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Beyond secessionism: How “impatient regionalism” could hurt foreign policy of EU member states

External actions of local governments are developed and regulated based on the competences vested in them by the national laws. While local authorities occasionally tend to ignore these regulations, they have to be aware of the consequences of their actions and bear in mind the circumstances abroad that should be handled with extreme caution.

January 15, 2018 - Ayaz Rzayev - Stories and ideas

Over the past few years, we have tended to think of the growing European fragmentation in terms of a deep economic divide, Brexit, and right-wing nativist populism. However, the Catalan crisis has shown that there is another force of fragmentation in Europe to watch out for, and that is the rising challenge to the nation-state from below – the trend that the Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor dubs “the impatient regionalism of more metropolitan parts of Europe.”

While it is true that devolving more power to local authorities in line with the EU’s subsidiarity principle has undeniable benefits and might certainly help in addressing the widespread anger and frustration many voters feel towards the national governments and the EU, it is also undeniable that this could unleash a whole Pandora’s Box of consequences. With public confidence in the central government remaining low (according to the latest Eurobarometer, 57 per cent of Europeans do not trust their national governments), a growing belief that local populists would deliver better results is inflaming pro-independence movements throughout Europe.

That is why the EU has sided with Madrid on the Catalan issue. Commenting on the Catalan independence bid, the head of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker noted: “I wouldn’t like a European Union in 15 years that consists of some 98 states. It’s already relatively difficult with 28 and with 27 not easier, but with 98 it would simply be impossible.”

At the same time, the negative effects of the “impatient regionalism” are not limited only to galvanising European secessionist movements. It has unintended consequences that are less visible but no less important: in particular, the unwillingness of local governments in Europe to coordinate their external actions with the international commitments of the parental states.

The “impatient regionalism” could potentially undermine the stated foreign policy of European national governments and render the EU’s already difficult task to speak with one voice on external matters virtually impossible. We are already seeing early evidence of the detrimental impact such behavior might have.

External actions of local governments are developed and regulated based on the competences vested in them by the national laws. In July 2015, a circular sent out to local governments by Bernard Cazeneuve and Laurent Fabius, then Ministers of the Interior and Foreign Affairs of France, sought to clarify certain rules and guidelines concerning decentralised cooperation.

In particular, the circular specified that under the guidance law (loi d’orientation) on the territorial administration of France (Articles L1115-1 to L1115-7 of the general code on regional and local authorities), local governments may undertake decentralised cooperation actions, but all those actions should comply with France’s international commitments. If France imposes sanctions on a country, local governments cannot sign cooperation agreements with the local authorities of the target country bypassing the sanctions. What is more, the circular recalled that it is particularly forbidden to sign any cooperation agreement with entities not recognised by the French government, such as Crimea or Nagorno-Karabakh.

The problem is, local authorities occasionally tend to ignore these regulations. In March 2016, Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice, received a delegation from the Crimean city of Yalta and signed a letter of intent aimed at renewing and developing friendly relations between the two cities. Commenting on the visit, French deputy foreign ministry spokesman, Alexandre Georgini, said that the French government had nothing to do with Estrosi’s actions and France’s stance on the issue had been clear and consistent.

In November 2017, the French government had to issue a similar statement following the visit of the head of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, Bako Sahakyan, to France, where he participated in the signing ceremony of the “friendship declaration” between the French municipality of Alfortville and the occupied Azerbaijani town of Lachin. The French Foreign Ministry was forced to reiterate France’s stance on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, stressing that France does not recognise Nagorno-Karabakh and this “friendship declaration” does not bind or obligate the French government.

These visits have long drawn the ire of the Azerbaijani government. Baku has repeatedly expressed its dismay at the continued practice of engaging the separatist entity in Nagorno-Karabakh by the French local governments and pointed out that these actions contradict France’s role in the mediation process – that is, as a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group, to facilitate a long-term resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

The fact of the matter is, the current situation in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not sustainable. The four-day war of April 2016 underlined the fundamental weaknesses of the existing status-quo and showed how the conflict believed to be frozen might reignite with even more power at any given moment. At the same time, despite a clear-cut polarisation between the sides, the April war also opened up a small but realistic chance to revive the peace process, which has been stuck for years. Since negotiating lasting peace requires credible mediation, this has made the role of international mediators more crucial than ever.

However, the persistent practice in some French local authorities to go over the central government’s head and engage the separatist entities risks undermining France’s image as an impartial mediator. This might seriously damage the peace process, because when one of the disputants views the mediator as biased in favor of the other side, it becomes less willing to accept the proposals made by the mediator.

Back in 2015, France’s then ambassador to Azerbaijan Pascal Meunier admitted that he understands how these actions by the French local governments could affect negatively the perception of France as an unbiased mediator in the conflict. Moreover, these legally void cooperation agreements do not do much in practice except making the conflict drag on even longer.

The separatists see these agreements as precursors to eventual international legitimacy so they become convinced that the continuation of the status quo only strengthens their position and if they hold out just a little longer they can make the international community to accept the “facts on the ground.” This is not true, of course, but this false belief emboldens the separatists to refuse to engage in any serious negotiations or make any meaningful concessions. In the end, it only aggravates the conflict even further.

These examples clearly illustrate how external actions of local authorities can complicate already complex international relations and even undermine the central government-led peace efforts. When the local government does not care about the official position of the parental state and acts unilaterally without coordination or even consultation with the national government, it jeopardises the reputation and credibility of the central government.

It is not to say that international activities of regional and local governments must always and in everything comply with the state’s foreign policy, but there has to be coordination between transnational activities of local governments and the state’s international commitments. Local governments should learn to act responsibly and be more deliberate in their external actions. They have to be aware of the consequences of their actions and bear in mind the circumstances abroad that should be handled with extreme caution.

To paraphrase Joseph S. Nye, before taking any actions, regardless whether those actions are domestic or international, but especially when they can be perceived as an act of disrespect towards other states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, local governments might want to consider the political version of the ancient motto of medical ethics: Primum non nocere (first, do no harm).

Ayaz Rzayev is an adviser at Baku-based Center for Strategic Studies. His research interests cover European politics and the EU’s impact on the politics of Central and Eastern European countries with an emphasis on regionalism and far-right populism.

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