The European Union has the aspiration to be the guiding light of democracy in the world. E&M explores a critical pre-requirement for such a dream.

Hypocrisy is an inherent feature of international politics. The practice of claiming to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than what actually corresponds to the reality on the ground shapes much of the narrative employed by states in their constitutions and foreign policy. From totalitarian regimes to democratic governments, Islamic republics, monarchies, emirates and so on, every political system resort – to a greater or lesser extent – to the perks of double standards. In the context of the European Union, an illustrative example of a hypocrite approach concerns the issue of enlargement. Not because widening EU membership to neighbouring countries is erroneous, but because of the dishonest underlying assumption of this policy: by saying that the EU “seeks to deepen the solidarity between the peoples of Europe, while respecting and preserving its diversity”, the enlargement narrative sounds as if internally the EU had already conciliated with its multiple nationalities.

Since it was founded, the European Union has grown from six countries – Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands – to 28. Based on democracy, the rule of law, respect for human rights and on the single market, this “community of values” defines itself as one which strives to spread prosperity and fundamental rights. Thus, the enlargement policy is the belief that extending European values and standards to more countries – and bringing them together – will make the continent safer and more stable. Unquestionably, a crucial task to strengthen the European project and promote the desired economic growth that would allow more consumers to enter the European market. Nevertheless, when it comes to the aspirations of being the guiding light of democracy, it becomes an inconsistent and flawed mission.

Spreading European values should start at home

If the European Union has potential to be anything else besides a safe haven for globalisation to thrive, it will have to accept that no real democracy will be achieved until the day that the multiple nations of this continent are given the right to decide about the future of their own communities. Evidently, the paradigm of territorial integrity and the classic understanding of sovereignty are to remain for many years to come a dogma in the hearts and minds of the European political elite. The bottom-up process of questioning the myth of the nation-state, however, is blooming and more and more Europe will witness its ethnic communities waging non-violent movements to put the decision of their political future in their own hands.

Photo: Adam Fangel (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Current autonomy movements in Europe – be they nations, ethnic, cultural and religious groups – all demand that their basic human rights be fulfilled and acknowledged. Present all across the ideological spectrum, from far left to the right, movements for self-determination seek greater autonomy or, in some cases, full independence in the form of a state. In light of the momentum gained in the recent years, the case of Catalonia and Scotland attracted great media attention. Therefore, they contributed to shape a stereotype of the case for self-determination that has led many to think that vigorous nationalism claiming autonomy is a struggle for an independent state by definition.

If this may be true in some cases, it is certainly not the case of the majority and it doesn’t define all the cases of peoples seeking autonomy. According to a German academic publication, there are 87 distinct peoples of Europe, of which 33 form the majority population in at least one sovereign state, while the remaining 54 constitute ethnic minorities. This means that the total number of national minority populations in Europe corresponds to approximately 14% of 770 million Europeans.

Most communities do not have ambition to create their own state, but to have their cultural and linguistics rights respected and promoted. In fact, one may find almost everywhere in Europe minorities that do not feel represented by their state. Welsh, Basques, Bretons, Corsicans and Moravians, to name few examples, might have different backgrounds and aspirations, but are united by the same desire to obtain the right to decide.

There are 87 distinct peoples of Europe, of which 33 form the majority population in at least one sovereign state, while the remaining 54 constitute ethnic minorities. This means that the total number of national minority populations in Europe corresponds to approximately 14% of 770 million Europeans.

Self-determination: The never-ending math equation

The right of peoples to self-determination features prominently in the main instruments concerning human rights, such as the United Nations Charter or the two International Covenants on civil and political rights and on economic, social and cultural rights respectively. As the United Nations Charter points out, the development of good relations between nations must be founded on the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples. This right, in accordance with which peoples freely determine their own political status and freely provide for their own economic, social and cultural development, illustrates clearly the interdependence and indivisibility of human rights recognized at the Vienna Conference on Human Rights in 1993. Making this right a reality requires full observance of all human rights and fundamental freedoms on the part of states.

The current political structure of the EU is a threat to citizens that want greater autonomy due to the fact that Brussels only owes loyalty to its member states, as if Basques or Scots were not as citizens of the EU as the English or the other citizens of Spain. Despite the fact that the respect for the rights of persons belonging to minorities is one of the values of the EU, explicitly mentioned in Article Two of the Treaty on European Union, the European Commission states that the it has no general power as regards minorities, in particular over issues relating to the recognition of the status of minorities; their self-determination and autonomy; and the regime governing the use of regional or minority languages.

In the historical process that shaped Europe, the peoples of this continent have been confined by boundaries arbitrarily drawn and redrawn by the hands of elites and tyrants. Communities were split by borders, some other were forced into assimilation policies and cultural and linguistic rights suppresed by centralization forces. A way forward would be a true federal European Union based on democratic weight, which would hold the decisions as near to the people as possible, with the transfer of competences from member states to both supra-state level (the Union) and sub-state level (stateless national or regional level). The more de-centralised politics is and the closer to the people decisions are made, the stronger real democracy will be. Because the will of the people is the only source of legitimacy for the existence of a so-called democractic entitity, the European Union should support free and fair referendums whenever its citizens wish to do so. Thus, the EU could play the leading role in facilitating the building of a true Europe of the peoples.

There is no such a thing as a partial democracy. If the EU is truly committed to human rights, it has to implement urgently a consistent mechanism to debate the case for self-determination of its peoples. Whether it acknowledges officially or not, the truth is that the Union operates every single day in blatant disregard for a fundamental human right. It is never too late to do the right thing.

Featured image: Luis Guillermo Pineda Rodas (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 – Battle of Nations – Battle of Leipzig. October 1823.

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    Fernando Burgés is originally from Brazil. Former editor of Europe&Me, he has lived and worked in Brussels for more than four years.

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