25th Session of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe

Strasbourg, 29-31 October 2013

Debate in the Chamber of the Regions: the effects of the economic crisis on regionalisation and decentralisation in Europe 

30.10.2013 – Far from only affecting the financial health of the European regions, the economic crisis is also threatening their political balance within their respective states: between attempts at recentralisation and separatist temptations, many regions are pondering the sustainability of their operational capacities, as was shown by a debate on recent developments in regionalisation and decentralisation held on 30 October 2013 by the Chamber of Regions of the Council of Europe Congress.

Natalia Komarova, the Governor of the autonomous district of Khanty-Mansiysk (Russian Federation), presented her region’s efforts to reinforce its network of small enterprises, revive investment in its territory and improve its citizens’ lives. The Autonomous Republic of Crimea (Ukraine) is the only region of the former USSR to enjoy such a broad autonomous status, which has enabled it to set up harmonious political structures, far removed from the conflicts raging in other regions of the post-Soviet environment, as Volodymyr Konstantinov, President of the Verkhovna Rada of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, reminded us.

These examples of successful regional autonomy contrast with the feeling in other European regions, particularly in western Europe, of currently being subject to “insidious recentralisation” by the central authorities, often in the name of economic imperatives. Sonja Steen, Chairperson of the Committee on Culture, Education and Youth of the Assembly of European Regions (AER), mentioned the case of Spain, which is threatening to penalise regions that fail to respect the Government’s budgetary discipline, and Italy, where some regions consider that the state is trying to “recentralise” their management of European funds.

These tensions between states and regions are exacerbating regionalism, indeed separatism, particularly in wealthy regions with strong cultures, which feel that the central state is “overtaxing” them without any quid pro quo. Magali Balent, a political science researcher with the Robert Schumann Foundation (Paris, France), has examined these phenomena in three regions where the “independence” parties attract a great deal of support, namely Catalonia (Spain), Flanders (Belgium) and Scotland (United Kingdom). In her view, the economic crisis is hardening separatist sentiment, even if most people voting for such parties do not necessarily want independence. Moreover, she explains that if a region becomes an independent state, it cannot join the European Union, because there is no text providing for such direct access, whereas in fact all regionalist parties are fervent advocates of European construction.

Regional initiatives in response to the crisis

The debates following the statements from the podium advocated increased respect for subsidiarity and highlighted the importance of special status in calming regionalist tensions. However, the regions, especially those with extensive powers, can act to improve the economic situation in their territories without having to refer to the state. Clemens Lammerskitten (Germany, EPP/CCE), described the decision adopted by referendum in Bavaria on 15 September last to set an upper limit on regional debt in order to rehabilitate finances by the year 2020. Gudrun Mosler-Törström (Austria, SOC) mentioned a number of actions in her region - the Land of Salzburg – regarding support for small enterprises. Nevertheless, other European regions consider that the only way out of the crisis is to relax the European Stability Pact, establishing a more flexible structure taking greater account of their interests, as suggested by Bruno Marziano (Italy, SOC). Francis Lec (France, SOC) advocated genuine regional economic revival policies. The regions must realise that they too have to make efforts and cannot keep passing responsibility for their difficulties back to the state, as  Andrew Boff (United Kingdom, ECR) pointed out. His comments were followed by a presentation by his compatriot Vanessa Churchman (United Kingdom, ILDG) of a new system of local partnerships between enterprises and local and regional authorities.

These debates will be grist to the mill of the future report on regionalisation being prepared by Marie-Madeleine Mialot Muller (France, SOC). Clearly, some of her conclusions, particularly the need to respect regional self-government and the principle of subsidiarity, will be central to this report, which also backs the “special status” concept geared to quelling regional conflicts, as well as the initiative from the Committee of the Regions to draw up a Charter on multi-tier governance.