Development / Politics

Where Do We Belong And Who Decides It?

Dadiana Chiran analyses the ‘Europeanhood’ vs. ‘Regionhood’ debate, the notions of EU federalism, separatism and the double standards of international law.

At a declarative level, the EU passes the ‘duck test’: it has the appearance of a duck (given its federal characteristics), it swims like a duck (due to its foreign policy and quasi-coordinated domestic policies), and most of the time it quacks like a duck (given its objective of speaking with a common voice, though often failing to do so). Despite this, however, the European Union is a fairly odd duck. Europe is a ‘union’ of states with unequal levels of economic development and a broad spectrum of interests and possibilities. At deeper structural levels and often within the same state borders, we find a multitude of socio-economic differences (N-S, E-W) and regional disparities (for instance differences in the North-South of Italy, Spain or France, West-East of Germany or Poland, etc.) If there are still some federalist aspirations and hopes that maybe one day the EU will become a fully fledged federation, some aspects of the federalist discourse must be clarified.

Ethnocentrism and Nationalism

On a macro scale, there is a simple reality of the nationhood versus statehood debate which is rarely adequately highlighted – worldwide, there are approximately 8000 distinct ethnic groups within 200 nation-states. Within the latter, roughly 20 states are mono-national while the rest are a mosaic of ethnic belongings. Europe forms no exception in this respect.

The EU slogan (‘in varietate concordia’ – United in Diversity) forms a clear indicator that ethnic, religious and/or linguistic minorities form part of the European ethosUnlike the US, where the so-called ‘melting pot’ is perceived as a successful long-lasting marriage, Europe sees its Eurosceptics clinging to hard-core patriotism and ethnocentrism. National pride and regional allegiances indeed form either natural or habitual inclinations for many Europeans. After all, it was through nationalistic endeavours that in the early 19th century most European countries unified their territories and provinces under one flag and nation-state (or state-nation!). Though over time EU member states have transited to democratic systems, they still remain ‘ethnocracies’ to a large extent. It seems evident as to why regional and national irredentism still acts as a powerful leverage in the ‘united’ EU.

Nominally, the European Union project abides by the above mentioned ‘in varietate concordia’ principle, in the last decade small-nationhood ‘proselytism’ has been gaining ground and progressive ideologues emphasise the need for self-determination, autonomy, economic regionalisation or separatism. The Scottish Referendum is the most recent example of this phenomenon, but other secessionist movements around Europe are also in the first line of debate. The ones attracting the most media attention, such as Catalonia and the Basque Country (Spain), Wallonia (Belgium), Padania (Italy), are already ubiquitous to the public eye, as is the Balkan swirl of multi-ethnic state entities; despite extensive and excessive scrutiny over the years, the ethnic idiosyncrasies of the latter remain extremely difficult to understand. Other small movements are less vocal but they exist nonetheless, ready to increase their manifestation when the time is ready, a phenomenon unsurprisingly more frequent since the 2008 economic crisis.


Key: red – regions with movements that only claim greater autonomy within the actual state; black – regions with important secessionist movements, although both categories include moderate movements. The nations highlighted in colours are the territories claimed by the local nationalist groups, including areas out of the state’s borders and cases of wishes for annexation to other states. The Ukrainian situation is missing from the picture since it is a case in itself. Source: National and sub-national borders

As reflected in the figure above, even nationalistic movements within Europe are not homogenous. Over the last decades, communication and technology have shaped the foundation upon which the world has developed and modernised. Concomitantly, they have facilitated the globalisation, internationalisation and homogenisation of culturally distinct countries, which means that the partial shifting of national-domestic sovereignties to a higher-level authority has created reticence towards globalisation. One negative effect of globalisation is that it has triggered the accelerated re-emergence of nationalism (in its revised form ’neo-nationalism’) and regionalism. Neo-nationalists have succeeded in building up their support bases through rallying ‘threatened identities’ of various kinds, and by enhancing, manipulating and instrumentalising their concerns and fears. Neo-nationalism can therefore be perceived as a specific reaction against various effects of the current phase of globalisation’ [1], although not wholly caused by it.

There is a strong legacy in which loyalty to a sovereign national entity has dominated, spurred by the memory of those who fought for their countries. Causes of nationalism include the excessive attempt to superficially homogenise and hybridise cultural identities, to copy-cat ‘Western attitudes’ and also to promote chauvinistic attitudes. Some consequences of nationalism include paranoia and xenophobia, which simultaneously hold anti-European sentiment (including anti-federalisation) and anti-globalisation. The long-term effects vary from separatism to inter-ethnic conflict. Both consequences have been witnessed in practice, the first during the EU parliamentary elections, where a considerable number of votes were cast in favour of extremist and Eurosceptic political parties, the second in the course of intensification of separatist movements.

