Regional Identities: Promoting Dialogue and Unity in Diversity

Géraldine Cattilaz and Eva Maria Belser

Géraldine Cattilaz is a Research Assistant at the Chair of Constitutional and Administrative Law I at the University of Fribourg and a PhD student. She holds a Master of Law from the University of Fribourg during which she spent a semester at the University of Copenhagen and at the Center for Transnational Legal Studies in London. Her research interests lie in state organization theory and constitutional law. In her dissertation, she examines the role of courts in enforcing programmatic rights and duties.



Prof. Dr. Eva Maria Belser holds a Chair for Constitutional and Administrative Law at the University of Fribourg and a UNESCO Chair in Human Rights and Democracy. Since 2008, she is Co-Director of the Institute of Federalism and heads its international center. She is a member of the board of the Swiss Centre of Expertise in Human Rights a member of the board of advisors of International IDEA. Her research interests lie in the field of Swiss and comparative constitutional law and cover the topics of fundamental and human rights, democracy and the rule of law, as well as federalism, decentralization and conflict resolution.


Different territorial identities sometimes lead to conflicts which annihilate the great wealth diverse identities have to offer. This paper classifies conflicts arising between actors sharing a country but not all identity markers and presents instruments and processes allowing to peacefully and productively deal with diverse regional identities. It offers a variety of venues allowing to improve dialogue and establishing a culture of consensus and cohesion.



All countries in Europe and beyond are confronted with internal diversity. One manifestation of such internal diversity – often linked to language, religion, culture, socio-economic features or geography – are regional identities. Such regional identities represent sources of wealth and inspiration and should be embraced and accommodated by countries. Indeed, positive approaches to regional identities are not only beneficial but often also required by law. Nevertheless, (regional) diversity is sometimes perceived as a burden or even threat and may lead to tensions. It is thus important to address issues and challenges, but also strategies when dealing with regional identities, and in particular to discuss mechanisms which improve dialogue, support consensus-building and encourage compromise-making between actors sharing a country but not all identity markers.

This is what we will do in this article – which summarizes a more detailed report prepared for the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities*, which the latter has adopted, together with a Resolution and Recommendations, on 26 October 2022. After introducing the concept of regional identities and exploring legal obligations to address such regional identities, we present an overview of tensions that may possibly arise with regards to regional identities – categorizing them in the form of a “typology”. Drawing on this categorization, we establish a toolbox of mechanisms providing means to accommodate diversity and to address tensions peacefully. The mechanisms discussed more particularly comprise institutional frameworks for dialogue and collaboration, territorial boundaries and territorial change mediation, as well as mechanisms promoting unity in diversity in general and related to languages in particular.


