Regionalism: Definition and Examples

Flag for the Scottish National Party, a regionalist and Scottish nationalist party, alongside the Scottish flag
Flag for the Scottish National Party, a regionalist and Scottish nationalist party.

Ken Jack / Getty Images

Regionalism is the development of political, economic, or social systems based on loyalty to a distinct geographic region with a largely ideologically and culturally homogeneous population. Regionalism often leads to formally agreed to arrangements between groups of countries intended to express a common sense of identity while achieving common goals and improving quality of life. 

Key Takeaways: Regionalism

  • Regionalism is the development of political and economic systems based on loyalty to distinct geographic regions.
  • Regionalism often results in formal political or economic arrangements between groups of countries intended to achieve common goals. 
  • Regionalism flourished after the end of the Cold War and the global dominance of the two superpowers. 
  • Economic regionalism results in formal multinational agreements intended to enable the free flow of goods and services between countries.

Old and New Regionalism

Attempts to establish such regionalist initiatives began in the 1950s. Sometimes called the period of “old regionalism,” these early initiatives largely failed, with the exception of the establishment of the European Community in 1957. Today’s period of “new regionalism” began after the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union ushered in a period of increasing global economic integration. This economic optimism resulting from these developments led to regional organizations that were more open to participating in multinational trade than those that had formed in the era of old regionalism. 

After the Cold War, the new political and economic world order was no longer dominated by competition between two superpowers—the U.S. and the Soviet Union—but by the existence of multiple powers. In the period of new regionalism, multi-state agreements were increasingly shaped by non-economic factors such as environmental and social policy as well as policy to encourage transparency and accountability in governance. Several scholars have concluded that while new regionalism was affected by globalization, globalization was similarly shaped by regionalism. In many cases, the impacts of regionalism have furthered, changed, or reversed the effects of both globalization and transnationalism

Since the failure of the World Trade Organization’s 2001 Doha round of negotiations, regionalist trade agreements have flourished. The underlying theory behind regionalism holds that as a region grows more economically integrated, it will inevitably become more fully politically integrated as well. Established in 1992, the European Union (EU) is an example of a multinational politically and economically integrated entity that evolved after 40 years of economic integration within Europe. The EU’s predecessor, the European Community, had been a purely economic arrangement.

Regional vs. Regionalist 

Regional political parties may or may not be regionalist parties. A regional political party is any political party, which no matter its objectives and platform may be, seeks to capture power at the state or regional level while not aspiring to control the national government. For example, the Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man's Party) in India is a regional party that has controlled the state government of Delhi since 2015. In contrast, “regionalist” parties are subsets of regional parties that strive specifically to gain greater political autonomy or independence within their regions. 

When, as they often do, regional or their regionalist sub-parties fail to garner enough public support to win legislative seats or otherwise become politically powerful, they may seek to become part of a coalition government—a type of government in which political parties cooperate to form or attempt to form a new government. Recent prominent examples include Lega Nord (North League), a regionalist political party in the Piedmont region of Italy, the Sinn Féin party’s participation in the Northern Ireland Executive since 1999, and the New Flemish Alliance's participation in the Federal Government of Belgium since 2014. 

Posters in Northern Ireland supporting the political party Sinn Fein and comparing the Northern Irish police force to the British Army.
Posters in Northern Ireland supporting the political party Sinn Fein and comparing the Northern Irish police force to the British Army.

Kevin Weaver / Getty Images



Not all regional of regionalist parties seek greater autonomy or federalism—a system of government under which two levels of government exercise a range of control over the same geographic area. Examples include most provincial and territorial parties in Canada, most parties in Northern Ireland, and most of the nearly 2,700 registered political parties in India. In most cases, these parties seek to advance the causes of special interests such as environmental protection, religious freedom, reproductive rights, and government reform.  

Regionalism and Related Concepts 

While regionalism, autonomism, secessionism, nationalism, and sectionalism are interrelated concepts, they often have different and sometimes opposite meanings.

