Europe’s autonomy solutions

Hungary has welcomed the Romanian government’s plans for decentralisation which would grant greater powers to local authorities – including those in areas where ethnic Hungarians form a majority.

The BBC‘s Central and South-East Europe analyst, Gabriel Partos, examines how various forms of self-government are used to accommodate ethnic minorities in Europe.

Across Europe there is a huge array of mechanisms that are used to improve the lot of ethnic minorities.

But broadly speaking, there are three main approaches. These are:

*Territorial or regional autonomy *Parallel institutions for minority groups *Specific rights, together with the resources that are required to put these rights into practice, for certain ethnic groups.

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How and where these different institutional arrangements are employed depends on the individual circumstances of the ethnic minorities and their homelands.

Professor Stefan Wolff of the University of Bath says their success often depends on local conditions and those involved in implementing them:

“The bottom line… is that autonomy regimes, in the end, are meant to strengthen the effectiveness of democratic political processes,” he says.

“And, above all, they can contribute to preventing the kind of violent ethnic conflict that we’ve seen so much of over the past decade and a half across Europe.”

Devolution

Territorial autonomy is usually the standard practice in cases where there is a sizeable national group living in a clearly defined national homeland or in a compact region.

Some of the best-known examples are Britain and Spain.

In Britain, Scotland and Wales have benefited since the late 1990s from a policy of devolution, giving them their elected assemblies and governments.

In Spain, Catalonia and the Basque country have enjoyed a considerable degree of self-government since the Franco dictatorship ended.

In South-East Europe, the old Yugoslavia was the best-known example of such an ethno-federal state.

And the decentralisation of power was taken further with the establishment of the autonomous provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo within one of the federal entities, Serbia.

In Kosovo, however, the majority Albanian population have been demanding outright independence since the late 1980s.

So is there not a danger for states, that by granting autonomy they might be encouraging secession?

Granting rights

The Chief Executive of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, Ulrich Bohner says there could be a danger but he is, on the whole, sceptical.

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“When you give certain rights, people will feel at ease in their language, in their culture and then why should they leave a country where they feel at ease?” he says.

“Even in the case of the Basque country, or let’s take Corsica in France, if there were a referendum, it’s by no means certain that people would be in favour of independence.

“So sometimes you have to face the reality that there are very small but very militant groups who are trying to gain independence through violence and that is obviously not something we would support from the Council or Europe – no way.”

Mr Bohner believes that it was not the granting of autonomy that marked the beginning of Kosovo’s quest for independence but rather, the revoking of that autonomy in 1989 by President Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian administration.

EU role

Now that Kosovo remains under UN administration while it awaits talks on its long-term status, a greater degree of decentralisation within Kosovo may help allay the fears of Kosovo’s Serb minority for their security and human rights.

“We believe that there’s a solution in granting a little bit more autonomy at the local level, and this is a programme that the Council of Europe has been developing for Kosovo,” Mr Bohner says.

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“Similar things have happened actually in Macedonia with the Ohrid agreement that put an end to the armed conflict there.”

The prospect of membership of the European Union has, over recent years, helped alleviate some of the problems faced by national minorities – not least by ethnic Magyars who live in Slovakia, now an EU member, and Romania, an accession state.

Yet neither of these two countries has any system of territorial autonomy. So what role can autonomy arrangements play in an expanding Europe?

Professor Wolff says the European Union itself has no specific minority rights policy for its own member-states, but it has relied primarily on non-discrimination legislation to address minority issues.

“This, however, does not mean that autonomy as a conflict-resolution and conflict-prevention mechanism has no place in the EU,” he says.

“It is in the end up to political leaders on the ground in specific situations to make the most of what the EU’s institutions and funds can offer in support of autonomy arrangements, both in new member-states and aspiring member-states.”

Incentives

The EU is often viewed as a collection of states that are pursuing a twin-track approach: an increasing sense of European unity is matched by institutions designed to devolve power to the local and regional levels.

It is a practice enshrined in the principle of subsidiarity – that decisions should be taken at the closest possible level to the people whose lives are affected.

As the EU takes in more new members, perhaps the prospect of accession may provide the incentive for some kind of deal on some of the most serious ethno-national disputes – including the future of Kosovo.

In the meantime, its expanding number of member-states provide a growing range of different practices when it comes to tackling the problems faced by ethnic minorities.

One of the less common approaches was adopted in Hungary in the mid-1990s – and more recently in Croatia – where minorities have their own parallel assemblies.

In spite of funding shortfalls, that can be a particularly useful mechanism for an ethnic group, such as Hungary’s Roma, or Gypsy, community who do not live in just one compact region of the country.

But it is only one possible solution among many. And it is probably safe to assume that in the coming years there is likely to be an increasing number of different approaches adopted across Europe.

Date

20 January 2005