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.