The Left and Nationalism Monthly Series: “The revival of regional homelands and the perils of competitive solidarities” by Maurizio Ferrera

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H-Nationalism is proud to publish here the fourth post of its “The Left and Nationalism Monthly Series”, which looks at the relationship between nationalism and left-wing movements and thinking in a multi-disciplinary perspective. Today’s contribution, by Professor Maurizio Ferrera (University of Milan), inquires into the relationship between sub-state nationalism and welfare.


The Catalonian referendum on the secession from Spain; a consultative referendum on full regional autonomy in Lombardy and Veneto; a possible new consultation on Scotland’s independence in case of actual Brexit. Even in Belgium the complete separation between Flanders and Wallonia is explicitly emerging in the political debate. As these examples show, the risk of disintegration threatens today not only the European Union, but the national states as well. A leap back of a few centuries? A return to the territorial patchwork that emerged with the decline of the Holy Roman Empire?

Someone really thinks so. Almost fifty autonomist or separatist formations are active in the European Union. They are all part of the Alliance for Liberty, whose representatives sit in the EU Parliament. The Alliance website shows a map that redesigns the continent according to the aspirations of its members. Some formerly independent states are resurrected: not only Scotland and Catalonia, but also Bavaria or Savoy. The map shows the re-emerge of boundaries with high symbolic value, such as those of the Moorish-Muslim kingdom in southern Spain.  It also highlights several small regions that once possessed some territorial identity, then dissolved in largest national cauldrons: Brittany, Cornwall, Friesland, Moravia, Alsace. Overall, the topography resembles the maps of the fourteenth century, before the takeoff of modern state formation and nation building.

The smaller independentist movements belonging to the Alliance for Liberty represent scattered minorities, and are driven by nostalgic utopias for a past that cannot return, and often by declared xenophobic values ​​and goals. The strongest and most important parties reflect the presence of linguistic or religious differences within their countries. The most active formations both at European and national level are those established in rich territories. Here economical interest is added to historical, political or cultural reasons. For these regions, becoming autonomous would mean avoiding the obligation to contribute to the national budget and thus redistribute part of their revenue to the poorest areas. This is what the autonomist  parties of Catalonia, Flanders, Lombardy, Veneto explicitly say. But the issue of territorial redistribution of resources has become increasingly controversial in Germany, Austria and even in the Nordic countries (where there are no independentist parties however).

What accounts for such developments? It is misleading and reductive to interpret them only in terms of (reproachable) “egoism” versus (praiseworthy) “solidarity”. These developments need to be placed in the wider frame of the European transformations of the last thirty years, and in particular of the increasing opening up of national systems. Until the 1970s, national economies essentially functioned as “black boxes”, linked to each other through the exchange rate. What was happening inside the black box was “private” deal. Sub-national territories were not directly or independently exposed to external competition. State borders and policies acted as barriers and filters. The public budget took care of regional disparities and imbalances inside the black box, using a wide range of tools that somehow reconciled the needs of rich regions with the needs of the poor.

With the process of EU integration, subnational territories have come to find themselves in a completely different situation. The removal of borders has created unprecedented opportunities and risks for cross-border exchanges, which are no longer under the control of national regulatory regimes and flexible exchange rates. Regions have had to learn to be more competitive, making the most of their resources and comparative advantages. Regional development is increasingly dependent on the overall “quality” of the area, a crucial factor not only for export but also for attracting valuable external resources. In order to promote and support quality, however, public resources are needed to fund specific policies in the fields of education, training, research and innovation support, and so on. Funds that would (to a greater extent) exist if there was tax autonomy (or even independence). The traditional model of national inclusive solidarities is being replaced by the new model of competitive regional solidarities, jealous of their taxable bases and eager to manage them without state constraints and “external” redistributions.

Over the last three decades, these processes have created new commonalities of interest across economic sectors, but especially across territories. Some of the  old fractures between centers and peripheries  of production and trade have thus resurfaced. Let us think of the increasing centrality of that ancient trade route between the Po Valley, the Rhine, Flanders and the North Sea which played a key role in European economic and political history. But unprecedented aggregations have also emerged, for example on the horizontal axis Catalonia-Carinthia (via the Midi, the Po Valley, Switzerland and Bavaria), with Mitteleuropean ramifications. The completion of the Economic and Monetary Union has given tremendous impetus to trade between these areas and thus to the sharing of interests (e.g. in the quality of infrastructures, transports, or in creating synergies between productive systems, labor markets) and also to the first experiments in trans-regional social protection (in turn favored and co-funded by the EU). The other side of the coin has been the increasing dissatisfaction within wealthier territories against the “dispersion” of resources towards less favored and peripheral areas.

