Sonntag, 14. September 2014

From Scotland to Eastern Ukraine: Calls for self determination divide Europe

On Sept. 18 the Scottish people will choose between remaining part of the United Kingdom or becoming an independent country. Although the outcome is unlikely to have any great economic implications for the European Union, the referendum sparks hopes and fears across the continent. Irrespective of the result of the Scottish vote, the calls for regional autonomy and independence across Europe simply cannot be ignored.

Referendums on the complete secession of a territory from a state have been exceptional in European history. They mostly occurred after Wars or other political upheavals and were always highly controversial as they questioned one of the foundations of the modern nation state- the indivisibility of its territory.

International law recognizes two in many ways contradictory principles. On the one hand there is the right to self determination, on the other hand the principle of territorial integrity. It's a matter of great controversy which of the two has precedence over the other and under which circumstances.
Whenever disputes over the status of a territory arose in recent history, the big powers supported “self determination” or defended “territorial integrity” selectively depending on their geo-political interests. While Russia justifies the “re-attachment” of Crimea and the support of “pro-independence forces” in eastern Ukraine with the right to regional “self determination,” the West is defending Ukraine’s “territorial integrity.”

In the case of the Kosovo, on the other hand, the two powers follow completely opposite policies. While the West recognized Kosovo's split from Serbia after its 1991 referendum, Russia rejects Kosovan independence on the basis of Serbian “territorial integrity.”
In other words: Due to the perceived strategic interests of major powers and power blocks, the will of the people in regional Europe were consistently ignored. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that Europe's current states and their boundaries have little to do with democratic evolvement and much more with decades or even centuries of nationalist power politics.
Many regions were occupied and forced into states against the will of the majority. Most of Europe's nation states implemented strict centralist political regimes destroying historically grown regional and local structures while assimilating or often even expelling all or parts of the autochthonous regional populations.

These policies led to inner and outer conflicts culminating in the rise of extremist movements. Both World Wars, the Cold War and the Balkan Wars were largely the product of ethnic nationalist power politics in Europe and its consequences.

The current independence and autonomy movements are the logical consequence of historic failings in combination with outdated centralist-nationalist structures and a growing demand for more political participation on a regional and local level.

Besides Scotland, there are dozens of other regions in Europe seeking more autonomy or even independence. Catalonia, the Basque Country, Galicia, Wales, Northern Ireland, Yorkshire, Cornwall, Brittany, Alsace, Corsica, Bavaria, South Tyrol, Friuli, Veneto, Lombardy, Sardinia, Sicily, Dalmatia, Istria, Vojvodina, the Banat, Transylvania, the Szeklerland, modern day Southern Slovakia, Silesia and Moravia are only some examples.

Until recently any discussion about secession, independence, a change of state or extended autonomy were considered a taboo issue and in some instances even a crime. In an increasingly globalized, open and multicultural environment this has changed.

However, a society marked by decades of centralist controlled “nation state building” is split on the virtues of a “regionalisation” of power. Accordingly, the upcoming Scottish referendum is viewed as a possible precedence for other regions in Europe and therefore watched with a mixture of hope and fear.

But how should Europe react to the rise in calls for independence or more regional autonomy? It would be undemocratic and counterproductive to simply ignore or even disallow them. This would only acerbate inner and outer conflicts while endangering Europe's security as well as it's ongoing peace and integration process.

Instead, a EU-wide decentralization process should be put on the agenda. Decentralization plans already exist in most European countries anyway. As part of the “No-Campaign” against Scottish independence, the UK government is promising more devolution in Britain.
France is currently working on a controversial “réforme territoriale” that should eventually provide the regions with similar levels of power to the German Bundesländer. In Germany and Austria extensive reforms giving communes and regions more tax autonomy and more clearly defined competencies are being debated. Other extensive decentralization plans exist in Italy, Poland and Spain.

A joint European devolution process based on the successful Swiss model and the principle of subsidiarity, as defined in the Treaty of Lisbon, would help eradicte much of the undemocratic and growth inhibiting centralist structures across Europe in one single step. It would create the conditions for more need based political and economic structures on a local and regional level while also clearly defining the competencies of EU, national, regional and local government eliminating costly duplications. Taking such a comprehensive step across the Continent won't be easy, but it is indispensable to pull Europe out of crisis, politically and economically.

Peter Jósika is a Swiss based author, historian and political scientist. He can be reached on and More information at

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