Regional Identities in Europe – Findings and Core Issues


  1. The notion of regional identity – or rather regional identities – is complex and multifaceted, and different forms and manifestations of regional identities exist – in theory as well as in practice. We promote a wide understanding of the concept of regional identities. Indeed, such a comprehensive understanding allows a number of different regional formations to be categorized as regional identities and induce a sensitivity for a wide set of differences and corresponding solutions – and encourages an openness for inclusive dialogue.
  2. All countries in Europe and beyond are confronted with internal diversity. Dealing with internal diversity is hence a necessary task. It is a task which should be welcomed by states: Indeed, a diversity of identity markers and the plurality of overlapping identities means a plurality of approaches, a plurality of ideas and concepts, a plurality of wisdoms. Welcoming regional identities is not only in the interest of the different communities but also of the country at large. A multitude of diverse and strong identities hence constitutes a national resource, not a charge.
  3. Regional identities thus represent sources of wealth and inspiration and should be embraced and accommodated. However, positive approaches to regional identities are not only beneficial but often required by law. Indeed, countries are not free to choose any approach to regional diversity but must comply with an evolving international and national legal framework. The European Charter of Local Self-Government, the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – all stemming from the Council of Europe’s realm –, as well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are international conventions relevant for the protection of regional identities – to name but a few. On a national level, legal obligations with regards to regional identities mainly stem from national constitutions or particular minority rights acts, but also from (legally binding) agreements between different state entities.
  4. Regional identity is one of the most important sources of (individual) identification when it comes to territorial reference points. Such an orientation point can be even more important where boundaries – not only territorial ones – become more and more fluent. Indeed, especially against the background of accelerating globalization challenging state-centric spatiality and current models of territorial organization, it can be beneficial to rescale territorial governance and to consider regional differences.
  5. The concept of ‘regional identity’ is more flexible and fluid than the construct of the nation-state and thus allows for more adaptive and accommodative solutions. Regions often fulfill an important linking function between citizens and the political decision-making process at the center. In fact, nation-states may be too large and too remote to allow for cultural identification.
  6. Regional identities should not be perceived as threats to national (and supra-national) identities. In fact, territorial identities – as well as identities in general – can be and most often are multiple: Individuals can as easily identify with different spatial entities as they can simultaneously relate to different social groups.
  7. The intensity and effects of regional identities crucially depends on their accommodation. If multiple identities are tolerated, recognised and respected, they are most likely to contribute to mutual enrichment. In contrast, if regional and national identities are perceived and treated as incompatible, regional actors cannot embrace both and are forced to choose. In such a scenario, individuals may tend to over-affirm a regional identity considered threatened.
  8. While regional identities are generally sources of orientation, wealth and inspiration, they may also lead to tensions. However, it is not only crucial to note that regional identities do not necessarily lead to tensions, but also that tensions are not inherently bad or to be avoided at any cost. Regional tensions can result from legitimate expressions of grievances that should be addressed, source constructive debates and act as important engines for change and governance improvement. Indeed, as international relations and national policies typically affect different communities and regions differently and one-size governance decisions rarely fit all, tensions are useful expressions of mismatches and offer chances for better governance.
  9. There is, however, a need to deal with tensions and to prevent their escalation. A typology of possible tensions offers a useful analytical framework. Indeed, the categorization of possible tensions can serve as a basis for and as an instrument to navigate a toolbox of mechanisms providing means to address tensions, to deal with and accommodate diversity and to prevent arising regional tensions from escalating by improving dialogue.
  10. The typology differentiates four main categories: the geographical scale of tensions, the causes for tensions, the claims caused by respectively resulting in tensions and the nature and temporal scale of tensions. The different categories and sub-categories often overlap and change over time.
  11. The toolbox of mechanisms provides inspiration and guidelines, and supports the complex endeavour of successfully addressing arising regional tensions in a way that is beneficial for all involved actors. Its use is especially important if a culture of open dialogue has not yet been established or is fragile, or if the regional tensions are of a violent nature or rendered more menacing by foreign interference and fears relating to the stability and territorial integrity of the country.
  12. The toolbox is based on the following premises: Regional tensions can be dealt with by establishing, using and institutionalizing various forms and means of dialogue. Controversial and sensitive issues should not categorically be excluded from such dialogue. Regional tensions typically cannot be avoided by ignoring the existence of regional identities, nor by negating the underlying regional tension and the resulting regional claims. Rather, they have to be acknowledged and addressed by one mechanism or another, depending on the situation at hand.
  13. To provide a toolbox of mechanisms, we lay out a typology of mechanisms. The main distinction concerning the different mechanisms is made between procedural and content-related aspects. Within the category of procedural aspects, the distinctive criteria are competences (vertical and horizontal), forms (institutionalized, ad hoc, informal/soft) and status (limited in time vs. permanent; prevention vs. reaction) of mechanisms. With regard to the content of mechanisms, it is differentiated between different degrees of self-rule and shared rule. Depending on the tensions a country is confronted with, some mechanisms are more adequate and efficient than others – and the different mechanisms might not only be used individually and separately, but also in combination with one another.
  14. The choice of suitable mechanisms and tools, their adaptation and combination depend on international frameworks, national agreements, regional aspirations as well as political, cultural, social and economic contexts. This is one of the reasons why it is difficult to establish best – or even good – practices: a certain mechanism might work well with regards to accommodating a certain regional identity in a certain country, but not for others, and vice versa. Furthermore, the effectiveness of a mechanism depends not only on its establishment, but on its implementation in practice as well.
  15. Possible shortcomings do not necessarily mean that a mechanism represents a “bad practice”, but rather that it can or should be improved. In fact, an awareness for and careful consideration of possible shortcomings can help reflect on a mechanism, its positive and negative effects, and induce establishing procedures counter-balancing possible negative effects, so that the mechanism may deploy the best possible impact. Indeed, the proffered toolbox and its mechanisms have to be permanently refined in an iterative process of learning from each other.


