Today’s Financial Times reports on how the current financial crisis is affecting Spanish regions and regionalism in general. Viewed from Brussels, where both the European Commission and the Parliament have a vested interest in ensuring that European legislation is made in one place (i.e. Brussels), you could be forgiven for thinking that regionalism was a quaint relic of a distant past.
Up until recently this was very much not the case. The Scottish National Party had just won power in their (regional) Parliament in Scotland, the Basque terrorists ETA continue to plant bombs in Spanish coastal resorts, and Belgium was in danger of being torn asunder by its perennial north-south divide. In the Balkans the newly independent states of Kosovo and Montenegro demonstrate that similar regional aspirations have led successfully to self-determination (although Kosovo is still very much a work in progress).
This apparently contradictory trend of both centralisation towards Brussels and devolution towards the regions looked to be the way forward – until along comes the biggest financial meltdown since the 1930s. Now it’s all about strength in numbers. Catalonia is relying on handouts from the Spanish government in Madrid, Bretons are happy to stick the Gwenn-ha-du flag on their car and leave it at that, and the once proudly independent Iceland, though a country in its own right since breaking with Denmark in 1944, has come running to the EU searching for economic sanctuary.
So has regionalism within Europe had its day? Possibly, and though no doubt ETA and some patriotic kilt-wearing Scots may think differently, what the recent crisis has shown us is the pretty straightforward maxim that, when times are tough, larger countries fare better than smaller countries. Perhaps a lesson for the Commonwealth of Independent States, which in the same week appears to be breaking apart at the seams. They would do well to heed the lessons on their western border.