Most of the time regions lack attention in the shadow of their big “parents”, the nations, when it comes to EU policy. Nevertheless, debates and discourses on regions seem to heat up regularly, when they strive for independence. What is the threshold from autonomous region to independent nation, and why is the latter an upcoming request in contemporary Europe?
The case of the Scottish referendum 2016, the blockade of the Wallonia against CETA 2016, and the Catalonian crisis in 2017 are only three recent examples for the regions’ unclarified role in the current EU. Closely linked to the political role of regions is the question of their (inner and outer) borders, not only evoked by the last major political changes in Europe e.g. the fall of the iron curtain or the Yugoslavian war. Who or what defines a region? Which relations do regions maintain with “their” cities and neighbors, but also with their nations or even the European Union? Which future regions are imaginable? And how do regions cope with current challenges like globalization or populism?
Regions no longer seem to be a static, reactionary construct but have undergone major changes and experiments in the last decades: EU outer borders have changed tremendously and “inner” borders are still being shifted thinking of Brexit or the Balkan region. Regions form new conglomerates with their neighbors, as can be seen in the EUREGIOs, or are split up into smaller units to reinforce local economy and culture. Several recent approaches to rearrange the classification of regions focus on administrative and economic indicators like the NUTS regions or regional typologies of so-called “functional areas” by ESPON ; opposed to this is the steadily growing emotionality when it comes to regions, homeland and their (imagined) borders, which is obviously exploited by populist movements. The political dimension between those two poles of meaning of functional and emotional definitions of regions and regionalism still leaves a gap to be filled. Strategies and developments of European regions should certainly not be perceived as uniform today: since economic and political power often correlate, we have to carefully observe whether recent changes will lead to an equivalent development and balanced power structure within European regions, or whether we have to deal with new and old cleavages between “Power-Regions” and (their) metropoles on the one side and struggling marginal regions on the other side. Increasing regional poverty gaps between growth and non-growth regions in Europe may harden discussions about European solidarity, let alone a European fiscal constitution.
Due to their contested borders, regions undoubtedly are vivid entities in a globalized world. Though often deemed as “obsolete”, regions could give us some lectures concerning resilience in a turbulent world since they constantly and successfully claim their stance in political and daily life. In this sense we would like to ask for the advantages and disadvantages of small-scale governments and discuss their power to defend democracy and combat populist excesses, in defined and thus overseeable regional agoras. Furthermore we would like to take a glance on the perhaps “dark” side of regionalism, by asking whether Regionalization always relates to an opening and Europeanization or is likely to lead to a closure and withdrawal from the international scene. In a moment of a European vacuum, induced by an economic crisis and continued by negotiations around the so-called refugee crisis, the role of regions (but obviously also of Metropolitan areas) is perhaps in a decisive state like it has never been before.