Even when looking only at the European context, we see a variety of measures to deal with regional identities. These measures range from granting some degree of autonomy or self-rule – for example through the constitution, sub-constitutional legal acts or even (international) agreements, or by instituting a federal state system – to acknowledging diversity – for example in the constitutional preamble. They also include different means of institutionalizing dialogue, fostering shared rule and inclusive political processes, for example by regional identities being represented in second parliamentary chambers, by designing electoral systems in a way so as to guarantee the representation of regional interests, by guaranteeing reserved seats in parliament to members of regional identities or by exempting them from threshold criteria. Furthermore, regional identities may be granted veto powers, for example by instituting the requirement of qualified majorities, but also more active powers of initiating legislative proceedings or participating in foreign affairs. Further mechanisms comprise mechanisms of consultation – thus the right of regional identities to be consulted, but also to actively consult other authorities on matters that concern them – of cooperation and conflict resolution. Examples of the latter two might be so-called “minority councils”, or systems of intergovernmental cooperation between governments of different levels (that can take many different forms), or the institutionalisation of joint committees based on the principle of parity between the nation-state and regional entities.

The toolbox also includes more general mechanisms to accommodate diversity – all while not neglecting to promote unity. When looking at linguistic diversity, for example, possible instruments are to institute multiple official languages, but also other means to promote and protect regional languages, such as establishing language standards – fixing minimum requirements for example with regards to the linguistic organisation of state authorities – or language bureaus – or other official or semi-official bodies such as language boards, language commissioners etc. – tasked to provide translations but also working to improve the position of the minority language more generally. With regards to accommodating linguistic diversity, it is particularly important to guarantee and support possibilities to learn and teach (regional) languages. Other mechanisms may include providing certain (state) services in regional (minoritarian) languages or to support and promote media in regional and minority languages.

Not least, measures may concern territorial boundaries and territorial change, for example taking regional identities into account when (internally) delimitating boarders or reforms, providing (institutionalised) rules on territorial restructuration, but also allowing and encouraging (internal or external) cross-border cooperation or providing infrastructural or economic support to border regions.

Many more examples exist – especially when looking beyond Europe as should be done in further research. They all have advantages and disadvantages – in and of themselves but also in the way they are implemented in a country – that have to be evaluated with regards to the specific country and regional identity-ies at hand. A “one-size-fits-all”-solution does not exist. What is important thus is careful consideration of the situation, needs, rights and duties of a specific regional identity – or of specific regional identities – within a specific country. This includes an awareness for possible shortcomings of one or the other mechanism and its adaptation – and if necessary – permanent refinement. Indeed, there are multiple possibilities for processes of trans-national inspiration, learning and feedback, and such processes are the way forward to a future – and present – of peaceful coexistence and enriching living together of different regional identities.



*This article is based on a report drafted for the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities (Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, Regional identities: dialogue and diversity in unity, Report CPR(2022)43-02, 26 October 2022) and sums up its main findings; The full report is available at <> (last accessed on 24 March 2023). It contains further literature references as well as more detailed explanations to the examples only shortly addressed in this article.


Further Reading

Donat Elisabeth, Regional Identity between Inclusion and Exclusion, in: European Regions: Perspectives, Trends and Developments in the 21st Century, Donat Elisabeth/Meyer Sarah/Abels Gabriele (eds), 2020, pp. 25-42.

Donat Elisabeth/Meyer Sarah, European Regions, Perspectives, Trends and Developments in the 21st Century, in: European Regions: Perspectives, Trends and Developments in the 21st Century, Donat Elisabeth/Meyer Sarah/Abels Gabriele (eds), 2020, pp. 11-24.

Guérot Ulrike, ‘Europe of Regions’, A Genealogy of an Ambiguous Concept, in: European Regions: Perspectives, Trends and Developments in the 21st Century, Donat Elisabeth/Meyer Sarah/Abels Gabriele (eds), 2020, pp. 231-244.

Kössler Karl, Regional Identities in Europe, Their Manifestations in Constitution- and Policy-Making, in: European Regions: Perspectives, Trends and Developments in the 21st Century, Donat Elisabeth/Meyer Sarah/Abels Gabriele (eds), 2020, pp. 83-98.

Paasi Anssi, The Resurgene of the ‘Region’ and ‘Regional Identity’: Theoretical Perspectives and Empirical Observations on Regional Dynamics in Europe, in: Review of International Studies (2009) Vol. 35, Globalising the Regional, Regionalising the Global, pp. 121-146.

Pohl Jürgen, Regional Identity, in: Smelser Neil J./ Baltes Paul B. (eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, Saint Louis 2001 (available online), pp. 12917-12922.

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