionalisation. In Romania and elsewhere.

Final thoughts

For the project of regionalisation to succeed in Romania, some conditions need to be met. First, guarantees should be made that regionalisation does not serve ideological purposes or any hidden agenda. Suspicion that we do it for some obscure purposes, or that we do it because “Bruxelles asks for it” or else it will once again penalise us will hinder any consensus-building efforts. Second, regionalisation should serve economic, development-driven objectives, and less so political ones. In order to do so, inquiry into the history of regions, into the existence of uniform conditions favourable to growth is essential for their functional delineation. The third condition has to do with the future. In order to unlock the potential of regions, the vision for their development and for the development of the country overall is needed. Exaggerations and misunderstandings characterising the internal debate reflects some major weaknesses. Out of these, the most striking is our weak capacity to design a development strategy, build consensus around it and channel all available resources for its implementation.”

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