Decentralization in European and MENA Countries: Glue or Solvent?

Decentralization in European and MENA Countries: Glue or Solvent?

Francois Vaillancourt (Universite de Montreal, Canada) and Richard M. Bird (University of Toronto, Canada)
Copyright: © 2016 |Pages: 27
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-9601-3.ch001
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Abstract

The question considered in this chapter is whether decentralization is likely to hurt or help national unity in “countries at risk.” We begin with a literature review, focusing on three particular questions: the size and number of nations; the determinants of decentralization; and, finally, and bearing most directly on our topic, the links between decentralization and political outcomes. We next set out in capsule form some of the very mixed stories of linkages between decentralization and national unity found in Europe and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, before considering more closely the ongoing discussions of secession in three European countries – Belgium, Spain and the United Kingdom. We conclude that the impact of decentralization on national unity is so complex and context-sensitive that no general answers to our initial question emerge: in some instances, decentralization may be an inducement for regions to stay in a country; in others, however, it may prove to be only a way station on the road to the exit.
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Introduction

Do federal systems undermine national unity and potentially lead to secession?

There can be problems in federations, but no more so than in unitary states. Some of the most prosperous and stable states in the world are federations … and there is no lack of national unity or patriotism in these countries. Comparative research has proved that secession is a much more likely threat in over-centralized unitary systems than in federal systems. One example of this is Somaliland, which tried to break away from the Somali Republic when it was unitary and over-centralized. The prevention of secession, and the promotion of national unity, is best guaranteed through the existence of a government that brings real benefits to all people and that all people want to belong to (Guidebook, 2013, p. 14).

The last two centuries have seen the rise of the nation-state as the dominant political institution around the world. During this period, colonial empires of varying duration and reach created first by the Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch, then the French and British, then the Germans and Italians, and finally the Russians and Americans crumbled and were replaced by independent nation-states. However, “state” and “nation” are not always equivalent. In a surprising number of countries, autonomist and secessionist movements of varying strength and character remain active. The broad question we consider in this paper is whether decentralization is likely to hurt or help national unity in these “countries at risk.”

The small literature on this subject is not unanimous with respect to either the nature or the extent of the linkage between decentralization and national unity. Some argue for strengthening the central government – in effect, smothering secessionist tendencies in its embrace -- while others argue that giving more powers to regions in which such tendencies are strong will weaken secessionism. Still others say that decentralization simply encourages secessionists to ask for more and more until they get what they want: their own country. We explore some aspects of the relevant literature in Section 2.

In Section 3, we set out in capsule form some of the very mixed stories of linkages between decentralization and national unity found in the European and Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regions. In Section 4, we then look a bit more closely at three European cases – Flanders (Belgium), Catalonia (Spain), and Scotland (United Kingdom). Section 5 concludes.

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What Does The Literature Say?

Although there is an enormous literature potentially relevant to our theme, we focus here on three particular questions: the size and number of nations; the determinants of decentralization; and, finally, and bearing most directly on our topic, the links between decentralization and political outcomes.

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