Ethnic identity and regionalism have often been denounced as political nightmares and the devastating driving forces behind appalling ethnic conflicts such as the Bosnian War. Furthermore, regionalism has long been depicted as a backward-looking and parochial worldview trying to stop the march of time. However, regionalism can also be seen as a powerful basic principle for turning the European Union into a more democratic and legitimate and potent organisation.

Image courtesy of Rock Cohen © 2006, some rights reserved

Undeniably, regionalism still matters. Even more, the idea of regional identity is gaining momentum in Europe. In Scotland, the SNP is reinforcing its efforts to persuade Scottish society to vote “Yes” in the looming 2014 referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. In September, one million Catalans took to the streets of Barcelona, carrying banners with slogans such as “Catalonia is not Spain”. Thus, they expressed their discontent with the struggling central government in Madrid which the Catalans accuse of exploiting their region’s financial resources. Even in Bavaria, a recently published book campaigning for secession from Germany has caused some stir. In Italy, the general regional divide between northern Italy and its southern counterpart remains as wide as ever. Flanders, Belgium’s northern and more affluent region, has been trying to break-up Belgium for decades. These examples prove that regionalisms – even in the 21th century – remains a powerful agent, providing the people of Europe with a vigorous identity and a much needed cultural anchor when facing a globalised world. In fact, regions seem to be able to accomplish this task far better than the national states which are often artificially crafted around the regional sub-entities. When it comes to the provision of a cultural self-understanding, linking oneself to a regional identity is frequently felt to be more natural than turning to the supranational state: countries like Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Belgium are cases were this can be said to be true. However, how can regional identities be a building block of a political reform resulting in a stronger and simultaneously more democratic EU?

Demanding more European integration might look like infringing on a taboo, bearing the current state of the EU in mind, but political reform is absolutely essential if the EU wants to remain capable of action. The crisis has proven that a European fiscal union and pooling financial energies is inevitable, in order to give the EU the means to meet upcoming economic challenges and to avoid any future financial disasters. The current safety net for the euro is therefore just a harbinger of financial merging. A fiscal union, however, can only be legitimate when it is based on a strong democratic mandate: something which many people say the EU is already lacking. The EU, as a supranational body, appears to be out of touch with its citizens, while its members states strive to maintain as much power as possible. Responsible for the EU-scepticism inherent in the current EU-system are political organs like the European Council: the European Council, though without any legislative power, is the strategic organ of the EU. Consisting of the heads of state or government of the EU-members, it is responsible for determining the general political direction the Union is heading in. It acts as a brake towards integration – as a resistance of the nation state against supranational governance. Since the Council’s members are the elected leaders of their respective states, they are prone to defend what they perceive as “national interest”, often bragging to their electorate at home as “having defended the interest of country x against European usurpation.” This often results in watered-down compromises on EU-policies which are intended to keep EU-governance down and to further the citizen’s alienation from the EU; an EU basing its politics on shallow bargains can easily be used by the national governments as a scapegoat. The EU is then blamed for being inefficient and, paradoxically, of enforcing a diktat against the will of its constituent parts.

Hence, a possible political reform of the EU should entail a reduction in the influence of the nation states and should rather increase the citizens’ rights to a say in European affairs. Giving the EU the powers it needs to withstand political and financial upheavals can only be legitimised by bringing the EU as closely as possible back to the people. This can be achieved by evading the nation states and institutions like the European Council which strive to maintain their role as their citizens’ voice. In contrast, an EU which answers directly to the local regions and pursues policies sanctioned by regional elected representatives can evolve into a democratic, legitimate and strong body rooted in people’s daily lives. Many EU-States, especially those with a long history of foreign occupation, seek to prevent this sort of development, and a Europe of region remains a distant vision. When the crisis pushes the EU to explore new adaptations, this is one that will definitely be worth considering when the time comes for Europe to embark upon the next step.