The new post-2008 phase of fiscal austerity and stringent EU constraints has exacerbated tensions between territories, putting in question and crowding out national  policies  of  inter-regional redistribution and development promotion, especially in the largest countries with high internal  disparities (Spain, Germany after unification, Italy, most recently also Poland or Romania). The increasing bad mood and resentment of voters in more successful regions has been intercepted, ridden and sometimes deliberately constructed by new political entrepreneurs who have tried to channel them towards autonomy or separatism, using ethno-regionalist narratives.

National states are less stable than before, but certainly not about to collapse. Even where centrifugal trends are more acute (e.g. in Spain), secession attempts are unlikely to be successful. We must, however, become accustomed to less rigid territorial frameworks, to forms of differentiated regionalism, to the formation of trans-frontier regions interested in creating synergies in the economic and social fields. It is no coincidence that the most consolidated Euro-regions are located along the Po-Rhine and the Catalan-Carinthian axes.

What implications will the emerging model of competitive regional solidarities have for poorer regions? The quasi-automatic mechanisms of fiscal equalization of the past can no longer be taken for granted. Often, these mechanisms have ended up reproducing the underdevelopment syndrome over time (Italy is a case in point). Moreover, the Spanish and German cases show that regional gaps are not a biblical condemnation, but can be attenuated by smart incentives and investments capable of activating endogenous growth dynamics. In some respects, therefore, the on-going transformations can have positive effects: less subsidization, more incentives for sustainable development. It seems nonetheless useful and appropriate to raise three broad and strategic questions.

The first concerns values ​​and principles. Among the supporters of territorial autonomy and competitive solidarity a sort of Darwinian discourse often prevails. Brutally summarized: if we are rich, it is our merit, so keep your hand off our money. Like all arguments based on merit and guilt, also the argument about territorial meritocracy cannot ignore a fact. Often, success is the result of simple “luck”: for example, geographic location. Redistribution to peripheral areas is thus also a matter of fairness. Prompted by recent developments, political philosophy is now reviving its interest about territorial justice, which is  a variant of distributive justice tout court.

The second question concerns the economy and society. A certain degree of territorial competition can have positive consequences on the growth of resources and opportunities for everyone. After all, who is born and raised in poor areas is free to leave. There are however thresholds beyond which disparities create perverse effects on the aggregate level: the rich also end up being worse. EU cohesion policies, which are designed to help regions lagging behind, were introduced and calibrated over time precisely because they were rightly considered essential for the proper functioning of the internal market.

Finally, the most thorny question is about politics. In the wake of a tortuous historical development, dotted with blood and violence, in the second half of the twentieth century the nation-state became a territorial container capable of safeguarding  “freedom, equality and fraternity” through liberal-democratic institutions. At the same time, European integration has acted as a “gentle force” (to use a famous expression of Tommaso Padoa Schioppa) in order to pacify the continent and solve common problems. This virtuous circle seems to be breaking today, under the attack of centrifugal forces at every level. Many autonomist or separatist formations are also euro-skeptical. A sort of parricide, as it was European integration that created the conditions for their emergency. In other cases (Catalonia, Flanders) separatists count on continued EU membership even after independence, without realizing the chain-like shock that such changes would generate for the institutional foundations of the EU.

The model of competitive regional solidarities can only be held within well-defined limits (ethical, economic, political),  otherwise it becomes destructive. And, above all, such model can work only if virtuously framed within the EU’s political and institutional context (including the euro). The revival of “place” and “territory” does offer opportunities for outlining new trajectories and modes of growth. But it can also pave the way for the regress of Europe into a Fortress of Fortresses (national and even sub-national), with detrimental effects on economic development and social inclusion.

Thank you for a highly illuminating contribution. Could I raise a few questions that may be of interest?

