Reconnecting cross-border regions in the alpine space

Economy, Anti-Immigration Speech and Public Opinion

By Ivan Ureta, lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland, professor at the IE Business School/University and a research fellow at the Department of Middle Eastern Studies of King’s College London and the International Migration Institute, University of Oxford

and Victor Blazquez, researcher at the Inno3 Competence Centre, University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland


This paper studies the implications of anti-immigration public speech for politico-economic relations and innovation in cross-border regions (CBRs). In particular, it assesses how bilateral relations between CBRs may affect broader political initiatives that have already been launched by a larger group of regions or nations. The paper studies two specific cases: Ticino (TI) Lombardy (LO) and Trentino & Alto Adige/South Tyrol (TAA) Tyrol (TIR). The political, social and economic relations between states and especially within CBRs are very sensitive to anti-immigration discourses, and over the past few years, migration has been central to the European agenda. Since 2008, the economic and financial crisis has challenged collective policy-making processes in the EU and jeopardises the continuity and sustainability of existing initiatives.

The paper builds upon realism-constructivism (Jackson & Nexon, 2004), a theoretical framework that helps to understand how political entrepreneurs and brokers behave (Walker, 1974; Christopoulos, 2006; Ureta, 2017). This approach brings together “the study of power in international politics and the study of international relations as a social construction” (Barkin, 2003). The relevance of this framework becomes more apparent in the discussion about cross-border relations and the specifically opportunistic anti-immigration rhetoric that political entrepreneurs deploy.

Methodologically, the paper evolves along four main axes. First, we perform a theoretical analysis by focusing on regionalisation and integration at the European and the Alpine levels. Second, by processing official data, we study and compare the export-import relations between the proposed units of analysis. This section shows the importance of economic and trade relations among the units of analysis. Third, we put forward some examples of anti-immigration speech within the studied CBRs. For the purpose of this study, we sought to avoid specific analyses relating to critical discourse analysis or corpus linguistics. This will be done in future studies. Fourth, we conduct a study to gain a better understanding of the impact of anti-immigration speech on public opinion and subsequently on economic and innovation activities across the Alpine space. This study was carried out by studying online usage habits within the areas of study and using the data provided by Google Trends as a relevant “nowcasting” tool (Etredge et al. 2005; Choi & Varian, 2012).

The paper concludes by confirming the impact of anti-immigration speech on existing multilateral and bilateral mechanisms and on public opinion. However, economic and trade relations, as well as mutual dependency, force regional and national governments and private stakeholders to find alternative and pragmatic solutions that circumvent the short-term effects of populism.

Europe and regions

From its inception in 1957, the EEC was growing despite an apparent contradiction and tension. On the one hand, the political, diplomatic and economic efforts of the founding member states focused on promoting the idea of unity and solidarity (Ingerbritsen, 2000). On the other hand, the historic political and economic rivalries of European member states, as well as the existence of strong regional identities and communities, propelled a federalist-regionalist discourse that challenged this goal of unity (Magone, 2003).

This complexity increases if one considers that Europe’s economic, political and social development has been a process of social construction and not a natural and seamless evolution (Christensen et al., 1999). Rosamond (2002) concurs with this theoretical approach based on socio-constructivism by asserting that additional technical issues, such as competitiveness and Europe’s economic space, have also been socially constructed. Through the methodology of discourse analysis, it has been concluded that the process of building European institutions, integration and economy is one that has been constructed (Diaz, 1999; Paasi, 2001). This approach, which is not far removed from radical constructivism, highlights the relevance of the use of language as one of the most important drivers of social construction (Glaseerfeld, 1984).

However, from the point of view of institutional building processes, social constructivism does not provide a proper response to the open questions posed by complex processes of political, economic and social integration. Complex processes – such as European integration – have been developed thanks to the participation of political brokers and entrepreneurs (Christopoulos, 2006; Van der Steen & Groenewegen, 2008; Guldbrandson & Fosum, 2009). They aim to reshape realities and collective perceptions in order to attain their political objectives.

From this angle, language and communication strategies, as well as the management of symbols, are the vehicles for transmitting fresh ideas and replacing old collective imaginations. This approach is not far removed from radical constructivism. This framework insists on the relevance of language as one of the most important agents of social construction (Glasserfeld, 1984). If Europe is considered a collective construction, language and discourse play a very important role in defining new values and new socio-cultural and political paradigms (Paasi, 2001). Language, rhetoric, narratives and their gradual evolution define the communication strategies of political entrepreneurs and brokers.