This phenomenon has been explained by Rossi Braidotti as the paradox of ‘the expansion of the European boundaries which coincides with the resurgence of micro-nationalistic borders at all levels in Europe today. Unification coexists with the closing down of borders; the common European citizenship and the common currency co-exists with increasing internal fragmentation and regionalism; a new allegedly post-nationalist identity co-exists with the return of xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism, the disappearance of the Soviet empire marks simultaneously with the triumph of the advanced market economy and the return of tribal ethnic wars of the most archaic kind’ (Nomadic European citizenship).

Nation-state vs. minority rights, state sovereignty vs. regional autonomy or secessionism?

The Westphalia Peace Treaty of 1648 set up the first system of international relations alongside the first system for the protection of minorities. The sovereign ‘Westphalian’ state retained an important share of authority over the territory and its inhabiting population. 366 years later, states prefer to outstrip the garrison state complex and set up clear rules for efficient decentralisation which should not endanger either state authority or the rights of minorities, whilst allowing for a more efficient administration. The EU member states (especially those in the South and South-East) are indeed more reluctant to give up or redirect some of the authority to the regional, trans-regional or international level while the EU lacks the strength and the moral authority to impose it.


Under this pressure, the legal system fails to, as one might say, ‘get the ducks in a row’ within the framework of international law. It is deliberately vague and difficult to interpret, due to hesitance to clearly define and prioritise fundamental legal principles. To use an example from the area of minority rights’ protection, the international legal system is founded on two main pillars holding the same weight in the symbolic balance of the Blind Goddess Justitia, namely: i) the right to self-determination and ii) border inviolability/territorial integrity. The two principles partially oppose each other if no difference is made in terms of how relevant one or the other is in specific cases, which may vary in various circumstances. Bosnia and Herzegovina is the best example in this case: although the country respects both principles, it remains a failed state in terms of effective administration and functionality.

Commodifying International Law

Following the Second World War, the international law system has been defending the inviolability of existing nation-state borders, regardless of the over-arching political circumstances which these states had been drawn into. The double standard of international law relays on the fact that the principle of self-determination is often at odds with the territorial principle. Theoretically, the two principles should be treated as equally important, but in practice this is not often the case. In practice, either one or the other is laid aside when it comes to specific cases. No doubt, it is a fallacy to think that both are universally valid and hold equal relevance in intricate situations.

Although greatly important, self-determination remains a complex issue because of its obvious relativity. Ralph Steinhardt of George Washington University Law School affirms that ‘self-determination has little legal meaning but is nevertheless a tremendously powerful political principle’. On the one hand, the type of self-determination which is invoked now is the same as the one theorised by Wilson and Lenin years ago, with little improvement in spite of the years passed and experience gained. Based on rather restrictive ideas, the right to self-determination hinders Europe’s minorities from gaining full rights and recognition on the grounds of its legal vagueness. International bodies ought to develop some parameters to determine exactly what the right to self-determination includes and in which cases it overrides other international legal principles.

Since the 1990’s, the Copenhagen and Geneva Statements (and before that in 1960s, the Helsinki Accords) called upon governments to protect ethnic and national minorities, to promote identity and support any prospect of autonomous administration. Both within the context of the EU and within domestic frameworks, it has become inflationary to use the population’s fears for secession as a foundation for political campaigns and xenophobic attitudes. Through the projection of its own fears of losing sovereignty and domestic power, the state itself is the first (though not the sole) coward for those who desire regional autonomy either on the basis of ethnic or non-ethnic criteria, as well as for those who desire EU federalisation. Here is a self-evident reality: there is no such thing as an international community united under a philosophical and normative approach to minority questions, prepared to uphold minority or human rights. Instead, there is a quarrelsome collection of states, fundamentally differing in approaches and policies, prepared to accept compromises only to a certain extent and with a fortiori reluctance to implement commitments (Koch A).

To sum up, minorities hold the right but not necessarily the practical basis for attaining self-determination [2]. The regionalisation and decentralisation of current Member States could be an administrative solution in terms of efficiency; regionalisation per se however, especially when based on criteria of ethnic belonging would hardly be accepted by states as it jeopardises their sovereignty. With an international normative system turning from watch-dog to lap-dog, the EU’s powerlessness and moral vacuum and the visibly quarrelsome sovereign states, chances for a future federalisation of Europe remain slim. Nonetheless, secessionist movements should not be perceived as holding back a possible federalisation. If there is a genuine desire for a federalised Europe in the future and if regional inclinations prevail, why not bypass the state and create a federal structure of regions instead? It might be a more viable solution, at least to consider if not to implement.

Dadiana Chiran

[1] Banks , M. & Gingrich, A , Introduction , p. 17

[2] The three claims of the self-determination debate in the UN documents:

  1. All people have the rights to self determination
  2. Self-determination involves secession, that is, a change of borders
  3. State borders must not be changed

Image ‘Yes Scotland’s first annual Independence rally’, courtesy of Phyllis Buchanan via, released under Creative Commons 2.0. 

Image ‘Lady Justice’, courtesy of Scott* via, released under Creative Commons 2.0. 


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