The New Europe? Regionalism, Refugees & Atlantic Unity

The Scottish National Party (SNP) held their long anticipated referendum on independence from the United Kingdom in 2015 coming within eight percentage points of realizing an independent Scotland. The first of its kind in the EU, Scotland’s challenge to secede from the United Kingdom is based on ownership of its oil resources, control of welfare spending on its own citizens, and a desire to reverse austerity measures implemented during the Eurozone Crisis.  This was the political platform that sent the SNP to the Scottish parliament, and empowered Alex Salmond to pursue the Yes Scotland campaign. Though the SNP failed to achieve independence, it sent scared the Tory administration of David Cameron, who nearly witnessed the death of a 300 year-old union. Today’s Brexit debate, though pursued for purely economic goals, draws its foundation from a deep attitude of exclusivity, which Great Britain asserts in order to opt-out of Europe’s treaty obligations. Scotland and Britain are not the only ones considering their relationship to the EU in new lights since 2008 and 2013. Today, Spain is fighting against an insurgent Catalan movement that is emboldened by similar aspirations as the Scots and the desire to reassert themselves over a broken Spain. At the local and regional level, Europe’s regions are creating shockwaves through the national and EU establishment, in ways that even Donald Trump and the Tea Party have not been able to inflict on Washington. Regionalism is transforming in the EU, and it will change the way the United States approaches its relationship with the Atlantic Community.  

Regionalism 2.0

The European Union Treaty was signed in 1994 in the city of Maastricht, promulgating the evolution of economic union to political union on a set of core issues, notably the European economy, in the greatest experiment of statecraft in modern history. The end of the Cold War and introduction of the democratic peace dividends gave Europeans an opportunity to invest in domestic programs and economic investments, including high speed rail. Foreign Affairs author John Newhouse described a Europe in transition, as European nation-states were confronted with a new brand of politics: regionalism. Globalization empowered cities and regional groups to challenge the power, influence, and authority of nation-states, and take leadership in the new Union. With the new economic wave uplifting the whole of Europe, powerhouse regions emerged in Catalonia, Occitane-Provence, Lombardy, England, and Benelux. Cities like Barcelona, Lyon, and Milan saw a chance to take ownership in the free trade and Schengen zone, and demonstrate their ability to command the attention of Brussels policymakers. The reality of the early 90s Union was a new economic arrangement that gave greater latitude for non-state actors, as well as regions whose national, cultural, and linguistic background in some cases sharply contrasted with their parent countries.

That was the Europe most people in America know today. But the Europe of today has changed and shifted since the turn of the millennium, and the Lisbon Treaty’s ratification in 2008.Tthe latest iteration of EU treaties, Lisbon expanded the democratic franchise of the Union by making the European Parliament members directly elected by the people, and made economic policies, notably the Euro, subject to approval by the Council of Ministers and the Parliament (among other reform issues). Since Maastricht, European political parties entered into EU politics, representing not just single nationalities, but beliefs and issues concerning groups across all states (codified by the Lisbon reforms). Some of these new parties represent key regions across Europe, notably Catalonia, Lombardy, Veneto, and Wallonia. With new politics come new challenges, as the sovereign debt crisis caused economic decline in Southern Europe, a refugee crisis exposing weaknesses in Schengen, and insurgent nationalism that played out in the 2014 Scottish Referendum and Catalonian Independence Movement. These events are part of a changing Europe whose experiment in supranational statecraft is stalled, whose politics are becoming more democratic, and the traditional nation-state is caught in between the aspiration of their citizens and desires of Brussel’s European federalists.

The Policy Trinity: E.P.S.

