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Covid-19, internal boundaries and regional governance
In April 2020, an Opinionway poll revealed that 57% of French people believed that "the most effective level of action to improve things" in health matters was the national level, compared to 11% for the local level and 10% for the European level. The same trend was observable for issues related to education, employment, protection and safety, with confidence in local governance ranging from 8% to 19% in each case. Six months later, while COVID-19 tested governance capacities at all levels of government in terms of managing the epidemic, many observers believe that the current crisis has revealed the need to further decentralize institutional systems and grant greater autonomy to territories.
However, France is not the only country to question its system of governance, and the Covid-19 pandemic has given rise throughout the world to numerous debates and questions about the effectiveness of the various systems of territorial organization. These, in turn, have given rise to certain hopes for reform. Yet, while for some, the decentralization of health care provision is proving to be a strength (a point of view largely motivated by Germany's results in the fight against the coronavirus), others have from the beginning of the crisis denounced federalism as the main weakness of the United States in the face of the pandemic. The same sentiment has been expressed in Europe, both in Switzerland, where Serge Gumy (editor-in-chief of the newspaper La Liberté) called federalism an "outdated remedy", and in Italy where, despite support for regional choices, 50% in April 2020 said they believed that the issue should be managed exclusively or mainly by the government (as opposed to 35% who believed that this role should be played by the regions).
Beyond the debates and questions about the effectiveness of different regional governance systems and the question of a country's coordination capacities, the current pandemic has also questioned the decentralization or devolution system of some countries –sometimes their very unity. Thus, although one of the reports published recently in the United Kingdom by The Institute for Government concluded that there had been close collaboration between the British government and the devolved governments during the first three months of the crisis (a collaboration illustrated by the joint publication of an action plan on March 3rd and the vote of the Coronavirus Act on March 25), the fact that each of the four nations that compose the country took a different direction in terms of ending the lock-down has allowed for comparisons of the approaches put in place by the different leaders and, in the case of Scotland, been favourable to the nationalist First Minister. The 53% in favour of Scottish independence (an improvement of 2 points compared to January) revealed by the latest polls (YouGov for The Times, August 2020) are thus to be compared with the 72% of Scots who are satisfied with the way Nicola Sturgeon managed the crisis (against 20% for Boris Johnson). Similarly, in Spain, –one of the most decentralized states in Europe, where health is under the jurisdiction of the regions, the central government's takeover of the management of the crisis has been strongly criticized: some have accused it of favouring some and harming others through massive purchases of materials; others (including several regional presidents –Conservatives in Madrid, Nationalists in the Basque country and Separatists in Catalonia) have been angered by the decision to limit economic activity to the bare minimum.
As states have shut down their national borders one after the other to curb the spread of the coronavirus a reflection on the role of internal borders, on a smaller scale, seems particularly relevant. Indeed, while in the 1990s, the advent of a “borderless world” (Omhae 1990) suggested that the world was going to open up and place the region at the centre of the geopolitical game (Sparke 2005), more than two decades later the situation has changed and the dynamic seems to going in the opposite direction, that of the strengthening of borders or rebordering (Andreas, 2003, Popescu 2011), a trend that was reinforced and led to its climax at the height of the health crisis. The current situation thus seems to provide us with an opportunity to reflect on the state of this 'new regionalism' (Söderbaum et Shaw 2003). What place do regions have? Within this framework, it is thus interesting to explores questions related to multi-level governance (Brunet-Jailly, 2004, Poupeau 2014, Daniell and Kay 2017, Bache and Finder 2004), federalism (Anderson 2008, Loughlin et al., 2013), as well as internal borders.
Ten months after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, this series of seminars organized between January and May 2021 aims to take stock of the short- and medium term impact of the crisis on relations between central and regional governments and, by playing with scales, to examine the following questions:
- Have the countries’ internal boundaries played a role in the response to the Covid-19 epidemic?
- How have the different central and regional governments interacted – whether in consultation or not – in the decision-making process? The United States, a federal country and the world's leading power, is a case study, which sheds light on these intertwined powers. Indeed, "for the first time in history, the federal response to a major crisis has been delegated to the states," the administration refusing to establish a generalized lock down or to impose measures of social distancing at the national level.
- What does the coronavirus crisis tell us about the sometimes strained relationship between national and regional/federal governments?
- Has it, in some cases – Catalonia and Scotland for instance – exacerbated or even served as a catalyst for nationalist and separatist tendencies in these regions?
- At a second level, has the pandemic been a missed opportunity for the European Union to act in a coordinated and concerted manner by providing a common response?
Contributors should plan to have a written version ready for submission as part of a collective work for May 31st 2021.
Submissions will consist in a 300-word summary and a short bibliography and should be sent in English or in French before November 27th 2020 to
Veronique Molinari Professor of British studies UFR Langues étrangères Bureau 314 STENDHAL bât C Université Grenoble Alpes CS 40700 - 38058 Grenoble cedex 9