What future for the regions?
Professor of Peace and Development Research, School of Global Studies,
University of Gothenburg
Thanks to the organizers for inviting me to this exciting event. It is a great privilege to be invited to speak about on my favourite topic.
One general conclusion that can be drawn from this event, and from regional processes around the world more generally, is that regionalism is thriving! The future of regionalism is bright — which is not to deny the many challenges that still exist.
It needs to be acknowledged that, in many ways, regionalism has become more dynamic and more relevant in spite of the transformation of the nation-state and the many radical changes in the world during recent decades.
This means that regions are likely to continue to thrive in the 21st century. However, the future of regionalism is in many ways different from earlier forms of regionalism.
When reflecting on the future of regionalism, one core question is to understand why some regions thrive while others are less successful, or even failures?
One of the most influential scholars in the field of regionalism, Professor Michael Keating, points out that ‘new regionalism is modernising and forward-looking, in contrast to an older provincialism, which represented resistance to change and defence of tradition’.
This means, among other things, that while old regionalist strategies often centred around industrial location and growth poles within a particular nation-state, today it has become clear that there is not one best mode of production and economic regionalism. Capitalism is socially embedded and takes different forms in different regions.
Regional specialists have written extensively about the new approaches to regionalism and regional development. The problem is that it has proved remarkably difficult to pin down the nature of the qualities that make for a successful and competitive region. It has proved even more difficult to show how successful regions can be reproduced elsewhere.
This is because ‘new regionalism’ is characterized by complexity and diversity. There are thus many varities of regions and economics, politics and culture may be combined in different ways. Complexity and variation rule out easy solutions and definitions.
A general feature of successful regionalism seems to be that regions are able to adjust and adapt to new circumstances and conditions. It is also evident that compared to previous forms of regionalism, which primarily centred around the relationship between the subnational region and the central government, new forms of regionalism often extend beyond the boundaries of the nation-state. The future of regionalism will deepen this trend.
About one decade ago, a scholar from Gothenburg, called Jörgen Gren, wrote an interesting book entitled The Perfect Region. The conclusion was that ‘the perfect region’ managed to adapt to the transformed political and economic landscape in Europe and successfully exploit the relationship with national government but also with the EU. The less successful region were less responsive and adaptive to the nation- state and to the EU.
This perspective of the Perfect Region is, it seems, compatible with the Declaration on Regionalism in Europe adopted by the Assembly of European Regions. A key passage of this declaration states that:
“The regionalist movement in Europe adheres to the belief that the powers vested in the regions complement the power vested in the nation-states as well as the supranational powers vested in the European Union.”
This statement in the Declaration is, of course, familiar to most of you, perhaps even somewhat elementary. Yet, it has far-reaching implications.
I will make two general reflections around this point, the first focuses on the relationship between regions and the nation-state, while the second deals with the international and transnational links of the regions.
Regarding the link between regions and states, the regions should not try to imitate or replicate the nation-state or attempt to become a new type of region-state, which competes with the nation-state. Even if there, of course, may be conflicts and competition between regions and nation-states, both need each other, and both will prosper if they recognize that they fulfil different and complementary roles within a larger system of multi-level governance — centred around regional, national and supranational governance.
In the academic world, this type of thinking has given rise to a very influential theory, labelled “multilevel governance”. The main point of multilevel governance, which is basically outlined in the Lisbon Treaty, is that authority is dispersed at various levels, and governance at one level cannot function in isolation from another.
It is often neglected that this way of thinking is not necessarily compatible with the well- known principle of subsidiarity. Although there are many interpretations of subsidiarity, one problem with subsidiarity is that it tends to favour one particular level of governance, usually the lowest level of governance, instead of the interaction of governance on multiple levels.
The increasing relevance of multilevel governance is related to the unbundling of the centralised nation-state. The unbundling results in that a multitude of private and public actors both below and above the level of the nation-state are able to cooperate within a multi-layered and multilevel governance system. This opens up for a much more dynamic and complex type of interaction both inside the nation-state and on the international scene.
The point is that multilevel governance is more relevant and efficient than subsidiarity/decentralisation in providing solutions to the challenges that regions, states and societies are currently facing, such as climate change, economic development, employment and migration.
Regarding the transational dimension, the Assembly of European Regions is of course a reflection of that international and cross-border contacts have become deeply institutionalised within European regions. Yet, the intensification of globalization implies that the world outside Europe has become closer and more important. This has many implications.
One thing is clear, something has happened to international diplomacy and to international governance.
In the past, the centralised nation-state was controlling outside international relations and international diplomatic contacts. To some extent, the nation-states are still in control. However, there is a quickly growing tendency that regions and large cities
develop their international contacts and engage in what is referred to as paradiplomacy — the foreign policy of subnational governments.
Such paradiplomacy is by no means restricted to Europe — there is a global pattern of paradiplomatic activities. We thus need to think beyond Europe, and add another, global, level or layer to the multilevel governance perspective.
As an example: One of my former PhD students left the University and after some years advanced to become the Head of the São Paulo State Government’s Office of Foreign Affairs. São Paulo State has quickly emerged as one of the most prominent subnational players on the global scene. And my former PhD student often emphasize that São Paulo State could be ranked as the 19th world’s largest economy. This statement was intended to reveal that regions and metropolitan regions have emerged as new players on the global scene, but also to draw attention to that the sharp distinctions between states and regions have become blurred in the emerging world of globalised diplomacy.
Such paradiplomacy is a recent and still rather embryonic phenomenon. Even if it is tightly linked to efforts to strengthen economic competitiveness and innovation, it still means that international relations is not simply confined to nation-states. In fact, paradiplomacy is even written into the constitution of several federal states.
My time is up and my final word is simply to conclude by stating that the role of regions and cities on the global scene is likely to continue to expand in the future. It is an exciting change, even if it is too early to say how comprehensive and deep such paradiplomacy and global contacts will become in the future. Needless to say, not all regions will benefit or have an interest in engaging on the global scene.