Where Do We Belong And Who Decides?

Where do we belong and who decides? ‘Europeanhood’ vs. ‘Regionhood’ – some disconnected thoughts on EU federalism, separatism and the double standards of international law by Dadiana Chiran.

At a declarative level, the EU passes the ‘duck test’: it looks like a duck (has characteristics of a federation), swims like a duck (has one foreign policy and quasi-coordinated domestic policies), and most of the time quacks like a duck (it has the objective of speaking with a common voice, even if it often fails 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. Going deeper into its structure, often even within the same state borders, there is 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 within the nationhood vs. statehood debate which is often not highlighted in a way which reflects its importance – worldwide there are approximately 8000 distinct ethnic groups within 200 nation-states. Within this, roughly 20 states are mono-national while the rest are a mosaic of ethnic belongings. Europe is no exception in this respect.

8014665550_6de26aa62e_zIn fact, as the EU slogan (‘in varietate concordia’ – United in Diversity) indicates that ethnic, religious and/or linguistic minorities are part of the European ethos. However, unlike the US – where the so-called ‘melting pot’ is more likely to be perceived as a successful long-lasting marriage – Europe contains many who cling to hard-core patriotism. National pride and country/regional allegiances are either natural or habitual inclinations for many Europeans. After all, it was through their nationalistic endeavours that in the early 19th century most European countries started to gather their territories and provinces under one flag and one unified nation-state (or state-nation!). It is true that over time the EU member states have become democracies but they have, to a large extent, also remained ‘ethnocracies’. Thus is seems evident as to why regional and national irredentism still act as a powerful leverage in the ‘united’ EU.

Although by definition the European Union project is aligned to the above mentioned ‘in varietate concordia’ principle, in the last decade small-nationhood ‘proselytism’ has been gaining ground and progressive ideologues emphasise their need for self-determination, autonomy, economic regionalisation and/or separatism. The Scottish Referendum is the most recent example here but other secessionist movements around Europe are also in the first line of debate. The ones which attract the most media attention, such as Catalonia and Basque Country (Spain), Wallonia (Belgium), Padania (Italy), are already ubiquitous to the public eye, as is the Balkan swirl of multi-ethnic state entities, which, despite being scrutinised extensively and excessively over the years, remain but for the most experienced researchers all but impossible to fully understand. Other small movements are less intense and less vocal but they exist nonetheless, ready to increase their intensity when the time is ready, which, unsurprisingly, has become all the 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: File:NUTS 3 regions EU-27.svg

As the above figure reflects, even nationalistic movements within Europe are not homogeneous. During the last decades, communication and technology have provided the foundation upon which the world has developed and modernised. At the same time, however, they have facilitated the globalisation, internationalisation and homogenisation of culturally distinct countries, which has meant that the partial shifting of national-domestic sovereignties to a higher-level authority has created reticence towards globalisation. Thus one negative effect of globalisation is that it has accelerated the 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 thus be understood as a specific reaction against various effects of the current phase of globalisation’[1], although not wholly caused by it.

There is a long 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 at the same time to promote chauvinistic attitudes. Some consequences of nationalism include paranoia and xenophobia, which are simultaneously anti-European (including anti-federalisation) and anti-globalisation. The long term effects vary from separatism to inter-ethnic conflict. Both consequences have been seen in practice, the first during the EU parliamentary elections, where a considerable number of votes were casted in favour of extremist and EU sceptic political parties, the second in the intensification of separatist movements.

As Rossi Braidotti explains, the paradox is that ‘the expansion of the European boundaries 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?

In 1648, the Westphalia Peace Treaty set up the first system of international relations along with the first system for the protection of minorities. Needless to say, the sovereign ‘Westphalian’ state, according to the etatism of the 17th century, retained an important share of authority over the territory and its inhabiting population. Yet, nowadays, 366 years later, it is seen as better to outstrip the garrison state complex and set up clear rules for efficient decentralisation which ought not to endanger either the state authority nor the rights of minorities and in addition, to allow a more efficient administration. The EU member states (especially those in the South and South-East) are much 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 of2298671281_8ee0988eef_z international law. It is deliberately left vague and difficult to interpret due to a hesitance to clearly define and prioritise fundamental legal principles. To serve as main example in the area of minority rights protection, the international legal system is based, among other, on two main pillars which have the same weight in the symbolic balance of the Blind Goddess Iustitia, 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 is a failed state in terms of effective administration and functionality.

Commodifying International Law

Particularly after the Second World War, the international law system defended the inviolability of the existing nation-state borders, regardless of the circumstances under which they were drawn. The double standard of international law in this respect relays on the fact that the principle of self-determination is very often at odds with the territorial principle. Theoretically, the two principles are to be treated as equally important, but in practice this is not often the case. Either one or the other is put aside in one or other specific case. No shadow of doubt that it is a fallacy to think that both, at the same time and being universally valid, have equal relevance in intricate situations.

Although of great importance, 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 one hand, the type of self-determination that is invoked now is the same one that Wilson and Lenin theorised 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 vagueness as a concept and relativity in terms of legislation. The international bodies ought to develop some parameters that 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 1960’s, the Helsinki Accords) called upon governments to protect ethnic and national minorities, to promote identity and support any possibility for autonomous administration. However, both domestically and in EU context, it has become inflationary to use the population’s fears for secession as a foundation for political campaigns and xenophobic attitudes. All in all, through the projection of its own fears of losing sovereignty and domestic power, the state in itself is the first (although not the only) coward for those who desire regional autonomy either on ethnic or non-ethnic criteria as well as for those who desire EU federalisation as some point in the future. There is a self-evident reality: there is no such thing as an international community united in 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 have the right but rarely the possibility to self-determination[2]. The regionalisation and decentralisation of current Member States could be an administrative solution in terms of efficiency, but regionalisation per se, especially on the criteria of ethnic belonging, although it would solve many problems on both sides, would hardly be accepted by states as it jeopardises their sovereignty. With an international normative system turned from watch-dog to lap-dog, EU’s powerlessness and moral vacuum and with quarrelsome sovereign states, the chances for a future federalisation of Europe remain slim. However, the 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 are prevelant, why not bypass the state and create a federal structure of regions? It might be a more viable solution, at least to consider if not to implement: food for future thought!

I would however like to state that due to the complexity of the subject, this article admittedly barely scratches the surface of just a couple of issues. Nevertheless, it is imperative to raise the topic, bring it to the public attention and further analyse it.


[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 Flickr.com, released under Creative Commons 2.0. 

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

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