European puzzle pieces

EU and Regions relationships between challenges, reactions and initiatives: what’s next?

Gabriella Saputelli of ISSiRFA, Rome was our very first JMCE Fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Law School, spending a week here in mid-October 2019.  This is her blog, written during her visit to Scotland.

The European sub-national context is complex and varied, with numerous Regions and local governments differently involved in the application of European law and in the implementation of European Union policies.

Since the ‘90s, European Treaties and secondary legislations have given more attention to sub-national entities, thus moving from EU “regional blindness” to processes of involvement that regard these levels as essential for the realization of European objectives and for the whole European integration project.

These changes which indirectly pushed processes of federalization or regionalization in several Member States, on the one hand helped the unity among territories within the internal market and under a common framework: this is almost evident with the impact of Brexit on UK devolution. On the other hand, they progressively encouraged a ‘European’ awareness of Regions as regards their role in the EU system, regardless of States.

From a constitutional perspective, the increasing interest of the EU toward Regions and the growing relevance of sub-national entities in the European integration process coexist with the principle stated in art. 4.2 TEU, according to which the EU respects the constitutional structure of the Member State. This means that the role of Regions in the European integration process and their relationship with EU continue to depend mainly on the Member States and their Constitutions.

The European multilevel governance system was strongly affected by the economic crisis that led toward a two-dimension Europe (centered on the EU Institutions and the Member States) and a strong centralization process in many member States.1  The economic crisis has accentuated territorial and social disparities and highlighted the negative effects of globalization, bringing out the resentment of peripheral and marginal communities. Therefore, despite the important role played by EU in reducing regional inequality across countries 2 , “growing disparities between regions have emerged…leading to a widening gap between core and periphery regions within the EU”.3

In this scenario, a strong request of involvement, autonomy, and sometimes independence (i.e. Catalonia, Scotland), has emerged from some EU territories in the last years.

In Italy, after an extremely centralization process during the economic crisis – with the near abolition of Provinces and a Constitutional reform proposal rejected by referendum in 2016 – in the last years some Northern Regions (Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy, Veneto) have asked for more autonomy through the mechanism provided in Art. 116 (3) of the Constitution of the Italian Republic, which introduced the possibility of differentiated and asymmetrical Regionalism. In 2018 these Regions signed preliminary agreements with the State (later modified in February 2019) that include, among several competences, commitments aimed at strengthening the role of Regions in international relations and with the European Union. Other Italian Regions are following these examples and have started the process or the discussion on greater autonomy.

All these facts and processes raise new questions about the relationship between the EU and the Regions and on the current role of sub-national entities in the EU integration process in a context of globalization of the economy.

An impressive amount of studies have demonstrated and highlighted the role and value of regional differentiation in economic, political and legal perspectives, but it is well know that not every kind of differentiation is affordable from a constitutional point of view.  As Daniel Elazar explained in 1979, if “one of the characteristics of federalism is its aspiration and purpose simultaneously to generate and maintain both unity and diversity (…) the question remains open as to what kinds or combinations of diversity are compatible with federal unity and which ones are not” 4.

The requests for more autonomy made by some regional territories in Europe could push toward disintegration or could represent the opportunity to look at regional differentiation as a path to ‘integration’. At least, what is happening makes clear that real positive and negative differentiation now requires an institutional adjustment, and that unity has to be achieved through autonomy.

The need to combine unity and diversity and to “strengthen the Union” will depend mainly on national reactions, but also on European answers.

Member States need to renovate and re-organize their systems: this is rather evident, for example, in the UK where greater constitutional protection is necessary for devolved Nations, but also in Italy where Regions are calling for the implementation of the relevant constitutional provisions as well as for greater autonomy.

Even though it cannot interfere with MS “fundamental structures, political and constitutional, inclusive of regional and local self-government”, according to art. 4.2. TEU, the EU cannot be indifferent to these phenomena since Regions and local governments play a very important role in the application of European law and in the implementation of European policies (especially for the internal market).

If so, where do we start? Certainly, a better application of multilevel governance and subsidiarity to certain policies could be crucial: this is evident, for example, in relation to the migration issue and also to the internal market.5

Amid the debates on the future of Europe in 2017, European Union Institutions started to deal with these questions by means of meetings and initiatives occurred in 2018 and 2019. These discussions refocused the need for a Europe having three dimensions and considered the democratic relevance of regional and local authorities as levels closest to citizens: “the EU’s positive role in daily life is not visible if the story is not told locally”6 . Many documents have been published on this theme: the Task Force for subsidiarity and proportionality and for “doing less in a more efficient way” (July 10, 2018); “The State of the European Union: the view of Regions and Cities” (9 October 2018); the Bucharest Declaration of the European Committee of the Regions “Building the EU from the ground up with our regions and cities” (14-15 March 2019). Furthermore, during the 8th European Summit of Regions and Cities the 14-15 March 2019, the European committee of the Regions launched a concrete follow-up measure for a more systematic involvement of Europe’s local and regional authorities in implementing the EU legislation: a Network of Regional Hubs for EU Policy Implementation Review (#RegHub) .

We do not know if this process will have practical and positive effects. What we know is that a new understanding of the role of regional differentiation in and for the European integration process is necessary, since the participation of sub national levels of government in decisions that have a major impact on citizens’ lives concerns fundamental values of EU, such as subsidiarity and democratic principles.

Only by dealing seriously with these challenges could the European Union continue to create “an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”.


Gabriella SAPUTELLI, Institute for the Study of Regionalism, Federalism and Self Government (ISSiRFA) of the National Research Council (CNR) – ROME


  1. OECD, Multilevel Governance Reforms. Overview of OECD Country Experiences (May 2017).
  2. OECD Report, The European Union: A people centred agenda (May 2019), p. 15:
  3. Sigurd Naess-Schmidt, Jonas Bjarke Jensen, “Subsidiarity and Proportionality in the Single Market. An EU fit for inclusive growth”, Bertelsmann Stiftung 2018, 6, 7:
  4. Daniel J. Elazar, Federalism and Political Integration, Ramat Gan, Israel: Turtledove Publishing, 1979, 64, 67
  5. See, for example: Sigurd Naess-Schmidt, Jonas Bjarke Jensen, “Subsidiarity and Proportionality in the Single Market. An EU fit for inclusive growth”, Bertelsmann Stiftung 2018.
  6. European Commission, White Paper on the Future of Europe. Reflections and scenarios for the EU27 by 2025, Brussels, 1.3.2017, COM(2017) 2025 final.