October 08, 2017


Valdai Discussion Club


© 2017 Santi Palacios/AP

Oleg Barabanov

The referendum in Catalonia became a turning point not only for the political chain of events in this region, but also for the evolution of the European Union as a whole. In recent days, many expert and journalist comments on the referendum’s results highlight how the example of Catalonia may be infectious for an array of other regions in EU countries. They may all go down the path of escalating and transforming their demands of autonomy and federalization into political struggle and independence from their mother countries. There is already a term, “latent Сatalonias,” which characterizes around a dozen regions in various EU countries that may take the route of Barcelona.

Therefore, in order to better understand the reasons behind the success of last Sunday’s Catalan referendum, we must look not only at internal Spanish problems, but also at the logic of the development of the entire European Union in the previous period. Because as it seems to me, in the question of “who is to blame?” for the autonomist movement in Catalonia crossing the Rubicon is not only the central government of Spain, headed by Mariano Rajoy (with his arrogant inflexibility and unpreparedness for dialogue and compromise with Catalonians), but also the EU leadership, whose past regional strategy has in many ways let the genie out of the bottle. 

Starting in the 1990s, the EU began to actively promote the principle of strengthening intra-state regions in European affairs. In this period, the “Europe of regions” slogans gained broad popularity and the EU’s Committee of the Regions became an active and in many ways innovative organization that permanently gave direct access to the Brussels bureaucracy to regional governments, circumventing their own capitals. 

It is clear that the majority of projects discussed by the Committee of the Regions was of an economic and cultural character and rarely left the scope of a standard lobbyism and PR management. Nevertheless, all of this activity undoubtedly strengthened the feeling of autonomy of power and governance among the leadership and regional elites, as well as consciously focused their attention on the necessity of underscoring their identity and even uniqueness before others. All of this awoke the development of an independent political mentality among the regional elites and their perception of an increasingly divergent identity, compared to the stereotyped national identity. Such a diversification of the region’s identity away from that of the state was de facto only welcomed at the Brussels level, and encouraged the more advanced regions to go further. 

Another key format of EU regional policy was tied to the development of Euroregions, in which border regions of two or more states were united into a single structure that carried out joint projects and created joint governance bodies for them under Brussels’ control. This format quickly gained popularity, and several dozen such Euroregions were created. As a result, regional identity acquired a cross-border character with the idea that a region has more in common with its immediate neighbors than with its capital being consciously postulated. 

This “spirit of Euroregions” turned out to be very strong. In the case of Catalonia, it took on the image of nostalgia of the historical unity of Catalonia and Provence, the closeness of their languages and therefore, their a priori opposition to Madrid and Paris respectively. Analogous processes took place in the Basque Country in Spain and Gascony in France, North Tyrol in Austria and South Tyrol in Italy and in many other cases. As a result, the policy of encouraging Euroregions concertedly put on the practical agenda the issue of eroding the existing state borders, which in the EU, with the openness of the Schengen Agreement, advanced further than any place in the world. 

The next important point is the activity of the European Regional Development Fund, which gave financial and other aid to the least developed regions in the member-states. That includes South Italy, several regions in Spain and other states. After EU expansion in 2004, a significant volume of aid from these regional funds was set to the new member-states, for example, the eastern voivodeships of Poland. 

Naturally, ERDF projects were selected on a competitive basis, which strengthened regional lobbyism needed to win them, frequent trips to Brussels by regional officials and direct accountability to Brussels for the spending. As a result, the direct connection of regions to the European Commission strengthened (again, circumventing national capitals) and so did their direct dependence on it. Among both local elites and in the ERDF recipient regions’ public opinion, the idea that the source of their welfare and development is Brussels and not the nation-state was fomented. 

Another important principle of regional policy, in this case promoted not by the EU, but by the Council of Europe, but still actively supported by many EU bodies was the principle of regional self-governance. As with local self-governance, which occurs in all Council of Europe countries (including Russia), which provides for a separation of local governance structures from the state and their autonomy from it, the same approach of abandoning the direct subordination of regional governments to national governments was proposed on the regional level. The principle of regional self-governance did not achieve a full-scale implementation (the resistance of national governments is clear) but as an ideological postulate and a development goal, it became practically mainstream. 

To sum up, I’ll repeat that this EU policy had a planned and permanent character. And as a result, the principle that water breaks down a mountain began to work. As a result, in the regions that had their own ethnic specificity, such as Catalonia, Flanders and Scotland or had economic reasons, such as Northern Italy and, again, Catalonia, the EU-supported feeling of autonomous identity began to create first public discussions and then a political agenda of independence. The unsuccessful referendum in Scotland and the successful referendum in Catalonia became a logical result of this policy. More than that, it is possible that in the middle term, we will see new examples of this sort. 

Why did the EU do this? There are several reasons. One is that the globalist euphoria of the 1990s consciously emphasized eroding away the Westphalian model and therefore, eroding state sovereignty. The ideal example of global and European policy in this context was the progressive transfer of governing authority from states both “up”, to supra-state integration institutes, and “down”, to regions and local communities. This approach, based on the principle of subsidiarity, emphasized that concentrating all state authority exclusively in the hands of the sovereign state must stop being seen as a ‘sacred cow,’ and instead be based exclusively on the principle of efficiency. Governing authority, according to this logic, must be allotted to the level at which it has the biggest return. As part of this approach, the theory of “good governance,” which defined the correlation of efficiency and the level of government (in the triad: supranational institution – state – region), was spread. Because according to this theory, the state must hand over its authority both upward and downward, there was a logical conclusion that the state will end up an unnecessary, outmoded and development-hindering middle rung between the international integration body and local communities. Because of that, the state, according to this logic, must disappear. It is clear that in the EU, where the level of supra-state integration is already the most advanced in the world, this issue must be put first on the practical agenda. There is an efficient European Commission and an efficient regional self-governance. There is a pan-European identity and a feeling of a lesser motherland in the regions. And this is enough for the future’s ideal. 

Another reason for such an EU regional policy is tied to the political and economic struggle for influence between the Brussels bureaucracy and the member states. It is clear that not all decisions of the European Commission, mandatory on the territory of the entire EU, were favored by the member-states and they tried as much as they could to counter it with their own interests. That’s how, among others, the idea of a “deficit of democracy” in the EU was boosted. In these conditions, it is natural that the European Commission is objectively interested in finding a counter-balance to the member states. And the emphasized attention to their internal regions is rather logical. The direct ties between regions and the European Commission, boosted strengthening of regional identity and feeling of distance from nation-states made the voice of a member-state more vague and less monolithic. In these conditions, the voice of the European Commission received priority. Such a political strategy was coherent. But its result, from my point of view, was the success of the Catalan referendum. And if the European Commission calls it illegal, it is the Brussels strategists and not the Catalan radicals or Spanish Prime Minister who is to blame.


Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise

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