Citizens have been the underdogs of supra-national regionalism. From Europe, to Africa, Asia and Latin America, civil society has largely been on the receiving end of region-building processes. More often than not, civil society has been intentionally sidelined, while some sympathetic non-governmental organisations have been given the instrumental task of supporting institutions in their efforts at building a regional ‘identity’. In spite of rhetorical references to the importance of civic participation, regionalism has largely developed ‘without the citizens’. Most ‘models’ and ‘practices’ of regionalism have tended to exclude the diversity of voices and roles in society. They have often served the specific interests of ruling elites (as in Latin America and Africa), the ambitions of hegemonic actors (as in Europe and Asia) or the agendas of industrial and financial powers. Moreover, through their apparently neutral ‘technocratic’ character, most attempts at regional cooperation and integration have aimed to obscure the fact that there are always winners and losers in regionalism processes.
This top-down model is being increasingly challenged. Overlapping crises and the redistribution of power at the global level call into question the capacity of regions to deliver on their promises, thus unveiling the unavoidable political character of any model of regionalism. In response to the growing cost of regionalism, citizens want to have more say over future regional trajectories and exercise their democratic powers. As a consequence, regionalism is evolving from a ‘closed’ process, designed and packaged by a small circle of political and economic elites, to an ‘open’ process, in which democratic participation and accountability are playing an ever more important role. Borrowing from the jargon of Internet users, one may say that regions are transitioning from a 1.0 phase dominated by technocrats to a 2.0 stage characterised by horizontal networks, alternative models and citizens’ contestations.
The EU, undoubtedly the most advanced and successful example of regionalism in the world, is now experiencing the direst consequences of such a transition. Amid rising unemployment, social malaise and growing discontent for the lack of accountability of national and regional politics, millions of citizens have been protesting against the Union and its political and economic agenda. Unlike what eurosceptics would want us to believe, these citizens do not call for less Europe: they want a different Europe. They would like regional integration to be more about connecting cultures and individuals and less about supporting capital. They would like their regional institutions to focus on helping the unemployed rather than bailing out bankrupt banks. They would like to see more solidarity across classes and generations, rather than less. They would like cooperation to be about building a different future instead of reshuffling old ideas. The future of regionalism may very well entail a growing ‘politicisation’ of regions, whereby citizens and civil society demand more voice and power to influence not only the general principles and values, but also the long-term political trajectories of their regions.