The “construction of the regions”

Loughlin (1996), while failing to fully acknowledge the preceding statement, points out that there are evident connections between regionalism, federalism and the initiatives to create a united federal Europe. In the long run, however, this contradiction and this tension have been evident and characterise interstate and interregional relations at different levels: economic, diplomatic, security, social, identity. Luedtke (2005) mentions that the renewed scholarly and political interest in federalism surged in reaction to the globalisation processes and the push by subnational regions searching for greater autonomy and political representation.

In parallel, the 1990s also marked a renewed interest in the development of studies and scholarly debate in nationalism (Maiz, 1999). The debate on the ‘Europe of the Regions’ started gathering momentum after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the establishment of the European Union (EU) in 1992 with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty (Borrás-Alomar et al. 1994). After Maastricht, the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) was formed in 1994. Technically speaking, the EU acknowledges the importance of the regions in activities related to policy making and therefore confers a consultative status onto the CoR. However, as Christiansen (1996) notes, the CoR can be considered a symbolic body affected by “entrenched internal divisions and functional overreach in the absence of any real influence on the Union’s policymaking process”.

In the mid-1990s, despite these developments, some authors viewed the role of the traditional nation state in Europe as one that would shrink in the long run (Borrás-Alomar et al. 1994). However, despite the efforts of establishing federal practices and elevating the role of the regions, others thought that the concept and notion of the current nation state would ultimately remain (Loughlin, 1996). These two hypotheses will be analysed in order to gain a better understanding of how macro-regional initiatives can aspire to success or whether they are doomed to fail in the medium and long run.

In general, as Hepburn has highlighted, political parties in Europe have not had consistent positions. On the contrary, they have shown a rather ambiguous and cyclical behaviour that culminated with the declining interest in the ‘Europe of the Regions’ in the late 1990s (Hepburn, 2008). In this sense, political parties have behaved like political entrepreneurs advancing or retrenching their requests based on the politico-economic context. However, during a personal interview, Anna Terrón, who is a former deputy at the European Parliament, said that in order to really understand how the EU works it is necessary to understand how the CoR works and how regional governments push national agendas to ensure their interests and proposals find success amid the complicated political fabric of Brussels.

Cross-border regions, governance and limits

CBRs can be defined as territorial units that encompass neighbouring subnational units from two or more nation states (Perkmann, 2003). Within a context of increasing growth of economic trans-border activities and exchanges, regional integration processes have skyrocketed since the 1990s. However, these processes are not new. Europe has experienced several waves of regional integration all the way back to the mid-1850s (Mattli, 1999). According to Castells (1999), in the information age, regional integration processes may suggest the idea of a “space of flows” more than a “space of place”. These processes are great opportunities but also pose great challenges to governance and the achievement of sustainable win-win relations. There are tensions between both conceptions of space, which generates several struggles that are intimately bound with the realist-constructivist approach proposed here.

Beyond the occasional justification meant to convince investors, entrepreneurs and public opinion about the bounties and opportunities offered by CBRs, long-term analyses usually make it possible to define these spaces as political dreamscapes rather than examples of transnational integration (Löfgren, 2008). This possibility is linked to the notion of constructed entities, and symbolic manifestations and political discourse–related aspects are at the core of CBRs’ relations (Anderson et al., 2003; van Houtum, 2002; Scott, 2012; Popescu, 2008). These symbolic and discursive aspects become more salient in regions that have economic and cultural competition and unbalances. In various opportunistic ways, political entrepreneurs activate them as resources either to reinforce cooperation or to activate defensive strategies at times of growth or crisis as an example of recursive governance (Crozier, 2007). They become crucial to understanding the formation of new political initiatives geared to constructing new regional scales (Perkmann, 2003). Therefore, this is a valuable approach to better assess and evaluate the re-scaling efforts implemented to create the macro-Alpine region, which comprises more than 80 million inhabitants and covers territory in seven countries.

The Alpine region

The Alpine space has played an important role in politics, the economy, culture and diplomacy. In times of war, the abrupt geographical space has divided countries (Keller, 2009). By contrast, Sell highlights (1965) that neutrality is characteristic of the Alps. In spite of these two different visions, Alpine regions, their populations, needs and economies have a great deal in common. In fact, this homogeneity can be crucial to better managing the political and economic challenges posed at the supra-regional and supra-national levels. Alpine cross-border cooperation has been considered an instrument to overcome the effects of the global economic and financial crisis that started in 2008 (Setnikar-Cankar et al., 2013).

