Regional Government Research Paper

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Regional government analysis has traditionally been restricted to state politics in federal systems or to center-periphery relations in the integration of the nation-state. We focus in this research paper on Western Europe and North America to show: (a) that the political and legal status of regional institutions is extremely diverse; (b) that the rationales for regionalization have to be referred to state traditions; (c) that these rationales converge to develop both regional politics and public policies; and (d) that transnational integration gives a new relevance and meaning to regionalism.

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1. The Ambiguous Status Of Regional Government

Regional government is among the topics in comparative politics that clearly reveal the contingency of political institutions and the diversity of political processes behind them. Some countries exhibit very strong subnational governments, such as states in federal political systems (e.g., the USA or Switzerland), while others do not have any regional institutions at all (in centralized states such as Greece or France until the Fifth Republic). When such institutions do exist they may range from weak administrative units without much social significance to real representative institutions with powerful political capacities. To enhance the complexity of the picture, regions often coexist with other subregional units (counties, provinces, and departements), and display very different legal and fiscal authorities over the lower levels of territorial governments.

This variance suggests that the analysis of regional government is anything but simple, and that the idea of a universal form or of a common feature of regional institutions, even in the limited area of Western democracies, is misleading. Regional government cannot be analyzed independently of the political context within which it is taking place. It has to be referred to the general process of state building and state tradition, and understood as the product of different trends of regionalization.

In a restrictive meaning, regional government can be defined as the activity of political authorities specifically designed as an intermediary level between the state and local governments, and grounded in legitimacy vested in regional forms of political representation. Therefore, it involves the scale of political authority (the level where sovereignty is defined and bounded), the aims of government (whether it takes care of regional issues or not), and the tools used to fulfil these goals (centralized vs. decentralized means of authority). It is conceivable to observe a government of regional issues without corresponding mechanisms of political representation at the regional level (e.g., with the Scottish National Office before the devolution reforms in the United Kingdom or the regional Prefets before the decentralization reform in France). Nevertheless, most Western democracies have evolved since the 1980s towards a greater empowerment of regional levels of political representation (most dramatically in Spain, France, Belgium, Italy, Canada, and more recently the UK), while federal systems turned to more interdependent patterns of relations between states and federal governments (notably in Germany, the USA, and Switzerland). In a more extensive definition, it is therefore more appropriate to conceive regional government as a set of complex institutional interactions and social mobilizations around political representation and public policies defined at an intermediary level between the state and local governments. If all Western democracies do not display distinctive political institutions at the regional level, all of them nevertheless show strong tendencies towards social and political mobilizations, and adjustments in institutional settings at this mesolevel of government (Sharpe 1993). Thus, this extensive definition is more appropriate to capture the actual issues of regional government in its contemporary context.

2. State Traditions And Rationales For Regionalization

From this definition we can infer that different state traditions, that is, differences in historical paths of state building and related administrative cultures, will matter in defining regional government. In exploring this topic, Loughlin and Peters have identified four main state traditions. (i) The Anglo-Saxon tradition (including countries such as the USA, the UK until 1998, Ireland, and Canada with the exception of Quebec), where there is no (in the UK) or a limited (in the USA) legal basis for the state, and where regional government can be either the ‘state power’ of the federal system (the USA), or shadowed by the strength of local government (in the UK). (ii) The Germanic tradition (covering countries such as Germany, Austria, Spain after 1978, and Belgium after 1988), rooted in a strong legal status of a Weberian state and a co-operative federalism giving large powers to regional government. (iii) The French State tradition, which is Jacobean and centralist, and where regions appear as technocratic creations progressively building a regionalized unitary state (for example, France, Spain until 1988, Portugal, Greece, Belgium until 1988, and Quebec). (iv) Finally, the Scandinavian state tradition of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, which, like the Germanic one, is rooted in a strong legal basis of the state, but in which the territorial organization is based more on a strong local autonomy than on the development of regional government (Loughlin and Peters 1997).

State tradition conceptualized in this way does not explain everything regarding regional government. For instance, there are strong discrepancies in the Anglo-Saxon model between European and American countries, and The Netherlands appears as an exception in the Germanic tradition. But it helps nevertheless to understand the different territorial policy paradigms (Balme et al. 1994) and political rationales for regionalization, understood as the forces driving the creation and development of regional government.

The first of these rationales is strictly political and linked to the integration of the nation-state. Regionalism here is close to nationalism, and regional government can be seen either as a tool to sustain the integrity of the state or as the ‘slippery slope’ leading first to larger claims to regional autonomy and ultimately to separatism and independence. This issue is dependent on social and territorial contiguity, on the degree of economic integration of regions to the country, and on the use of political violence between protagonists. However, the meaning of institutional development at the regional level will be different in an Anglo-Saxon context, where it appears as explicitly political with devolution (Elcock and Keating 1998), from a continental one, where regional decentralization can also be justified by administrative arguments and in this respect be more easily acceptable.

