international analysis and commentary

Movements for local autonomy: from fringe to center stage


The rise of localism, or the excessive devotion to and promotion of the interests of a particular region, is certainly a global phenomenon. While globalization has fostered processes of cross-cultural contamination, resulting in a more connected and interdependent world, fear of homogenization has then given rise to heterogeneous local movements, aiming at empowering regional identities against the “others”.

Certainly, the European Union has always been characterized by a plurality of languages, religions, ethnic groups and cultural and behavioral models. In this respect, localism and regionalism have ancient roots in Europe. Yet, while local movements tend to consider the EU as an institutional framework in which to express and foster their identities, by contrast, at the EU level, following the principle of subsidiarity, their instances are frequently dropped as national matters. The latter risks spoiling the European integration process in terms of inclusion. Moreover, such a dismissal is proving to be inefficient. Indeed, despite belonging to a different political spectrum, holding dissimilar political weight and often opposite ideas, European local movements are ultimately acquiring a groundswell of popular support. Despite being fringe movements, they are becoming central actors in the European political stage and their calls for devolution or greater autonomy are leading to requests of full independence.

For instance, although the Scottish referendum, held in September 2014, saw those calling for an independent Scotland being overthrown by the “unionists”, still 45% of the people in the region voted for independence. Moreover, in the aftermath of the last national elections in May 2015, the Scottish National Party (SNP) acquired 4.7% of the vote, with an increase of 3.1% since 2010. And the Scottish referendum may have provided a source of inspiration for a number of movements in other European regions.

In Catalonia, in 2014 an unofficial and non-binding consultation showed that more than 1.8 million people (30% of eligible voters) supported regional independence; the newly-elected regional government is now determined more than ever to carry out an officially recognized referendum on the issue. Indeed, the latest regional elections held in October 2015 saw two secessionist parties, Junts pel SĂ­ (JXS) and Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP), obtain respectively 39.5% and 8.2% of the vote (they gained a total of 72 seats out of 135 in the local parliament). A motion about the road map toward one new “Catalan Republic” is currently under consideration.

The evolution of localism into more radical forms of independentism stems from two main factors. First, the lingering European economic and political crisis and the harsh austerity policies of the past few years have given rise to a diffused dissatisfaction. 51% of Europeans consider the current economic situation as bad, and hopes for a brighter future as citizens of an EU member state have substantially decreased. In this context, both Brussels and the individual member countries are perceived as unable to tackle social problems such as the immigration crisis, which is believed to be one of the most pressing issues challenging not only citizens’ welfare but also the preservation of local identities. On top of that, the recent terrorist attacks in Paris have certainly boosted an already widespread sense of insecurity.

The second factor behind the morphing of localism into a more ominous phenomenon is the link to the globalization process. Indeed, while information is easily accessible, understanding the possible repercussions caused by global trends over national and European policies has become a very complex task for citizens. In this respect, Europeans have come to trust local administrations more than national governments and European institutions. Indeed, they believe they can better comprehend the choices of local administrations since they share the same cultural roots, and they might more easily verify and assess their performance.

Hence, as the right to self-determination is inalienable and a cardinal principle in modern international law, the EU should be more active in addressing such trends. In the case of Scotland the EU has used the membership card to undermine the legitimacy of those advocating independence; in Catalonia, Brussels has dismissed the call for a democratic and legitimate plebiscite as a national and purely domestic matter whereby the European institutions should not be involved.

Such political responses, if combined with the above-mentioned political and economic challenges to the EU, might well undermine the legitimacy of the Union, which is already viewed by many of its citizens as promoting top-down integration without adopting an adequate system of “checks and balances” at the local level. Given the growing detachment from the integration project, ignoring or underestimating local movements seems as ill-advised strategy for the EU. Indeed, other local movements and parties such as those in the Belgian Flanders, in France’s Brittany and Alsace, in the Northern Irish counties (Ulster), or in Italy’s Veneto region are increasingly voicing their will to achieve greater autonomy. Moreover, local demands are also represented by the European Free Alliance party (EFA) in the European Parliament, which is advocating the right of devolution, increased self-governance and independence of several regions.

Many of the demands put forth by separatist movements might well be considered illegitimate, as they prioritize local identity before national citizenship and pose serious constitutional questions. In any case, European institutions, such as the Commission (which is not only the guardian of the Treaties but also enjoys a high degree of independence in the EU structure), the European Committee of the Regions, and the European Parliament, should develop cross-cutting actions and engage local movements in an open debate – also involving  member states. While national governments are naturally inclined to oppose the devolution of powers to regional levels, the effort of the EU institutions should be to mediate and help countries address local issues. Ignoring or dismissing local movements as a mere expression of illegitimate requests by regional “factions” will not foster the European integration process, nor advance the cause of political stability in the member states.

Indeed, if not channeled towards democratic confrontation, the demands of local movements might be used by stridently anti-European (and often xenophobic) political parties to acquire more clout. For instance, the Law and Justice party (PIS) in Poland, the Front National in France or the Northern League in Italy are often depicting the process of “Europeanization” as affecting not only national institutions and economic performances but also as a threat to local communities.

In addition, also non-right-wing political parties, such as the Greek SYRIZA, the Italian Five Star Movement (M5S) or the Spanish Podemos are using universalistic conceptualizations of localism to criticize European policies. For instance, Podemos is applying a similar rhetoric to the one used by separatist movements. Although the party does not want Catalonia to leave Spain, it still supports the people’s right to decide about rules and programs affecting their lives – which European economic decision-making does not allow in various key areas.

In this respect, local movements are finding, and might continue to find, precious allies in an ever-growing euroskeptic political panorama. Depicting them as spoilers of the European integration project is little more than an empty sign of vanity that the EU cannot afford.