“Can we really justify the fact that some national groups receive full statehood while others don’t?” wonders Professor M. Jewkes

News / 25.6.14

KU Leuven Professor Michal Jewkes opened the first panel of the conference on redefining self-determination in the 21 st Century held in the premises of the European Parliament thanks to the initiative of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organizations (UNPO) and support by MEPS Ramon Tremosa, Raul Romeva and the Centre Maurits Coopieters.

You can find his dissertation below:

I want to read you a quote which I think points out a really important fact of the world we live in. The quote is from Ernest Gellner and he says: “To put it in the simplest possible terms, there is a very large number of potential nations on earth. Our planet also contents room for a certain number of independent or autonomous political units. On any reasonable calculation, the former number is probably much, much larger than that of possible viable States.” So what should we take from Gellner’s quote? I think firstly we can say the universal right to statehood for all the national groups is not viable and could potentially be very dangerous.

So I carry on with Gellner’s quote: he says that “It follows that the territorial political unit can only become ethnically homogenous in such cases – where the population is intermixed – if it either kills, or expels or assimilates all non-nationals”. So, he is really pointing to the danger of making national groups believe that the only way for them to experience self-determination is by producing their own homogenous nation-state.

Therefore, the second thing to take from this quote is that it does not rule out statehood in any particular case. It is impossible to have a universal right to statehood but in a particular case, provided that it can be shown that both the new state and the ‘rump’ state are viable entities that would respect the rights of the minorities within that mix, this option is not necessarily ruled out in any particular case. Most importantly, there is a need for us to think of alternative forms of self-determination, in order to allow national groups to exercise authority over cultural, linguistic and political questions, as well as participating in the democratic decision-making process of the ‘ruler state’.

Assuming this is correct and we need to think about these alternative forms of self-determination, there are some questions that immediately arise. Notably, are all of these alternative forms of self-determination ‘born equal’, or is there some kind of hierarchy of forms with full statehood at the top and then descending through varied internal institutional models? If we do think there is some kind of hierarchy in place, can we really justify the fact that some national groups receive full statehood while other groups have to do with second-rate self-determination? This self-determination starts to look like a concept of first-come, first-served and tough luck for the rest.

There is a need for us to think of alternative forms of self-determination

In order to try to answer these questions, I need to have a clearer idea of what it is that we want self-determination to do. I think that I can identify three distinct goals of self-determination.

The first one is to protect and promote national culture, providing the national group with the institutional tools to protect their language and their culture, to allow them to maintain a public sphere that operates in that language and culture -in education system, public services, etc. This will be particularly important when the national group in question is a minority that is dealing with a broader statewide situation of asymmetry, when there is other national groups who are much larger and who oppose a threat to the survival of their cultural and linguistic heritage.

The second goal is to democratically determine a nation’s fate: self-determination allows nations to take democratic decisions that determine the future direction of the group and of its members. Once again it is particularly important when you have a situation of asymmetry, and particularly for statewide institutions are run on a basis of a pure majoritarian system, in which case the minority group can expect to be constantly outvoted on questions at statewide level.

The third goal is to provide recognition and a parity of esteem between national groups. It allows national groups to meet each other on roughly equal terms and to recognize one another as self-determined actors. I think this element of recognition is important internally within the state – you wish to be recognized as a self-determined nation by the other groups you share a state with – but also externally – you wish to be recognized as a self-determined nation by the broader international community.

I am now going to consider how four institutional models try to provide these goals:

Firstly, the model of non-territorial autonomy. The basic idea is that you have national groups which are intermingled and can be separated territorially, and that you allow them to have some autonomy over their own members but not over all individuals within the territory. It can be referred to as a “personality principle” rather than a “territorial principle”.

The second model is devolution. An example would be the UK, but it could also potentially include Spain or Puerto Rico. The basic principle of this devolution model is that there is a great deal of self-rule allowed to sub-state groups, but very little constitutional or institutional change at the center.

The third model is federalism, which tries to correct these features of devolution by constitutionally entrenching the division of power between central government and sub-units. Secondly, it allows for a non-proportional representation within central institutions. The idea here is to guarantee minority groups with voters within the central institutions by giving them more representation than pure integration of numbers would allow. The classic example would be the US Senate, where every State receives two senators regardless of the size of the State.

Can we really justify the fact that some national groups receive full statehood while other groups have to do with second-rate self-determination?

The final model is independent statehood, which does not require any explanation.

I will now consider how these four models do to deliver the three goals I suggested.