By sharing similar problems, these connected regions can lobby and initiate cross-border collective demands to attract higher quotas of political responsibility and management capabilities. In this sense, local political entrepreneurs can organise themselves and search for cross-border alliances and cooperation in order to attract policy tasks and resources (Perkmann, 2007). As the following table shows, there are many multilateral initiatives across the Alpine region, and they are well-rooted in contemporary history.

Table 1. Alpine initiatives

© authors

The most recent initiative, EUSALP (2016), is embedded in the concept of a macro-region. It has followed the example of the other three existing macro-regions in Europe: the Baltic Sea Region (2009), the Danube Region (2010) and the Adriatic and Ionian Region (2014). The notion of a macro-regional strategy was adopted in 2009 as “an integrated framework that allows the European Union and Member States to identify needs and match them to the available resources through co‑ordination of appropriate policies” (EC, 2009).

It is important to note that this initiative was launched one year after the economic collapse of 2008. Its purpose was to enable regions to become more proactive, efficient and influential vis-à-vis higher levels of governance and therefore to increase bottom-up initiatives. This action’s strategic importance is evident. EU authorities, pre-empting the EU’s potential debilitation/‌disintegration due to the serious financial and economic crisis, would have considered that, by introducing the macro-regional strategies, important regions would not be tempted to become free-riders.

In that regard, the strategies can be viewed as experimental policies to boost ‘re-Europeanisation’ processes (Stocchiero et al., 2010). Nevertheless, it is important to note that, beyond the solidarity guaranteed by all the EU members, these initiatives can be weakened by existing tensions among various stakeholders: Central and subnational governments (cross-border entities) can contribute to generating conflicts to protect regional and/or national interests. Thus, European regions like the Alpine region are not isolated and are naturally prone to area-specific and global challenges.

According to EUROSTAT, the countries and regions integrating the EUSALP are among the more developed regions in the EU (Eurostat, 2016). They are also among the most dynamic innovators. The space comprises 48 regions and includes 80 million inhabitants. The initiative has three main thematic policy areas (economic growth and innovation, mobility and connectivity, and environment and energy) and one cross-cutting component focusing on governance (European Parliament, 2016).

Table 2. Innovation in EUSALP regions/countries

© EU Regional Innovation Scorecard and Global Innovation Index for Switzerland and Liechtenstein.

The Alpine Convention, ETC Alpine Space, Working Community of the Central Alps (ARGE ALPS) and EUSALP are cross-border initiatives. Therefore, adequate diplomatic relations are essential to guarantee long-term cooperation and sustainability. The following section will focus on the importance of bilateral economic and trade relations between two important CBRs: Ticino-Lombardy and Trentino & Alto Adige/South Tyrol Tyrol.

Ticino Lombardy and Trentino & Alto Adige/South Tyrol Tyrol

In Switzerland (CH) import and export activities from, and to, Italy (IT) make up on average 9.74% and 7.39%, respectively (see Graph 1). These figures explain the importance of Italy as a trading partner for Switzerland. In terms of general trends, the volume of imports is increasing. However, starting in 2010, export activities have shown a slight decline due to the CHF/EUR exchange rate. In addition, in 2012, the effect of the Swiss National Bank’s decision to set a minimum exchange rate of CHF 1.20 per euro, meant to stabilise the exchange rate fluctuation and mitigate the difficulty of exporting Swiss products, became evident (SNB, 2012).

Ticino’s relations with Italy are very relevant. The average weight of imports from Italy is over 56% of Ticino’s total volumes, and the average weight of exports is close to 20% (see Graph 1). In this case, commercial relations with Italy have a significant impact on Ticino’s economy. The trade balance is generally stable, although there is a trend towards a slight contraction. The strong propensity of trade between this region and Italy is due in particular to cultural and linguistic proximity. These two factors contribute to another phenomenon between these neighbouring regions that has a major impact on Ticino’s economy: cross-border workers.

Graphic 1. Switzerland–Italy / Ticino–Italy

In 2015, there were 62,470 cross-border workers in Ticino – almost 27% of the region’s total workforce (see Graph 2). In 10 years, the number of cross-border workers in Ticino has increased by 75%, and it is on the rise, especially in terms of the number of employees in the tertiary sector. In 2005, the number of cross-border workers in the tertiary sector comprised 46.8%, and 60.8% in 2015. During the same period of time, the number of cross-border workers in the secondary sector declined from 50.7% to 38.5%. The presence of cross-border workers in the primary sector is almost stable and negligible at around 0.75%.

