1. Introduction to the issue--a semantic approach
The European Union (EU) is an ambitious project of international integration, which has resulted in the creation of a vast geo-political region. For such a grouping to exist, its many actors--local, regional, national and supranational--have to actively commit to the idea of an integrating and uniting Europe. It is a remarkable commitment, should we consider that, with the exception of supranational actors, the self-identification of other actors often occurs in terms of 'boundaries' and 'territorial demarcation' (Gerner 1999:180). With the notion of territory being the 'very essence of the state' (Keating 1988:1), linking countries' political identity to the notions of a 'place' or a 'homeland' (Keating 1998b:3), those at the level of the nation-state may be the most cautious towards the idea of Europe. Thus, the very process of European integration is possible only if a European state shows "economic interest, relative power, [and] credible commitments" (Moravcsik 1998:4) towards its counterparts on the continent.
The key cleavages of the European identity are not confined to geographical matters only, but also include numerous linguistic, religious, cultural, historical and economical fault lines. Unsurprisingly, the modern-day EU resembles to some observers a jigsaw puzzle of several 'micro-Europes': "market Europe, social Europe, [...] wealthy Europe, poorer Europe--east and west, north and south" (Laffan 2004:77, 96). Yet, recognising that "identities may be formed around the inhabiting of a certain territory" (Chimisso 2003:45), the above listed points of divergence are argued to result in a very specific vision of Europe (and the EU for that matter); that of Europe as a collection of regions (which is different from the view of Europe as a collection of nation-states). Indeed, not only is the EU a region in itself, but it is also a place where regionalism within and across the EU Member States is a reality.
Historically, the EU's attitude to its internal regionalisation has been both accepting and supportive. In 1992, the Maastricht Treaty (or the Treaty on European Union) acknowledged the ever-present European drive towards regionalisation by formalising the establishment of the Committee of the Regions (COR). (1) Presumably, this provision was intended to legitimise the importance of the regional layer in the rather complicated arrangement of EU governance. Although this layer functions below the level of nation-states, the COR also often possesses autonomous rights and powers to deal directly with the pan-European governing bodies of the EU and even foreign partners. Arguably, this original vision on internal regionalisation combines with the EU's normative point of view on the fundamental issue of the true equality that it aims to achieve, primarily by respecting "the national identities of its Member States". (2)
Regional participation in the European project has never been 'one fit' for all. On the one hand, the phenomenon of regionalism can be found in present-day Europe within a single state locality. Some of those regions are more politically articulated and active (such as Lander in Germany or Catalunya/Cataluna in Spain). Some are less politically pronounced (such as West Sweden, East Finland or West Zealand). Yet, all of them are represented in Brussels at the level of lobbying offices (Lein-Mathisen 2004:93-114, Jones 1985:234), which pursue and keep alive the so-called 'sub-state' or 'sub-national' external relations.
In some European countries regionalism goes hand-in-hand with federalism where powerful local authorities co-exist with national ones (Keating 1998b:112115), for example, in Germany. In other cases, regionalism is interpreted as an intergovernmental cooperation across several states resulting in regional groupings within the EU (the most influential of these being the Western European Union comprised of the Benelux countries, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom). …