You write " we must....become accustomed to the formation of trans-frontier regions interested in creating synergies in the economic and social fields". But the secessionist movements such as those in Catalonia and Scotland do not appear to be interested in such a formation; they are interested in the creation of traditional nation-states. How are is the "trans-frontier regions" formation - which is the main point of your contribution - related to the secessionist movements which have no such goals at all? And how would a possible success of secessionist movements affect those movements who have not had any secessionist goals?

In fact, it would be useful if one could have a list of those movements which are focused on the "trans-frontier regions" formation as opposed to those movements which are focused on political autonomy and separatism. My so far unfounded suspicion is that the former are in a minority among the members of the European Free Alliance. Perhaps the formation of "trans-frontier regions" does not need much help from political movements or parties; perhaps civil society groups and organizations are sufficient for the formation of such regions.

In so, the "trans-frontier regions" and new nation states are two widely different political projects - and while the former may inadvertently support the latter, the former do not appear to be necessary for the latter: autonomist and separatist movement may arise even without a discovery or formation of "trans-frontier" synergies in the social and economic fields.

The Catalan blowback. 

I read Maurizio Ferrera’s article largely as a response to, and interpretation of, the global ghosts and fears evoked by the Catalan crisis. Moreover, the author perceives similarities between Italy's Northern leagues and the Catalan pro-independence parties; this vision seems to inform much of his interpretive framework.

The article is a further hint that Catalonia's push towards independence has led in practice to a rehabilitation of political Jacobinism and a return to state centralisation. Or is it the other way around? Separatism causes centralism, or no, centralism causes separatism: the egg and chicken dilemma is back.

Most Europeans now seem to fear more a government run by ERC in Barcelona than a neo-conservative PP government in Madrid which, it should be recognised, has secured greater respect than either Brexit or Trump. The Spanish Prime Minister has so far been quite successful in enhancing this image. Nobody can deny that, while Catalan nationalism has acquired a bad press, the Spanish central government appears so far strengthened by the way it has managed the conflict, even though it has effectively imposed unprecedented draconian measures – which, in the end, may prove to be a mere short term gain. In parallel, the continued radicalisation of the Catalan conflict has generated deep fractures within Catalonia itself, which are easily exploited by the central government. This in turn is likely to lead to further fragmentation and divisions. But, sooner rather than later, some sort of negotiation will be necessary. We do not know what will happen tomorrow, we only know that negotiation should always be firmly on the table. 

Despite ample evidence to the contrary, there is thus a widespread fear that secessionism harbours the seeds of fascism, xenophobia and racism. The very notion is worrisome: Can such labelling be transformed into a self-fulfilling prophecy? As always, the answer largely depends on the general will to negotiate, which has now become a rara avis, a scarcely available good in the age of Trumpism.

Of course, in scholarly analysis, the reduction of Catalan secession to fascism has never gained traction. By sweeping with a big brush all regionalist movements, one risks ignoring their often subtle differences, including where they stand along the left-right divide. 'Catalan egoism' is thus likened to the capricious complains of a spoiled brat, ignoring the relatively liberal atmosphere in which independentism has grown by coalescing against a less internationally visible Spanish nation-statism. Catalan secessionism is thus considered a bigger threat than a revived Spanish nationalist government. Three cheers for Rajoy, the defender of liberal democracy, down with Puigdemont and the other bunch of parochial provincials prone to destroying world peace in the name of their unprincipled lack of solidarity.

In the introductory article to this series, I asked whether there can be a nationalism of the Left. Maurizio Ferrera’s answer to this question is largely negative. The main problem is that the answer itself lies buried in a sea of generalisations, as if all forms of substate nationalism were of a similar ilk, whether one is talking about Catalonia or Lombardy. Buried as it is, the answer to the initial question still seems to be that, despite all the efforts to create a Left-oriented, progressive form of nationalism, even the most valiant efforts in this direction are destined to crumble. We are only left with the nationalism of the Right. And, since nationalism is the dominant ideology of the modern age, we are forever destined to be ruled by the Right or the far Right, just as has happened in the USA.

