Political Identity: territory
and regions in Europe
Alistair Cole
Three ways of understanding regions
and regionalism
Ethno-territorial mobilisation
Multi-level governance
New Regionalism?
Three approaches that might be ‘tested’ in
relation to a broad variety of cases
Identity and ethno-territorial
Moreno Ethno-territorial identities have developed as a result of the decline of the NationState, hollowed to the core by economic globalisation and political integration.
The new politics in Europe is that of ethno-territorial mobilisation. This reflects itself in substate political institutions, distinctive party systems, language rights movements and cultural
traditions and specific forms of elite accommodation.
There has been renewed interest in minority nationalism, ethno-territorial mobilisation and
how identity has an impact upon institutional arrangements .
In Spain, in theory a unitary state, there has developed a State of Autonomies, where three
‘nations’ – Catalonia, Basque Country and Galicia – are recognised as historic nationalities in
the 1978 constitution and given extended devolved powers.
In the UK, the minority nationalist’ question has been nested in a broader class cleavage: in
both Scotland and Wales, ‘ national’ identity came as a result of a specific feeling of class
identity and of being different from the rest of the UK.
If there are fashions, this is one. In Italy, a move to regional evolution has accompanied more
assertive regional claims, such as that of Padania in the north.
But are there other explanations. Is identity overplayed?
Multi-level governance?
A different approach – but one which focusses on regions – is that of multi-level governance
Initially developed by Marks (1992), this approach views the European policy process as ‘a
system of continuous negotiation among nested governments at several territorial tiers’
(Marks, 1993: p392).
One of the strongest arguments by supporters of multi-level governance is that EU cohesion
policy has transformed territorial policy styles across Europe, by encouraging and facilitating
the development of new political strategies and networks, bypassing State administrations and
creating new alliances between the European Commission and sub-state players.
This perspective views the multi-level game played jointly by the European Commission (and
latterly the European Parliament) and regional actors as a normative one, designed to ‘by-pass’
or ‘evade’ the centre qua central government, and result in an overall strengthening of both
supranational and regional tiers.
The multi-level governance perspective is in part a decentralisation narrative that emphasises
the financing of regional and structural programmes, the institutionalisation of regional
representation at EU level and the transnational activity of the regions
Regions are functional spaces, in this model, more than harbingers of a post-nation-state
New Regionalism? Be careful..
The norm in Europe is for an ‘asymmetrical configuration of government
and a multiplicity of institutional regimes…(Majone, 2003).
Regions are strengthened not just because of identity, or strategy of the EU,
but also because they represent functionally appropriate levels of
government, especially for economic planning.
Loughlin and Keating (2003): there has been a transformation of regions in
Europe, from functional outposts of central government... to genuine
political spaces, with directly elected institutions and developed forms of
Strengthening regions in a counterpart to the emasculation of the state
But how accurate is this? The response lies in empirical investigation and
Identity... Against instrumentalism
When considering the new regionalism debate above,
we drew a basic distinction between identity-based
forms of sub-state mobilisation capacity building and
more instrumental considerations of competencies
and inter-governmental relations.
Instrumental models are more likely to focus on
levels as being the appropriate ones for the delivery or
co-ordination of a range of services, while identity
models look to regions as historic, cultural and
political entities and argue for an institutional focus
for identity-based loyalties.
A word of caution
In some states, regions are weak or non-existent, especially where there is a
tradition of strong local government, as in the Netherlands, the Scandinavian
countries or – for much of its history – the United Kingdom
In some of the smaller European Union countries, such as Portugal, Greece or
Ireland, there is a tradition of centralisation that has difficulties in accommodating
regions. In the countries of central and Eastern Europe, there is no tradition of
autonomous regional level administration (Marcou, 2003).
During the EU enlargement negotiations, there was much opposition from within
these countries to creating new decentralised structures, with the new entrants
fearful lest irredentist national minorities try and break away and create their own
Though the European Commission started off by advocating decentralisation, it
swiftly moved to the idea of centralised ‘regional’ economic planning. In some
countries, regions are principally city regions, based around large cities and their
hinterland (Parkinson, 1992).
Spain: an attractive model for
The move to democracy in Spain from 1975 onwards
was closely linked with accommodating Spain’s
historic nations and regions and rallying everybody to
the democratic cause.
The ‘State of Autonomies’ embodied in the 1978
Constitution represented the most radical
regionalisation of any European state at the time. It
created 17 Autonomous Communities with far
reaching devolved powers. Catalonia, the Basque
Country and Galicia were recognised early on as
‘historic nationalities’, facilitating their support for
the plural Spanish nation.