Autonomism 

Autonomy is the state of not being under the control of another. Autonomism, as a political doctrine, supports the acquisition or preservation of the political autonomy of a nation, region, or group of people. In Canada, for example, the Quebec autonomism movement is a political belief that the province of Quebec should seek to gain more political autonomy, without seeking to secede from the Canadian federation. The Union Nationale was a conservative and nationalist party that that identified with Quebec autonomism. 

While full autonomy applies to an independent state, some autonomous regions can have a degree of self-governance greater than that of the rest of the country. For example, in the USA and Canada, many indigenous people’s nations have autonomy from both the federal and state governments within their reserved territories. Sales in indigenous people’s reservations are not subject to the state or provincial sales tax, and state laws on gambling do not apply on such reservations. 

Secessionism

Secession occurs when a country, state, or region declare their independence from the ruling government. Significant examples of secession include the United States from Great Britain in 1776, the former Soviet republics from the Soviet Union in 1991, Ireland from the United Kingdom in 1921, and the southern states of the United States leaving the Union in 1861. States sometimes use the threat of secession as a means of achieving more limited goals. It is, therefore, a process that begins when a group officially announces its secession—the U.S. Declaration of Independence, for example. 

Most countries treat secession as a criminal act that warrants retaliation using military force. As a result, secession can affect international relationships as well as the civil peace and national security of the country from which a group secedes. In rare instances, a government may voluntarily agree to recognize a seceding state’s independence, especially when other countries support the secession. However, most countries jealously protect their sovereignty and consider the involuntary loss of land and wealth unthinkable. 

The laws of most countries punish those who secede or attempt to secede. While the United States has no specific laws on secession, Chapter 15 of the U.S. Code identifies treason, rebellion, or insurrection, seditious conspiracy, and advocating for the overthrow of the government as felonies punishable by several years in prison and substantial fines. 

Nationalism

Nationalism is a fervent, often obsessive belief that one’s home country is superior to all other countries. Like autonomy, nationalism aims to ensure the country’s right to govern itself and to insulate itself from the effects of international influences. However, when taken to its extremes, nationalism often gives rise to the popular belief that the superiority of one’s country gives it the right to dominate other countries, often by the use of military force. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, nationalism was used to justify imperialism and colonialism across Europe, Asia, and Africa. This sense of superiority differentiates nationalism from patriotism. While patriotism is similarly characterized by pride in one’s country and a willingness to defend it, nationalism extends pride to arrogance and a desire for the use of military aggression toward other countries and cultures. 

Nationalistic fervor can also lead nations into periods of isolationism. In the late 1930s, for example, popularly supported isolationism in reaction to the horrors of World War I played a significant role in preventing the United States from becoming involved in World War II until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

Arising largely as a response to 20th and 21st-century global financial crises, economic nationalism refers to policies intended to protect a country’s economy from competition in the global marketplace. Economic nationalism opposes globalization in favor of the perceived safety of protectionism—the economic policy of restricting imports from other countries through excessive tariffs on imported goods, import quotas, and other government regulations. Economic nationalists also oppose immigration based on the belief that immigrants “steal” jobs from native citizens. 

Sectionalism

Reconstruction Panorama: Reconstruction post-Civil War scene advertising poster
Reconstruction Panorama: Reconstruction post-Civil War scene advertising poster. Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

As opposed to the multinational aspect of regionalism, sectionalism is an extreme, potentially dangerous, devotion to the social, political, and economic interests of a region over those of the country as a whole. Far above and beyond simple local pride, sectionalism springs from more deeply held cultural, economic, or political differences that can if gone unchecked can evolve into secessionism. In this context, sectionalism is considered the opposite of nationalism. Examples of sectionalism can be found in several countries, such as the United Kingdom and Scotland, where various sectionalist-secessionist political parties have existed since the early 1920s.

Sectionalism has created tensions between several small regions throughout American history. However, it was the competing views of the institution of enslavement held by citizens of the Southern and Northern states that ultimately led to the American Civil War

Economic Regionalism 

 Economic Regionalism: Businessmen shaking hands on map of globe.
Economic Regionalism: Businessmen shaking hands on map of globe.