But surely, one can read the news through less opaque lenses. The area of immigration and refugees provides a good testing ground. Under the influence of Québec (and rehearsing Catalonia’s own history of assimilation), Catalan pro-immigration policies have been encapsulated under the notion of 'intercultural nationalism' (see ‘Despite the crisis: The resilience of intercultural nationalism in Catalonia', International Migration, Vol. 55, Issue 2, 2017, pp. 53–67). This has nothing to do with the extreme anti-immigration rhetoric and chauvinistic substance of Salvini's NL – and Le Pen's FN for that matter. These nuances are lost if one looks exclusively at the egotistical withdrawal from the responsibilities of welfare redistribution policies. Again, the key question posed in my introductory article remains the same: Can there be a nationalism of the Left?

Solipsism becomes the main problem here. Unfortunately, there is an undeniable truth in Ferrera ‘s pessimistic claim that Catalan and Flanders' separatists ‘count on continued EU membership even after independence, without realizing the chain-like shock that such changes would generate for the institutional foundations of the EU’. This blindness and misunderstanding of the broader European context is, however, accompanied by a much more all-pervasive generalised blindness about the even broader picture, namely the tragedy brought about by unfettered, unopposed globalisation. This has led to a brutalisation of the human psyche which has no historical precedent. A new radicalism has been spawned in response, at all levels of society. 

This seems paradoxical, but neoliberalism is still imposing its poisonous recipes, resisting against all odds, even surviving its own economic crisis and changing climate. States have few resources left besides nationalist recentralisation, as is happening throughout Europe and far beyond. From Turkey to Burma and several Asian countries, forms of accommodation enshrining greater respect for human rights are increasingly dumped in the name of reinforcing central states, just as these have become debilitated after decades of relentless neoliberal globalisation. 'Compensation strategy' is a suitable term. As free market deregulation brought havoc throughout the ecumene, nationalism, often in the form of authoritarian and xenophobic populism, becomes the first to benefit from the chaos, not a tainted social-democratic left itself corroded by its previous embrace of US-led globalisation – what Luis Moreno has aptly rendered as 'Anglobalisation'.

One more lesson can be drawn here: far from creating more cohesive societies, the rise of nationalism ushers fractured societies. One can take heed from the most powerful state in world affairs, the most powerful country on earth – the USA – where, after a spate of unprecedented scandals and a government shutdown, the slogan ‘make America great’ has been turned topsy-turvy into the everyday practice of ‘making America divided’. The USA is more fragmented, violent and desperate than it ever was: a possible failed state in charge of the destinies of the world.

I read with great interest Professor Ferrera’s post, finding it exciting and inspiring. Here, I would like to question only one aspect of his interpretation of the ‘revival of regional homelands’. What he is really looking at in this piece is the ‘protest of rich regions’ in Europe (notably examples such as Catalonia, Flanders and Northern Italy). Now, my question is: is the process of opening up of national borders (both in terms of European integration and wider globalisation) so important in this context?

I do agree with Professor Ferrera that globalisation and European integration have created new opportunities for competitive regions, as well as posed serious challenges to national states. Yet, couldn’t we expect a similar protest of the rich even in the absence of processes of opening up? After all, what lies at the core of this ‘nationalism of the rich’ is a claim that the parent state, or some poorer regions within it, are exploiting the net contributor regions through the system of social solidarity that imposes too high a burden on such contributing areas, while the resources transferred are not used to finance endogenous growth but rather dependency for electoral purposes.

Now, as Paul Pierson has cogently argued, the crisis of welfare and the beginning of the so-called era of permanent austerity have certainly been exacerbated by globalisation, but their deepest roots have to do with endogenous factors such as population aging, the transition from an industry-based to a service-based economy (which entails lower levels of productivity), the ‘growth to limits’ of governmental commitments and new households and employment patterns, all factors that would be with us even in the absence of more open borders and political integration at the European level. Furthermore, the higher access to welfare benefits caused by the opening up of borders, notably in Europe, does not really concern these cases, since what these nationalist parties are complaining of is the exploitation of welfare made by their own co-nationals in other regions and not (or not only) by foreigners taking advantage of more open borders.

That said, I do not want at all to deny the impact that globalisation and European integration have had (which are important both at the economic and political level), but rather suggest that they have exacerbated endogenous processes that, in my opinion, play a more fundamental role in explaining the nationalism of these rich regions.

On behalf of H-Nationalism, I'd like to thank Maurizio Ferrera for his excellent contribution and Aleksandar Pavkovic and Daniele Conversi for their interesting comments. The fifth post of our series will be published next Tuesday (20 February). Don't miss it!