Is it Time to Say “Hi-Diddley-Hey!” to Flanders? (A Few Words on Integration and Secession)
Before getting to the main issue, I just have to note the snarky opening from the article:
The notion that breaking up a country as insignificant as Belgium could lead to anything more appealing in its place may seem far-fetched beyond its shores. But to many of the six million who live in the Dutch-speaking Flanders region, the growing strength of the EU makes it an increasingly attractive option.
“Belgium is too heterogeneous. There is too much diversity and too many different views,” said Jeroen Overmeer, spokesman for Flanders’ Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliante party, separatists who made big gains in this month’s nationwide Belgian elections.
There are too many different views in Belgium for it to survive as a single state!? Anyway, the main issue here is how European integration can also support the disintegration of existing states. Overmeer explains:
“The EU makes it possible for countries such as this one to split up. We believe we are experiencing both globalisation and localisation. Some problems are global, like defence or the environment, and these need to be dealt with by the EU. But at the same time democracy needs to be closer to the people, and that is why we are a regionalist party. The two trends go hand in hand.”
“Regionalization,” in the sense it is being used in the EU, refers to regions within existing states being given increasing autonomy, without complete sovereignty. This is different from secession–splitting off from an existing state. However, in the EU the line between regionalization and secession is getting thinner and thinner:
For some EU officials, the mere possibility [that Flanders could go it alone] is a triumph for the institution.
“Yes, regions could survive alone,” said Hendrik Theunissen, an official in the forward studies unit of the Committee of the Regions, a Brussels institution.
“The EU does not get involved in internal politics in individual countries, but it is a fact that regions are already well embedded in the EU structures. They opened their first offices in Brussels in the 1980s. Now there are more than 300 of them here. The EU pushes towards decentralisation. Experience shows it has been positive.”
As the EU deepens, it is giving more and more powers to the regions, which empowers them vis-a-vis their national governments. For example, according to Theunissen, the Lisbon Treaty will grant
the EU’s regions, all of which are represented on the Committee of the Regions, new powers to challenge law-makers in the European Court of Justice… “We will have the right to go to court to defend out prerogatives if the European Commission is blatantly ignoring our advice,” he said. “This puts us on the same level as the national parliaments.”
The treaty will also give regions new powers to control the way billions of euros in the EU Cohesion Fund are spent.
This can have far-reaching implications for the future balance of power within the the EU:
Outside Belgium, other EU member states have strong separatist movements, including Spain (both the Basques and those seeking greater autonomy for Catalonia) and Britain (the SNP in Scotland). In Italy the Northern League spent a decade pushing for the creation of an independent “Padania” – to include such northern cities as Milan, Turin and Venice – free from what many saw as the corruption and poverty of the country’s south.
However, it is important to keep in mind that, while these EU initiatives will empower regions in relation to states, these new policies will not make regions sovereign members of the EU:
Some maintain that few national governments will give up their territorial power lightly – and all would, of course, have the right to veto a breakaway region’s application to join the EU as a new member.
Nonetheless, this another example at how the nation-state is being simultaneously challenged from above (the integration of the EU) and below (the empowerment of regions), with each of those challengers (the EU and the regions) each seeking an approximation of statehood.