Europe’s new regionalism can be viewed in light of a three component policy domain: economic, political, and security. Today’s economic landscape in Europe is slowly recovering, as confidence in European markets improve and begin to attract investors, according to Ernst & Young’s European Attractiveness Survey 2015. Furthermore, the report noted in 2015 that North America was Europe’s most competitive market, replacing a slumping China market in global trade and foreign direct investment competition. It should be good news to American economists and policymakers, especially with ongoing negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that would set a new free trade regime in the North Atlantic. However, the same report noted how European markets suffer from large public deficits, unrest in Eastern Europe, and energy insecurity, all of which are disproportionately felt across the continent. The Economist noted that economic recovery is fragile in both Italy and Spain, both having bad histories of coalition building among parties. In areas where unemployment and economic shrinkage is highest, regions have either been economic leaders, had strong regional identities before national identity, or both. In Italy for example, the divide between north and south economies, is a major issue in the country, and is deeply tied to the federalism issue important many northern politicians, especially Lombardy. As regions gain stronger influence over economic policies in national capitals, US policymakers will have a harder time negotiating trade friendly policies advanced by regional policymakers.

Tied to economic policy is political power, which as national borders are broken down and power devolved from national governments to local and regional authorities, changes the way US diplomats work with the EU. The Lisbon Treaty empowered local and regional communities by allowing them to directly elect MEPs to the Parliament, and opened 45 different policy areas to EU legislation, many dealing with economic policies like health, trade, and business. Regional parties had already experimented with forming their own EU-wide political party, creating the European Free Party (EFP). The EFP is one of many parties that run candidates for the Parliament, alongside mainstream parties like the European People’s Party and Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, lesser parties like the Europe of Nations and Freedoms, led by French National Front Leader, Marine Le Pen. But the most important feature is that as the EU has become progressively more federal and integrated, the parties on the far right look more like opposition parties to protect sub-national, regional, and local groups. Alongside working with the High Commissioner on Foreign Policy, US diplomats will now be confronted with politics with more vocal special interests and policy entrepreneurs. The arena for foreign policy is widening in Europe, and its slowly moving into unexplored waters.

Regional security is the new dimension that was laid to rest at the end of the Cold War, but now reopened as Europe comes under fire as energy insecurity and illegal immigration replaces conventional military challenges. But security also exists alongside the previous policy areas. The refugee crisis has plagued European and national policymakers as regional and far right parties criticize leaders for their responses. In Germany for example, the Christian Social Union, the conservative party in Bavaria, has been a traditional partner of Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU). They called for fixed limits on receiving refugees, claiming Germany cannot take every refugee into the country, nor can it properly care for them either. Germany has been generous to refugees in the past, but that attitude maybe changing as regionalists become more vocal, especially in light of the sexual assaults in Cologne. The CSU has long criticized its coalition partner, because it wants to demonstrate to Bavarians that they have a voice, and be allowed to rule in Bavaria by being the only established conservative party that can be elected. Here, the absence of American involvement in help coordinate an Atlantic response to the refugee crisis is destructive to economic recovery, integration of refugees into society, and tempering regional anguish over the threat of terrorism. With Austria closing its borders to transient refugees and Germany clamming up to domestic pressures, Schengen is crumbling under the weight of our conflicts in the Middle East, and our inability to find a solution to the region’s wars.