First, how do they do in terms of protecting language and culture? I think they all do a reasonable job, they all allow setting up institutions in the public sphere where the language and culture of the national group are predominant. However, I would say that devolution, federalism and full statehood do a far better job than non-territorial autonomy. Non-territorial autonomy can provide some support to the culture, but inevitably, it exists in an environment where the public sphere is shared and where different national cultures and languages are coming into constant interaction and competition between one another. Whereas in a system of devolution, federalism or statehood, where each national group has their own territory, you are able to insulate that culture and language to a certain extent. That culture and language are able to be a king on their territory.

The second goal was about democratically determining your destiny. Again, I think non-territorial autonomy does not do particularly well, because it only allows a national group to work on questions that are non-territorial in nature. Many political questions are necessarily territorial. if we are talking about policy on roads, environment, policing or defense, it always comes with a territorial element, so it does not allow the national group to decide their future alone. Devolution offers some improvement here, because at least on those issues where the national group is affected exclusively, they are able to make policy within their own territory. The problem is that many questions must be decided in the center: questions of macroeconomic policy, interregional redistribution, foreign affairs, immigration. The fact that devolution leaves statewide majoritarianism in place potentially jeopardizes the extent to which national group can influence policy at the central level. Federalism offers another improvement here, since it can offer a guaranty of representation of minorities within the central institutions. However, it is not an entirely independent exercise of self-determination. You still have to work alongside other groups.

So we may think statehood is a great deal in terms of determining your own destiny. It may be, but perhaps not as much as we typically think. If the states, because of their position of economic or political weakness in relation to other states, ends up in a position where they are dominated or vulnerable to domination by other states, then they may not have the capacity to control their own destiny. For instance, can we say that Greece has been able to entirely control its own destiny since the financial crisis? In some cases we may wonder if federalism, and the fact that it can manage the imbalances of power, does not offer a better solution. I am wondering for instance in a case like Puerto Rico, whether an independent Puerto Rico would presumably be very vulnerable to domination by the United States, having many of their decisions influenced if not dictated by the US. Wouldn’t it be better for them to be part of federal US and have two senators and many congressmen? The point here is that in the interdependent world we live in, independent statehood does not offer a full vision of determining your own destiny.

In the interdependent world we live in, independent statehood does not offer a full vision of determining your own destiny

The final goal was to deal with internal and external recognition. Again here I think the non-territorial autonomy works poorly, since a really important part of being a self-determining entity is linked to the fact of controlling your own territory, your homeland. It seems unlikely that other national groups would recognize you as a nation if you do not have your own state. It may be difficult for you to think yourself as a fully fleshed nation if you do not have your own territorial space. Devolution I think also does quite badly in terms of recognition, as the minority’s constitutional right to self-determine is not recognized and the autonomy that is in place is often granted by the statewide parliament, which tends to be dominated by the majority group of the state. So, to a certain extent, it is bad in terms of establishing recognition and esteem between groups. Federalism here does a little better. It can potentially provide some constitutional recognition of the equal status of constituent national groups and of their right to self-determine. However, where it potentially falls down is on the international element of recognition. Typically, only states are invited to become members of international organizations such as the UN, NATO, EU, FIFA and Eurovision Song Contest. Actually, some of these seemingly trivial elements are quite important in terms of being recognized by other populations as a nation: to be seen in the Olympics, in the World Cup or whatever it is, is important in terms of external recognition.

To conclude, non-territorial autonomy is likely always to be sub-optimum in terms of providing self-determination. In some cases it may be the best we can do, but we should not keep ourselves from doing more than that. Devolution I think is likewise flawed, due to the absence of effective shared rule mechanisms in the central institutions of the state, and in terms of the lack of recognition that it can provide. In some way I think it is worse actually, because it seems that conditions for more are in place, but what is lacking in most cases is a political will. Federalism I think can be a good option, but it potentially falls short in terms of international recognition of the national group. Therefore, I think that statehood remains the gold standard of self-determination, but it may not be as good as some national groups think it is. It will not always offer a complete opportunity to determine their own destiny. Given the difficulties of implementing a world of independent states, the best thing to do might be to seek out ways to improve the international recognition of sub-state federal nations.

The best thing to do might be to seek out ways to improve the international recognition of sub-state federal nations.

This brings us back to the distinction between internal and external self-determination. External self-determination, in particular, seems to carry dual meaning. On the one hand it is taken to mean full independent statehood, while on the other hand it is taken to mean external recognition by other states within the international community. These two elements are often taken to be synonymous, but what I am suggesting is that they must be separated. We should seek to understand external self-determination in the sense of recognition and then extend that recognition to groups who do not and/or cannot have a state of their own. How to achieve this – Europe of regions? World Cup of nations not states?

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Source: UNPO

UNPO has recently released the minutes of the conference. You can find the full report in their website