The second form of regionalization is federalism. Here the rationale is not so much political as constitutional–legal. It refers not to its integrity or to the coexistence between different cultural communities as in the previous case, but to the structure of the state, to its territorial organization normatively defined. Again, the strengthening of regional government has different meanings in the Germanic and in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. When states gain in power in the co- operative federalism of Germany, it is understood as more political interlocking (Politik erflechtung) be- tween federal and state levels of government. This process leads to complex patterns of interdependence, often sub-optimal and sometimes unable to avoid ‘the joint decision-trap’, that is, the impossibility to make any decision other than the smallest core for agreement (Scharpf et al. 1976). The governing capacity of the system is in this context limited by vetoing powers of territorial governments, but the general picture is nevertheless a context of ‘big government’, increasing public expenditure, and governmental overload. It is noticeable that this kind of analysis has been expanded by this author to European governance as a whole (Scharpf 1988). In the European context, federalism has been transformed by European integration (Jeffery and Sturm 1993, Jeffery 1997).

The increase in regional government in an Anglo-Saxon ‘disjoined’ federal system would take a very different meaning, and does not appear likely in the contemporary context. In such a political system, states do not have an institutional access to federal government other than through the Senate. Federal and state policies are supposed to be distinct areas of government, and there is in principle no co-operation between the two levels of government in defining public policies, other than through judicial review. In fact, the ‘marble cake’ concept of federalism has long been violated by numerous overlaps, redundancies, and competition between federal and state administrations through the development of public policies (Gray et al. 1990, Wright 1988). Here the state tradition is liberal and rests on the idea of a minimal central government. Consequently, the empowerment of state governments would mean resisting the continuous development of federal policies, and saving the political system both from centralization and from ‘big government’. Empirically, however, despite a lower level of public spending than in Europe and more limited welfare policies, the US political system has gradually evolved towards higher levels of public intervention and more overlap and interdependence between levels of government.

Finally, the third rationale for regionalization lies in public policies. Even in centralized states such as France, the development of the public sector during the decades after World War II, as well as changes in the economy associated with increased mobility, have often led to recognition of the need for a regional scale of decision making. In France, regions were first created as administrative bodies aimed at improving the territorial fitness of public investments and only gradually became political institutions, with the first election of their councils in 1986. Again, in a centralized state, the reform is mainly administrative (at least at the beginning), whereas in a federal system it is openly political with the transfer of the burden of public policy from federal to state governments.

3. Regional Politics And Policies

These three rationales have converged since the 1970s to strengthen in one way or another the political salience of regional government. This in no way means more autonomy at the regional level. It means, on the contrary, more interdependence in complex institutional settings, where regional specificities, be they economic, social, cultural, or political, have come to be recognized. This has also led to altogether fewer conflictual and hierarchical modes of integration between center and peripheries, defining new forms of public policies and political authority.

Regarding regional politics, political mobilization around regionalist parties was noticeably sustained in Quebec, Catalonia and the Basque Country, Corsica and Overseas French regions, Wallony and Flanders, in Italy with the Northern League, and to a lesser extent in Wales and Scotland. More generally speaking, independently of quasinationalist movements, politics at the regional level gained in saliency with the development of public policies at the regional level. Regions more specifically develop public programs in education and professional training, culture, economic development, transportation, and regional policy. They answer in a way to a functional logic of public policy, where sectoral policies are selected by the relevance of the scale of government, but also and mainly by the opportunity structure defined by the existing institutional design and potential political support. Regional public policies are thus linked to mobilizations of social interests, sometimes through neo-corporatist modes of organization, and in any case to some forms of political exchange structuring political leadership (Koller-Koch 1997, Negrier and Jouve 1998). More controversially, the performance of regional institutions also refers to social capital and civic traditions (Putnam 1993). Without overestimating such a causality, the relation between regional sociality and identity on the one hand and regional governance on the other hand offers stimulating perspectives for analysis. Generally, societal mobilizations at the regional level tend to correspond to inter-institutional modes of regionalization of public policy.

4. Regional Government And Transnational Integration

Finally, regional government is affected by transnational integration in two different ways. First, economic globalization increasing the mobility of economic factors defines an opportunity for the development of regional policies aimed at managing the territorial consequences of these changes, both in attracting investments and in defending regional firms, industries, and social sectors. The creation of transnational markets such as the European community, NAFTA, and MERCOSUR transforms socioeconomic conditions and needs, most dramatically in the case of border territories and monoindustrial regions affected by international competition. Second, political integration at a supranational level, as it is best exemplified with the European Union, defines new issues for regions to get access to regional policy programs, and more generally to preserve their interests in the new political process. Getting involved in new public policies, regions also invent new channels of influence progressively designing a new political game made of transnational arenas and forums. The creation in 1992 by the Maastricht Treaty of the Comity of the Regions reveals this logic of recognition of regions by European institutions and their inclusion in this political process. Even if their influence is extremely diverse (Keating and Jones 1985) and needs not to be understood to be an alternative to the power of nation-states (Le Gales and Lequesne 1998), it is nevertheless part of the more polycentric and multilevel forms of governance (Hooghe 1996) characteristic of the European Union. In the same way, the development of foreign relations (Keating and Aldecoa 1999) and of transnational cooperations between regions (Balme 1996) contributes to the bypassing of the Westphalian and exclusively interstate system of international relations, and defines regional collective action as an answer to globalization. This context defines a new relevance for regionalism, but also transforms its meaning (Letamendia 1999), as this new regionalism turns away from parochialism and tradition, and combines economic openness and cultural identity to sustain socioeconomic development in a more cosmopolitan way.


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