 Graphic 2. Cross-border workers, Italy–Ticino

It is clear that the percentage of cross-border workers is growing in each economic sector. The number in the primary sector has grown from 6% to 15%, in the secondary sector from 40% to 46%, and in the tertiary sector from 13% to 22% (see Graph 3). This latter figure is the most meaningful because the tertiary sector involves more than 165,000 employees in a total workforce of about 230,000. A situation is emerging in which there is a kind of dependence on cross-border workers from Italy. This phenomenon is also fostered by the political and economic instability of the neighbouring regions in Italy.

Graphic 3. Cross-border workers in Ticino

Switzerland is an important trading partner for Italy, but Italy is an even more important trading partner for Switzerland: The average weight of the imports and the exports in Italy from, or to, Switzerland are 3% and 4.6%, respectively (see Graph 4). And while Lombardy is not as dependent on Switzerland as Ticino is on Italy, this Italian region’s import and export weights over its total volumes are about 3.73% and 5.85%, respectively. In terms of trends, at both the national and the regional levels, there has been a general increase in exports and a slight increase in imports. As seen before, this rise is also due to the exchange rate evolution.

Graphic 4. Italy–Switzerland / Lombardy–Switzerland

On average, Italy’s import and export dynamics with Austria (AT) make up 2.41% and 2.31%, respectively, of its total trading volumes (see Graph 5). In this case, Austria is not such a relevant trading partner for Italy. In terms of the trend, there is a convergence towards a balanced situation. The regional situation is different: For Trentino & Alto Adige/South Tyrol Tyrol, Austria is the main trading partner, with the region’s imports and exports weighing on average 20.18% and 8.37%, respectively, on the trade balance. The general trend is towards an increase in trading volumes. The reason for this difference between the analysis at the national and the analysis at the regional level is the strong cultural and linguistic closeness between this region and Austria, which facilitates the development of relationships.

Graphic 5. Italy–Austria / Trentino & Alto Adige/South Tyrol–Austria

It appears that Italy is a good trading partner for Austria, the average weight of imports and exports in Austria from, or to, Italy are 6.32% and 6.92%, respectively (see Graph 6). The importance of Italy as a trading partner is greater when the relationship with Tyrol is taken into account: At the regional level, the average weight of imports is 9.62% of the total, and that of exports is 10.92%.

Graphic 6. Austria–Italy / Tyrol–Austria

The importance of the economic and trade linkages and interdependence between these CBRs having been analysed, the following section will focus on the characteristics and impact of anti-immigration speech on both bilateral and multilateral efforts.

Economic crisis and anti-immigration speech

The rise of extreme right-wing political parties is not a new phenomenon. Although countries in the West experienced a period of higher trust in political systems and institutions following the Second World War, Europe started to experience a period of increasing distrust of political parties and institutions in the mid-1960s. This distrust crystallised in the creation of extreme right-wing political parties in major countries, including Italy, Austria, France, Germany and Switzerland. These political parties started to gain momentum thanks to their capacity to articulate populist discourses. For the purpose of this paper, we consider populism the “instrumentalization of sentiments of anxiety and disenchantment” (Betz, 1993). Examples of such political parties include the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) in Austria, the Lega Lombarda/Nord in Italy and the Front National in France. As Betz has mentioned, the rise of these political parties from the end of the 1980s onward exploited resentment against newcomers. They were targeted as the group burdening social services with new expenditures and allegedly taking jobs from the native unemployed population, leading to the sentiment that “illegal immigration and asylum tourism should be stopped” (Betz, 1999). The same rhetoric has continued to this day.

Within this context, it is interesting to note two intertwined aspects: the configuration of the new wave of globalisation post-1990 and the establishment of the EU. During the 1990s, Europe also suffered from severe refugee crises. It was evident at the time that public discourse – in the form of brokers and entrepreneurs – associated the asylum crisis with a threat to Europe’s liberal democratic values (Boswell, 2000). Despite this tension, the absence of a declared economic crisis allowed European institutions to continue with their integration and Europeanisation processes, and in 1999 the Common European Asylum System was set up. Nevertheless, some European policies – like the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, which somehow represented the philosophical backbone of immigration governance and management – had already failed by 2004 (Ureta, 2017). In addition, beyond the efforts of “communitarising” asylum policies and immigration management, the baseline of these policies has been the defence and securitisation of Europe – especially, since 2004 with the establishment of Frontex (Leonard, 2010).

This phenomenon of securitisation was inevitable due to the interplay of media, public institutions and public opinion aimed at preserving the value and power structures (Buonfino, 2004; Ureta, 2010). This trend has been consolidated over the past few years. However, the aftermath of the economic crisis and the refugee crisis produced by the Arab Spring and the Syrian War has accelerated the distrust of European institutions. Twenty years ago, the Balkan refugee crisis stressed the EU, and Brussels reacted by developing a communitarian framework that solidified Europe for the short and medium term. Now a similar event is compromising the future of the union.