The American Response

Today’s American foreign policy suffers from a deficit of hard power, as the Obama Administration has shelved these tools in re-branding a post-Bush Era superpower. Building American soft power is crucial to reapproaching our allies in Europe as the immigration crisis builds and democratic demagogues abuse democratic traditions for regional ends. While we need to respect the aspirations of any peoples wanting a chance to chart their own course, we cannot have it disrupt the future stability the Atlantic Community. The EU is a crucial pillar of post-Cold War Europe and American foreign policy, and the emergence of five to seven new states, like Scotland, Catalonia, Lombardy, Sardinia, etc., would be destabilizing if not handled in a controlled environment. Furthermore, we must work to pursue a solution to the refugee crisis that is intimately connected to the Syrian Civil War. Though foreign policy is an environment of shifting sands, with rapidly developing events and trends, we must continue to stabilize the American-Atlantic Community to safeguard shared economic, political, and security relationships.
Washington’s Pivot to Asia relegated Europe to the backburner, in a long period of economic stagnation, coupled with the worst immigration crisis to affect continent. Furthermore, the twin crises, with an undercurrent of anxiety towards Brussels bureaucracy, has flared the reform, autonomy and separatists movements across Europe that reflect a Europe in transition. US policymakers should be worried about the emergence of new countries as the economic environment shifts, political power becomes increasingly fragmented, and collective security challenges fan the flames started by the far right, as in France. The European experiment itself is reaching a critical point, and the United States may be missing a prime opportunity to support a community, in the midst of a crisis of faith and promises. I believe a program should emphasize public diplomacy, statecraft, and institutional development. A combination of public diplomacy and foreign aid directed towards democracy building, education, and direct investment projects in Europe should be implemented. More federal funding for university programs in ethnic and regional studies in Western and Mediterranean Europe should be allocated under this mission. We can achieve this aim by coordinating existing programs and institutes, and bringing together interdisciplinary approaches to these academic fields, including security and refugee studies. Finally, the US needs to support refugee integration programs by coordinating USAID support with European programs, relieving pressure on local and regional governments facing the crisis.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. withlovefromanywhere says:

    Although all of the different regions wanting to leave various European countries is interesting I am going to focus on the one I know the most about which is Scotland. The desire of Scotland to leave the UK is a very interesting one. Although it may have bothered Cameron, many people from England almost wanted to see it succeed. Scotland has its own Parliament, and they subsidize for Scotts more then the UK subsidizes for its citizens overall. One interesting example of this is that Scottish Universities are free for Scottish people and students from the EU but not students who grew up in England.

    It seems that most in Scotland want more independence from the UK but don’t really want to leave. The referendum for Scotland’s Independence if it had passed would have had them joining the UK and Ireland’s Common Travel Area rather then the Schengen area and a formal currency union with the UK rather then joining the Euro.

    Reading Keith’s points, especially on regions other then Scotland, it brings the thought that maybe its emotional. That people in different regions are seeing economic, social and political recovery come back but it is not coming to their regions which feel ignored in the bureaucracy of the European Union. There is a history of certain regions being ignored or discriminated against in Europe.

    In terms of how this relates to the US, as Keith said there are many options of using soft power diplomacy in order to try to prevent the instability which would come from many regions becoming their own countries at once. One option would be encouraging American students to study abroad to these regions to learn the customs, history and languages which pushing Universities to accept credit for them. There are many other options to use soft power but that is just one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think this a great commentary, and you hit these points right on the head. I would add though that the European Union, as it has devolved democratic institutions closer to people, more people feel they can affect their lives beyond just their national government. For example, Catalonia and Northern Italians might feel that the EU is a greater investment of their political capital to get the results they desire than in Madrid or Rome. But when the returns do not come back as they like, they feel securing their own independence is more necessary. So as democratization continues, so does the desire of strong national groups to seek a greater share in the movement.


  2. tonyreid1993 says:

    The European Union, I think it is an interesting endeavor. The main problem I see with the EU is that is was not formed properly. The Euro is essentially a bullion standard. The inability for individual states with a variety of different economies to use effective monetary policy has proven to be dangerous. Greece and Spain would have been able to turn around their economic woes – high unemployment and debt. The EU’s failure to mange its monetary policy has been pulling back on the last 50 years of European integration. The austerity measures have devastated the countries who pursued them. The only countries that showed any positive effects of austerity were countries that always had high interest rates. Furthermore, Germany is steam rolling the EU. Historian have always taken special notice of Germany’s persistence in governing Europe. And Merkel is pushing the will of Germany on the Central Bank of Europe. For example, look at the conditions on the loans for Greece and Spain. Both countries have to get their debt to GPD ratios down to 30%. Something Germany has failed to do time and time again, and it is the strongest economy in Europe. Modern economics dictates that the way to get out of these kinds of slumps is use the printing press. However, the EU decided upon economic integration and ignored political integrations. The monetary system needs careful management.


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