Regionalization 101 - an introduction

I live in Romania, a country which until 22 years ago was under a communist regime, and which had to drastically modify its social, institutional and administrative constructs in order to adapt the market economy and the ‘western’ style of life. I observed the reform (partial – my opinion might be biased in this respect) of an overly-centralized state and the EU driven adaptational changes.

Lately there has been a lot of talk about ‘real’ regionalization. We already have development regions, but the objective here would be to create fully functional regions, with some administrative and financial independence, instead of formal regions which hold no real power. While doing some analysis of proposals and discourses I discovered that regionalization and the regions are not that well understood. This is not a Romanian trait, I found that this is a general issue around most EU member states.

Basic misconceptions about regionalization

#1 – A region is a region, no matter where you are

The blurred understanding of the meanings of regional and the regions is caused by the fact that if we perceive the region from both policy-making and administrative perspectives it has many different roles, which in turn can create some level of confusion. In a comparative analysis we would probably observe some type of resemblance from state to state, in how regions are perceived. But if there is a general rule in these resemblances we can’t put our finger on it just yet. This is mainly because the regionalization process varies from state to state, based on its own sub-national criteria and priorities.

#2 – It’s only natural to have regions

Regions are not ‘a given’, but are man-made constructs aimed at a specific objective (i.e. administrative, jurisdictional, statistical, etc.), or they are contoured based on historical, ethnic, religious, language or other social delimitations.

#3 – Regionalization is made in the EU

In the EU there is a misconception, that the EU institutions are shaping the regionalization process. That my hold some water if we talk about encouragement to develop a regional level of decision-making, in order to adapt to EU regional policy (I have written about the EU’s regional policy here). However, in terms of prescriptions EU policy is rather scarce in this field, leaving it up to member states to decide how the process will take place.

Roles of the region

In practice at the national and supra-national levels the region could hold a myriad of roles, which might at times overlap, however the most common are:

  • administrative and managing roles (one does not assume the other) – its authorities can be responsible for regional services, intra-regional cooperation of the authorities, management of regional resources, responsible for authorizing projects of regional importance, and for coordinating national and international partnerships and projects;
  • fiscal role – the regional authorities can be responsible for setting taxation levels and the management and collection of taxes;
  • policy-making role – its authorities can be responsible for the elaboration of policy and programming at the regional level, and ensuring the participation of both national and sub-regional actors in this process;
  • policy implementation role – regional authorities can be responsible for implementing supra-national, national, and regional policy and projects;
  • end-users – at times regions can be only beneficiaries of projects and funding;
  • representative role – regional authorities can be responsible for representing the region, its sub-regional administrative components, and interest groups at national and supra-national levels in policy-making, implementation or other types of negotiations that would affect in any way the regional actors or the territory;
  • statistical role – here the Eurostat NUTS levels are more than self-explanatory. The Commission required a standardised unit of measurement for statistical purposes.

The extent of the roles above varies from state to state, and there is no standardised recipe for regional design (note the overuse of the expression “can be”), which is based on national law and the level of decentralization that also varies from state to state.

I hope the presentation above shed some light on what regions are and what their roles can be. I did not try to compose a comprehensive guide to regions and regionalization as that would be impossible in so few words, but I do hope I managed to offer a useful introduction.