The substance behind the rhetoric of a ‘Europe of the Regions’ and the main impediments to the establishment of an EU-wide system of regional governance?

Essay 2006 10 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Topic: European Union



Module Code/Title: PO-220 After Democracy: The EU and the Governance of Europe

Home Department: German (Exchange Student)


How much substance is there behind the rhetoric of a ‘Europe of the Regions’, and what are the main impediments to the establishment of an EU-wide system of regional governance?


The term ‘Europe of the Regions’ has been used over the last decades either to describe one of the supposed effects of the integration process on European governance or as a normative goal in the sense of a post-national Europe. Proponents of a Europe of the Regions assume that the combined effect of European integration at the top and regional decentralisation at the bottom will eventually lead to a dissolving of the traditional nation state in Europe. Others reject this view and see this development rather as the emergence of a new form of multilevel governance within the existing framework of national and European institutions. The regional element of the EU can be retraced to the establishment of the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) in 1975 but, as Harvie points out, since that time regional development has taken a dynamic of its own which challenges the traditional nation state: ‘Regionalisation, the chopping-up of problems into manageable areas, has given way to a subjective and aggressive regionalism.’1 Regions have doubtlessly established themselves as key players in European governance. The purpose of this essay is to clarify whether a Europe of the regions is a viable option in practice and whether it is desirable at all. To answer this question, this essay will first of all clarify the ambiguous term ‘region’ and analyse different concepts of regional governance in several EU countries. In a next step, it will examine the various ways of access and influence that regions can have on the EU policy process and assess the viability of these approaches. Furthermore, the role of regionalist and minority nationalist parties in promoting (or impeding) a regionalised Europe will be highlighted. Finally, the findings of this essay will be summed up to find out whether there is really substance behind the slogan of a Europe of the regions.

Forms of Sub-National Government in the European Union

The region as a sub-national level of politics has certainly gained importance over the last decades. Most European states have decentralised their systems of government, partly in order to improve economic efficiency in the face of accelerating globalisation and European market integration, partly to ameliorate democracy and to allow for the historic and cultural particularities of certain regions or ethnic minorities. In many cases nation-states simply tried to offload the complex problems of social and economic change or their huge administration efforts downwards to local or regional authorities. Besides this ‘top-down-approach’, there have also been ‘bottom-up-pressures’ from regionalist or micro-nationalist movements calling for cultural and political self-determination or even independence (see section 3).2 However, growing decentralisation does not mean that a homogenous level of regional government throughout the EU has emerged. European regions differ substantially in character. While some regions are based on historic nations, like Scotland or Catalonia, others have developed from administrative areas to powerful polities, such as most German Länder in the post-war era, while others are mainly centred around city-regions, for example in France. Some countries, like Greece, Ireland or (within the UK) England, even have no autonomous regional government whatsoever.3 Bullmann therefore differs between four types of regional organisation according to their constitutional independence.

- classic unitary states, where regional structures only exist for administrative purposes and are subordinate to the central state, for example in Greece, Ireland and Denmark,
- devolving unitary states, where regional tiers enjoy a certain degree of autonomy and constitutional protection, for example in France, Portugal and the Netherlands,
- regionalised unitary stateswith a directly elected tier of regional government with wide- ranging autonomy and own legislative power, for example Spain and Italy,
- federal statesthat involve a constitutional sharing of powers and the coexistence of sovereignties, for example Germany, Austria and Belgium.4

As a result, regions have highly unequal abilities in formulating their political interest when dealing with national or European issues. The two Belgian regions of Flanders and Walloonia, which are clearly the most autonomous in Europe, can enter into international relations and sign official treaties without consulting the state, whereas the German and Austrian Länder must have the concession of the national government in order to do so; in all other EU countries this is still the exclusive preserve of the national government.5 Since the central question of this essay is whether regions can be able to replace the nation state under the umbrella of the European Union, one has to assess whether the traditional hard-bordered nation state (and in most cases region) can be replaced by new ‘soft-bordered’ forms of regional government. Again, Belgium has been the forerunner in applying the concept of soft borders by dividing governance between the three territorial units of the regions, the Cultural Communities and the federation. In Brussels and the German-speaking eastern part of Belgium this has effectively led to an overlapping of different governmental tiers. In these areas the Flemish and French Communities (in Brussels) and the Walloon region (in the German areas) have responsibilities within the territories of other regional units.6

Access of Regions to the EU Policy Process

These highly diverging starting positions are reflected in the various ways of regional access to the European level of politics. Generally speaking, there are two types of channel for regions to gain access to EU institutions: intra-state channels with indirect access via the nation state, and extra-state channels with more or less direct access.7 Extra-state channels of influence are probably the more obvious ones since their application has grown rapidly over the last years. Almost every region receiving significant aid from the ERSF has established its own direct representation at the EU in order to lobby the Commission and Parliament, to monitor EU regulations, and to promote their interests in the EU political process. There are now over 240 regional offices in Brussels.8 The European Commission, in turn, has opened representations in various regions throughout the EU.9


1 Christopher Harvie,The Rise of Regional Europe.(London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 4.

2 Udo Bullmann, “The Politics of the Third Level” in Charlie Jeffery, ed.,The Regional Dimension of the European Union: Towards a Third Level in Europe?(London and Portland: Frank Cass, 1997), 9-10.

3 M. Keating and L. Hooghe, “By-Passing the Nation State? Regions and the EU Policy Process” in Jeremy Richardson, ed.,European Union: Power and Policy-Making. (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 217-9.

4 Bullmann, “The Third Level”, 5.

5 John Hopkins, Devolution in Context: Regional, Federal and Devolved Government in the European Union.

(London and Sydney: Cavendish Publishing, 2002), 310.

6 Hopkins, Devolution, 326-7.

7 Charlie Jeffery, “Conclusions: Sub-National Authorities and ‘European Domestic Policy’” in Charlie Jeffery, ed.,The Regional Dimension of the European Union: Towards a Third Level in Europe?(London and Portland: Frank Cass, 1997), 206.

8 The European Regions Research and Innovation Network, http://www.errinbrussels.org/contents/T50/T51.php?category_id=45, May 11, 2006.

9 Bullmann, “The Third Level”, 13-4.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
463 KB
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Institution / College
Swansea University
Europe of the Regions EU Regionalism Governance European Integration Decentralisation Devolution




Title: The substance behind the rhetoric of a ‘Europe of the Regions’ and  the main impediments to the establishment of an EU-wide system of regional governance?