The same rationale applies to CBRs because even when regions may have important bargaining abilities, national interests and strategies prevail despite local or regional specificities. In any case, the damaging potential of anti-immigration speeches can contribute to the paralysis of multilateral initiatives such as the EUSALP.

Within this context, the CBRs we are studying in this paper have experienced episodes of tension that are aligned with the international context. Political entrepreneurs from both sides of the border have harnessed these opportunities to launch populist initiatives that are clearly in line with the realist-constructivist approach we indicated in the introduction. In 2016, the popular initiative – Prima i nostri – launched in Ticino by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) generated anger in Lombardy. The Italian region threatened the establishment of a free zone that would be approved by Rome, something the Italian government did not considered. The experimental and temporary closure (April 2017) of a few borders in Ticino ordered from Bern have also heightened tensions between Ticino and Lombardy. In addition, Austria threatened to close the Brenner Pass in 2016 at the height of the refugee crisis. These examples of exacerbated political discourse have polarised factions of public opinion and gathered international interest. In order to better understand the meaning and scope of these examples, we studied public opinion on the Internet during this period of increasing anti-immigration speech.

The following graphs show the volume of Internet searches and focus on four permanent variables – migration, security, terrorism and unemployment – and one geography-sensitive variable. The period starts in April 2012 and ends in April 2017. Zero and 100 do not represent the total amount of searches but an indication of the lowest and highest interest of the searched words. With regard to the first case, Lombardy, security-related aspects remain the top trend. Migration-related issues are of much lower interest, whereas interest in terrorism experiences peaks in 2015. The terrorism–migration nexus is not represented in considering those peaks. Yet, the geographical variable (Ticino) is consistently stronger over the entire period. The centrality of cross-border relations is evident and more important to users than migration, terrorism or security-related aspects in general.

Graphic 7. Lombardy

The following graph focuses on the volume of searches in Ticino. The strongest volume is represented by the geographical variable (Lombardy). This is followed by unemployment and security, while terrorism and migration have the lowest results. These outcomes confirm that, despite a political discourse dominated by anti-immigration stances and security concerns, the population is more interested in searching for other issues related to territory and interactions.

Graphic 8. Ticino

The following case presents a slightly different pattern. During the same time frame, security concerns dominated the searches in Trentino & Alto Adige/South Tyrol. Interestingly, there is a visible correlation between migration and unemployment, which corresponds to the existing political speech at both the regional and the national levels. The geographical (Tyrol) variable is of lower interest than in the previous cases. This trend could confirm a higher influence of anti-immigration/security speech on public opinion.

Graphic 9. Trentino

In the last case, Tyrol, security aspects represent the highest overall value. Nevertheless, this element is intimately linked to all the other variables. The apparent correlation between all the considered variables may confirm a stronger penetration and influence of the anti-immigration/security discourse on public opinion.

Graphic 10. Tyrol

In the light of the cases above and the focus on the potential impact of political discourse on public opinion, it would be possible to say that: first, the Ticino-Lombardy region may be less vulnerable to the effects of anti-immigrant discourse because the economic flows and mutual interdependence are more important than any opportunistic political speech promoting anti-immigration practices; and second, in principle, the second CBR would be more vulnerable to anti-immigration speech, and therefore the potential for miscommunication and closure remains higher than in the first CBR.


The coherence and sustainability of multilateral efforts promoting economic growth, innovation, mobility and good governance would ideally require constructive communication processes and channels based on shared win-win scenarios and objectives. However, this situation is especially difficult to attain in CBRs in times of stagnation and crisis. Populist speeches by opportunistic political entrepreneurs can endanger or even ruin the future of these initiatives. In situations and contexts where economic dependence and interaction is high, however, the damaging potential of these populist initiatives appears to be less important. Ongoing cross-border public and private investments may suffer from political disputes, and some processes may slow down or halt temporarily.

Nevertheless, economic pragmatism may minimise the damaging potential of anti-immigration speech in the medium term. Although these anti-immigration speeches clearly affect and potentially polarise public opinion, and this behaviour is discernible during elections in some CBRs such as Ticino-Lombardy, online behaviour would suggest that public opinion is not all that vulnerable. Beyond specific anti-immigration discourses, there is a stronger and pragmatic energy looking to strengthen partnerships and cooperation on both sides of CBRs, both officially and spontaneously. Finally, although regions have accumulated greater levels of autonomy and bargaining power, central governments – and the notion of a nation state – remain the cornerstone of the entire political system.

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