How could Flanders and Quebec promote sustainable development through their paradiplomacy?

By Elena Smirnova

The transformation of international relations into a more complex structure with the increasing role of non-traditional actors, the process of globalisation, as well as the erosion between internal and external processes have resulted in the development of paradiplomacy (diplomacy of regions) all around the world. The subsidiarity principle introduced by the Treaty on European Union (EU) in 1992 implies that decisions should be taken “as closely as possible to the citizen”[1]. In particular, unless the EU has exclusive competence, decisions should be taken at national, regional or local level. Thus, regions have become autonomous and mature political or economic actors pursuing their own interests on the world stage. In this article, I will suggest that this development of regional autonomy could help contribute to building a sustainable future while promoting economic development, creative industries, or taking part in environmental projects.

Despite the active development of paradiplomacy in Quebec, Flanders, Scotland, Bavaria, Canadian Alberta or Catalonia, it would be erroneous to claim that the scale of regional diplomacy development is similar in various parts of the world. Active paradiplomacy stems from the high level of economic development, strong regional identity, high level of decentralization, extensive constitutional powers of regions in foreign policy area, the prevailing political situation, and cultural peculiarities. For certain regions with strong identity, such as Quebec or Flanders, issues of paradiplomacy are coupled with the question of regional identity[2]. Such a feature could be explained by the instrumental nature of paradiplomacy, as it is used for expressing the autonomy on the world stage and promoting regional interests separately from federal authorities, thus being crucial for regions different from other subnational entities within one state in terms of culture and self-identification.

Several regions are increasingly involved in international projects aiming at achieving environmental and social sustainability, which could be explained by the desire of regions to achieve several economic and political goals while gaining a voice on the political stage. The concept of sustainability was presented in 1987 when the Bruntland Commission published its well-known report Our Common Future defining sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”[3]. Albeit the concept is quite vague and usually associated with efforts of national states or transnational corporations, sub state entities could also play a key role in building a sustainable future being actively involved in international projects.

Flanders as a creative region with an entrepreneurial culture

Flanders, or the Flemish region of Belgium, started to develop its foreign policy at the end of the 20th century. The development of Flemish paradiplomacy was intertwined with the rise of nationalist movement in the region, and the federalization process of Belgium. Flanders is given large constitutional powers in the field of international relations; its representative offices situated in 12 countries are officially referred to as “diplomatic” ones[4].

Flanders plays a key role in promoting sustainable development by its programmes in the field of creative industries (video games, fashion, music, design, and architecture). It should be noted that such industries account for almost 14% of the total turnover of Flanders and provide more than 170 000 people with jobs[5].

In 2004, Flanders established Flanders District of Creativity (DC Network), a network of global cooperation with the aim of creative industries development. Sustainable development issues and the use of technologies in creative industries was the main theme of the International Visitors Programme organised in 2019 within the framework of the Flemish public diplomacy project “Flanders Inspires” aiming at bringing high-level decision-makers for multiple-day workshops to Flanders. Such International Visitors Programmes have been organised with the aim to expand the network of Flanders while increasing its representativeness and building an image of a creative region with entrepreneurial culture. Another aim of these meetings is to provide high-level policy makers with an opportunity to exchange thoughts and ideas on topic issues related to scientific and technological development, renewable energy sources, waste recycling, as well as cultural industries.

Quebec’s voice in the global battle for social and environmental sustainability

During the past 50 years, Quebec has been developing its diplomacy for both gaining political representation and promoting culture. Quebec’s paradiplomacy contributes to shaping a sustainable future through environmental initiatives and the active participation of this Francophone region in addressing global warming. For instance, in 1992 Quebec took part in the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit) resulting in the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the foundation of the 2015 Paris Agreement. Moreover, Quebec is an active member of several nongovernmental organisations dealing with climate issues. Since 2007, Quebec has participated in projects of The Climate Group related to the alternative energy source development and CO2 emissions reduction. Another example of such cooperation is the Western Climate Initiative enabling governments of California, Quebec and the Canadian province of Nova Scotia to manage CO2 emissions with the help of joint regional strategies. Finally, Quebec’s membership in the International Organisation of La Francophonie gives an opportunity for the region to take part in projects focused on human rights, education, youth cooperation, technologies, and renewable sources of energy. For instance, Quebec took an active part in the adoption of a strategy on gender equality at the Yerevan Summit in 2018, sustainability initiatives related to renewable energy sources development and sustainable cities, climate conferences, and business incubators for supporting enterprises of African women and youth.

To sum up, not only nation states could be the leading actors in promoting sustainable development, but also sub state entities could raise their voice for addressing climate change, poverty, illiteracy or violation of human rights.

By Elena Smirnova

Find Kairos Europe on Facebook

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of Kairos Europe, its partners or their employees.

[1]   European Commission website. Glossary.

[2] Nossal K. R., Roussel S., Paquin S. Politique internationale et defence au Canada et au Quebec. Montreal: Les Presses de l’Universite de Montreal, 2007.

[3] Brundtland, G. Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. United Nations General Assembly document A/42/427, 1987.

[4] Official website of the Flemish Department of Foreign Affairs, accessed April 11, 2020, be/int/en/search-fl emish-representative.

[5] Official website of the Flemish Department of Foreign Affairs, accessed June 15, 2020,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *