“Sliding into Populism, Which Often Contains a Xenophobic Element, Should Make Us All Vigilant in How We Protect Minorities”

Op-ed by Vello Pettai, Incoming Director of the European Centre for Minority Issues

News / 02.9.19

Countries have what I call ethnopolitical regimes, meaning the kinds of political power relations between ethnic groups, including majorities and minorities. These relations shift over time, sometimes allowing more accommodation for diversity and sometimes decreasing. The shifts should also be analysed to see if they happen consensually or through coercion.

Countries can also have multiple ethnopolitical situations. For example, Germany has, on the one hand, a well-known and exemplary codification and systematisation of its relationship with its national minorities, such as the Frisians and Sorbs. But how does it at the same time deal with other groups, like the Turks and Yugoslavs, who come from different ethnopolitical contexts (i.e. recent immigration)?

This question is important to explore because the latter groups also have an interest in preserving their ethnic identities and in doing so, they are trying to shift the interest of the State towards them as well. Therefore, they are changing the conventional power balance within the country itself, and the understanding of what it is to be German. In other words, a group coming from a different ethnopolitical situation (labour migration) is gently changing the nature of the overall ethnopolitical regime in the country.

This shift is interesting from an academic viewpoint because changes in the perception and accommodation of new and old minorities happen very slowly, over the course of a lifetime. If we look back in history, we can identify different moments at which the relationship between groups within States have shifted. Often people will oppose the shifts, there will be setbacks, ebbs and flows. But this reinforces for me the idea that ultimately, ethno-political regimes are constantly in flux, the power balances between different groups are subject to change, the way in which countries and communities define and perceive themselves evolves. We need to recognise that.

These changes can be triggered by different factors, and the elements causing those shifts are difficult to predict. Scotland is a very classic example, since the discovery of oil in the North Sea transformed the way in which the Scottish people could project themselves, both in material and identity terms. It enabled the Scots to begin to demand devolution and change the ethnopolitical regime of the United Kingdom. In other instances, it will be international law and norms that will quietly lead to change, in a “dripping water hollows out the stone” fashion. The collapse of apartheid in South Africa exemplifies this variant.

Such shifts are not always positive for minorities. When looking at the state of democracy and the so-called “rise of populism” in recent years, one can observe that an element of populism is often xenophobia, especially in the right-wing version of this ideology. This has a great impact on minorities. And this trend is changing the way minorities – both national and new – are perceived. I believe this slide into populism, which contains xenophobic elements, should make us all vigilant as to the protection of minorities.

Vello Pettai, incoming director of the European Centre for Minority Issues – as of 1 March 2020 – gave a keynote speech at the 2019 Summer School on National Minorities and Border Regions in Humboldt University in Berlin.

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