MINELRES: BBC: Europe's autonomy solutions
Sat Jan 29 18:36:21 2005
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.
How and where these different institutional arrangements are employed
depends on the individual circumstances of the ethnic minorities and
Professor Stefan Wolff of the University of Bath says their success
often depends on local conditions and those involved in implementing
"The bottom line... is that autonomy regimes, in the end, are meant to
strengthen the effectiveness of democratic political processes," he
"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."
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
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?
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.
"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
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.
"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
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
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.