Spain: identity or institutions?
The Spanish state is neither federal nor unitary.. here there is a strong
institutional argument. No-one wants to be left behind and ACs are
discovering ancient identities
Until recently, Apart from one or two exceptions (such as the Basque taxraising powers) in theory all autonomous communities have the right to
exercise the powers of the strongest communities.
Since 1995, the weakest communities have caught up with the stronger
ones in terms of competencies. The precise list of competencies depends on
the organic laws in existence in each of the autonomous communities.
In some policy areas, the autonomous community has complete legislative
and regulatory powers, not dependent upon the Spanish State. In some
areas, there are shared powers, and in still others exclusive Spanish state
Spain Institutional incentives to ‘identivise’
There is an inherent tension between recognising historic identities and
providing the opportunity for all Spanish regions to develop their own
institutional capacity within the Union State.
In some important respects, the Spanish model does not favour the historic
nationalities over other regions. The constitution does not establish a
hierarchy between the historic communities and the others. In legal terms,
any autonomous community can call itself a nation, if it so desires.
While during the 1980s, only the three historic nationalities plus Andalusia
had proclaimed themselves to be nations, by 1999 eight out of 17
autonomous communities were recognised as nationalities.
Weaker regions have pointedly developed their ‘national’ identities in order
to prevent incorporation by stronger neighbours (the case for Valencia in
relation to Catalonia). Devolution in Spain has somewhat artificially
provoked a wide range of regionalist demands.
In the case of Spanish devolution, then, we can identify a clear
institutional effect. Institutions create a spiral effect and have introduced a
race for autonomy, a lesson policy-makers in the UK would be advised to
take on board.
Slippery slope…
New Catalan statute approved by the Catalan parliament in
2006, setting out Catalonia as a nation. Eventually approved
by the Spanish lower house on 30th March 2006. The Catalan
statute involves:
Recognition of Catalan national identity
‘national reality as a nationality’
Control over legal affairs
Strengthens Catalonia in relation to the EU and foreign policy:
Catalan parliament to raise 50% of income tax and VAT and
create a revenue agency
Catalan examples followed by Valencia, Andalucia and
Basque country.
Identity is exaggerated by institutions...
Germany: instrumentalism ovder
Germany provides a contrast both to Spanish asymmetry and Belgian
communautarianism. The Federal Republic of Germany provides the
interesting case of a federal system that does not allow great room for
policy diversity.
By imposing federalism upon western Germany in 1949, the occupying
powers sought to reduce the power of central government and ensure a
stable democracy.
Even after sixty years of operation, there remains something artificial about
German federalism. Unlike in a country such as Canada, German
federalism does not reflect the organisation of a society with specific
minorities. There are no significant ethnic, cultural, social or religious
tensions in Germany.
Moreover, the 16 state governments (the länder) are artificial units that do
not correspond to historic German regions and do not reflect cultural,
historic or linguistic differences within Germany.
Even after sixty years of institutional existence, Germans feel themselves to
be members of a local or a national community rather than a land. Their
real attachment to regions is to those based on dialects, customs and culture
such as the Rhineland, Palatinate, Badenia, or Franconia.
There is a very close interdependency between the federal and the state
(länder) governments, the system of ‘interlocking politics’ described by
The länder are legally bound into a system of joint decision-making and
revenue-sharing, and share a strong normative commitment to policy
The länder co-operate closely with the federal government in matters of
regional economic policy, agriculture and the planning of universities.
The länder are closely involved in decision-making at the federal level
through the composition of the second chamber, the bundesrat, which has a
veto on federal legislation in around 50% of cases.
Unlike in Belgium or even Spain, there is a strict system of fiscal
redistribution and most resources for federal governments and the länder
come from joint taxes.
For all these reasons, there is a greater uniformity of policy in Germany
than might be expected in a federal system.
Identity is squeezed out by institutions…
Belgium: linguistic fracture
The case of Belgium is the most eloquent in terms of demonstrating the centrifugal
effects of linguistic divisions
Belgium was created as an independent state in 1830… domination of the Frenchspeaking Walloons in the south.. at the expense of the Dutch speaking Flemish,
mainly in the north. In the course of the mid 20th century, the economic and
linguistic balance began to shift: so that the downtrodden Flemish now became the
majority of the population and the more dynamic economic community.
The only solution discovered to prevent the complete dissolution of the Belgian
state: the policy of separate language communities (from 1963), to deal with issues
of education and culture, for the different communities.