Jon Feingersh Photography Inc / Getty Images

In contrast to traditional nationalism, economic regionalism describes formal multinational agreements intended to enable the free flow of goods and services between countries and to coordinate foreign economic policies in the same geographic region. Economic regionalism can be viewed as a conscious effort to manage the opportunities and constraints created by the dramatic increase in multinational trade arrangements since the end of World War II and especially since the end of the Cold War.  Examples of economic regionalism include free-trade agreements, bilateral trade agreements, common markets, and economic unions. 

In the decades following World War II, several regional economic integration arrangements were established in Europe, including the European Free Trade Association in 1960 and the European Community in 1957, which reorganized into the European Union in 1993. The number and success of such agreements flourished after the tension of the Cold War had faded. For example, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) free-trade area depended on geographic proximity, as well as relatively homogenous political structures—particularly democracy—and shared cultural traditions.

Types of economic regionalism can be classified by their levels of integration. Free-trade areas such as the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which eliminates or greatly reduces customs duties between its members, are the most basic expression of economic regionalism. Custom unions, such as the European Union (EU), display a higher degree of integration by imposing a common tariff on nonmember nations. Common markets like the European Economic Area (EEA) add to these arrangements by allowing the free movement of capital and labor between member countries. Monetary unions, such as the European Monetary System, which operated from 1979 to 1999, requires a high degree of political integration between member nations, strives for total economic integration through the use of a common currency, a common economic policy, and the elimination of all tariff and non-tariff trade barriers. 

“Tight” economic regionalism features a high level of institutional integration achieved through shared rules, and decision-making processes designed to limit the autonomy of individual member countries. Today’s European Union is considered an example of tight economic regionalism, having evolved from a free-trade area to a customs union, a common market, and finally to an economic and currency union. In contrast, “loose” economic regionalism lacks such formal and binding institutional arrangements, relying instead on informal consultative mechanisms and consensus-building. NAFTA, as a full-blown free-trade area that falls short of being an economic union, falls in a loosely defined category between tight and loose economic regionalism.

Regional economic arrangements may also be classified according to how they treat nonmember countries. “Open” arrangements impose no trade limitations, exclusions, or discrimination against nonmember nations. Unconditional most-favored-nation status, in compliance with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), is a typical feature of open regionalism. In contrast, “closed” forms of regional economic arrangements impose protectionist measures to limit nonmembers’ access to the markets of member countries. 

Historically, open regionalism has resulted in global trade liberalization, while closed regionalism had led to trade wars and sometimes to military conflict. Open regionalism, however, faces the challenge of balancing or “harmonizing” the different economic policies of many countries. Since the last decades of the 20th century, the trend has been toward the further development of institutions that fostered open and tight economic regionalism.

While economics and politics are similar and complement one another in several ways, in the context of economic and political regionalism, it is important to note that they are two contrasting concepts. Economic regionalism strives to create expanded trade and economic opportunities through cooperation between countries in the same geographical region. In contrast to the notion of building new concepts, political regionalism aims to create a union of countries intent on protecting or strengthening already established shared values.

Sources

  • Meadwell, Hudson. “A Rational Choice Approach to Political Regionalism.” Comparative Politics, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Jul., 1991). 
  • Söderbaum, Fredrik. “Rethinking Regionalism.” Springer; 1st ed. 2016, ISBN-10: ‎0230272401.
  • Etel Solingen. “Comparative Regionalism: Economics and Security.” Routledge, 2014, ISBN-10: ‎0415622786.
  • The Editorial Board. “Global Trade After the Failure of the Doha Round.” The New York Times, January 1, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/01/opinion/global-trade-after-the-failure-of-the-doha-round.html.
  • “North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).” Office of the United States Trade Representative, https://ustr.gov/about-us/policy-offices/press-office/ustr-archives/north-american-free-trade-agreement-nafta.
  • Gordon, Lincoln. “Economic Regionalism Reconsidered.” Cambridge University Press, World Politics.
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Longley, Robert. "Regionalism: Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Dec. 21, 2021, thoughtco.com/regionalism-definition-and-examples-5206335. Longley, Robert. (2021, December 21). Regionalism: Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/regionalism-definition-and-examples-5206335 Longley, Robert. "Regionalism: Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/regionalism-definition-and-examples-5206335 (accessed December 4, 2022).