The language issue has had a profound impact in Belgium, to the extent of changing
the party system and replacing Belgian-wide parties - e.g. Socialists, with specific
parties for each community. Here: language has had the effect of a cleavage
Institutions have encouraged linguistic identities and language performs the
role of a key cleavage.
Comparison with other EU states reveals the persistence of this belief in equality as
uniformity and how this constricts local and regional capacity building.
In comparative perspective, France still appears as the most resistant of the five
major European nations to asymmetrical territorial development on its mainland.
Germany, Spain, the UK and Italy have each undergone developments that can in
some senses be labelled as federal, quasi-federal or asymmetrical (different parts of
the ‘national’ territory developing more or less advanced forms of autonomy).
In the case of France, a distinctive form of sub-national governance has evolved.
But there are no equivalents to the strong regions with fiscal and/or legislative
powers, such as Scotland, the Belgian and Italian regions, the Spanish Autonomous
Communities, or the German länder. France’s 22 regions have a shared general
competency, some tax-varying powers but no hierarchical control over other layers
of local government. Governance might challenge the state, but not the unitary
state form.
Given its reaction to the Corsican example, it is highly likely that any attempt to
derogate too seriously from the norm of uniformity will be resisted by the Council
of State, the guardian of France’s conservative public law tradition.
Institutions have, in the main, squeezed out identities
Lesser Used languages as sources of identity
There is a strong argument that recent moves to more
differentiated forms of regional and local governance are likely
to encourage linguistic pluralism (see, for example, Keating,
Loughlin and Deschouwer, 2003).
In countries such as Spain, Belgium and Italy, the move to
enhanced regional self-consciousness in the 1980s and 1990s
was associated with a rediscovery of the value of lesser-used
languages and cultures and the adoption of new policy
instruments to plan language revival.
In the age of ‘think global, act local’, language can exercise a
useful signalling function, demonstrating clearly the
distinctiveness and value-added identity of specific regions.
Some examples
Catalonia, Basque country, Galicia: ability to
speak the ‘regional’ language essential for selfpromotion
Ireland: Gaelic speakers 2-3% of the
population, but mastery essential for higher
Wales: Welsh Language Act (1993) introduces
bilingualism. Welsh an official langiuage of
the EU
The Welsh Language: Identity,
In broad socio-economic terms, Welsh has expanded its usage
considerably in the past two decades and the language is now
used widely in education, the media, leisure and selected
public services.
Language survey data suggests that social context, family
language transmission and exposure to formal bilingual
education are the key factors in language reproduction.
In the case of Wales, community and family are less powerful
agents of language reproduction than they were previously, but
formal bilingual education and language planning has slowed
the rate of absolute decline.
Welsh Identity: language
Analysis of family/household composition patterns by
Aitchison and Carter (1997) show that an extremely high
proportion of Welsh speakers is linguistically isolated within
their home environments.
Many communities of the northern and western heartland seem
to be fragmenting irretrievably, threatening the transmission of
the Welsh language. Welsh is not secure as a community
language despite its official status.
Fluent and good Welsh-speakers manifesting a high proclivity
towards Welsh identity, as do the intermediate and basic
speakers, when contrasted with the non-Welsh speakers.
Rather like in Spain, devolved instituions create a space for a
linguistic identity
Welsh Identity: Class
There are clearly sociological differences in bases to identity.
Cole and Evans (2007): Individuals residing in the Valleys showing a much
greater propensity towards Welsh identity than the Cardiff reference. A
Class Identity (Wyn Jones and Scully, 2003)?
In terms of occupational class belonging, two classes stand out – the petty
bourgeoisie, with the highest probability of British identity, and workers
with conversely the highest level of Welsh identity.
Interestingly, even in areas of reputed ‘Welshness’ such as the North-West
of Wales and mid-Wales, there is no significant difference from the capital
– indeed North-West Wales is slightly more British in its identification.
Welsh Identity: Age
Cole and Evans (2007): There is an almost monotonic
relationship between age categories and identity, with
the two youngest strata identifying most strongly with
the Welsh identity, decreasing in the 55 and older
Educationally, a similarly clear profile emerges.
Individuals with the lowest educational attainment
have the highest level of Welsh identity, following by
the mid-level group.
Moreno and ethno-terriorital mobilisation: mixing up
normative and empirical evidence. Appropriate for a
minority of cases? But how representatives are these?
Multi-level governance? Useful as a metaphor, but
regions contsructed in instrumental senses
New Regionalism? In places.. Nut not as a general
Comparsion: creates a spectrum. When does identity
drive institutions? What do institutions confine
identities? How do we explain variation?

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