National Minorities, An Overlooked Dilemma In Europe

Sovereignty and statehood have become increasingly ubiquitous terms in Europe, a land that has become an amalgam of minority groups post World War II. Ambassador Jose Zorrilla explains Europe's longstanding struggle of dealing with the concept of self-determination.


Europe is in trouble. Little provinces or counties dream of becoming full-fledged States through a process of nationalizing territories based upon language, folklore and (false) national narratives. If you want to find an academic career on the subject, all odds are in your favor. Everybody loves the novelty—at least in academia.

Is it not beautiful all that is small? Is it not politically correct to put the blame on States that nullify the drive to freedom of their little elves trying to be like the grown-ups? But why Spain and not Catalonia? What, then, do we say of the European Union, a true Frankenstein stock and barrel, eager to create nothing but an administrative void from the top-down? Yet if you step out of College and ask a strategist or a senior diplomat, do not be surprised if he frowns upon the idea of having more “sovereign” entities in Europe. A secular experience has taught us that the more States we have, the more wars we fight. Hence, the European Union, granted is an experiment, but it is grounded on solid and robust arguments.

These aspirations for statehood are only a part of the European problem. Less known are national minorities, who can be far more dangerous. Here you will not find the usual academic complacency. If you want to start a career on the subject, your mentor will warn you: the question is all but obsolete. Who would be interested in following the ups and downs of the millions of displaced persons that occupied Europe after World War II? Those have been rendered obsolete by time. Who would be interested in the mayhem that Woodrow Wilson brought to Europe when he landed in Paris in 1919 with self-determination under his arm? Dusted folders but for the Middle East and the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Everyone seems to have forgotten the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia and the rationale of Hitler to invade the country after the Munich agreement. Who cares? It is a thing of the past. But it is not.

Before going on, allow me a brief introduction to an arcane subject- the international security system. It can be explained, roughly, as the set of institutions, legal dispositions and agreements between subjects of International Law that prevent hostility amongst them or help to defuse situations of crises. In Central Europe, this role of peacekeeping befell, basically, on the Austro-Hungarian Empire all along the century that goes from Waterloo to World War I. Though the national principle discovered by the French Revolution pollinized the European Central hinterland and the continent knew its share of uprisings in the name of Fatherlands yet to be born, the situation remained relatively under control. After all, the “nation” was a revolutionary idea. To pass the sovereignty from the King to the people could only be achieved through revolution. And who wanted a revolution after the Napoleonic upheaval? Of course, the national philosophy, one language one State, one narrative, defeated or not at the barricades, oozed practically everywhere.

Austro-Hungarians knew it only too well. But there was little they could do. If they applied the principle of nationalities to their polity, Austria-Hungary would have ceased to exist. However, if they did not, they would have to fight a war with the liberal polities, namely France and England, and they would lose it.

Well, this is what happened.

Consider Wilson. One of the best presidents of the US to have ever lived and a progressive man to his core, he brought to us the gift of self-determination. Only he forgot to define it. The idea, though, infected all the central European ethnic or national groups. Some were asked what they wanted. The vanquished, not so much. A new can of worms opened as the Austro-Hungarian Empire broke into Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia—without going into details of other border alterations. Russia lost its Baltic facade too.

Of course, it was impossible to match land and people after so many centuries of imperial logic, where the collective identity had been irrelevant. These States were not like the US, free from national coercion. They were, in fact, nationalizers of everything inside their frontiers. The system of security of that beehive was entrusted to the Society of Nations, a multilateral body without actual muscle. A young Republican, Henry Cabot Lodge, seldom mentioned, defended the logic of bilateral Treaties instead of the Society of Nations. But Wilson was adamant. A new era had dawned upon mankind; no States were needed. Well, facts proved otherwise. There were wars between all these new States and in the end the arrival of an ultra-nationalistic party to Germany provoked the invasion of Czechoslovakia to defend the German national minority in the Sudetenland. World War II had almost begun.

Exit the Society of Nations. Enter victory and the USSR. This new polity brought to Central Europe an approach to national minorities and a system of security of a whole different kind: Transfers of populations, not in sleeping cars but à la russe. More than 12 million refugees followed the change of frontiers, as defined by the new victor. For the best part of fifty years, the question of national minorities was solved. Or at least so we thought. In the interval period, both France and Germany decided to go in a different direction and reconcile themselves. It was the beginning of an alternative system of security: the European Union. With a caveat though.

The new system of security was not backed by a sovereign power, as neither France nor Germany wanted to go that far. They thrived thanks to the American protection of NATO. Then, the USSR imploded. The first chapter of revisionism to remake the frontiers of Versailles was the war in the Balkans with such horrifying episodes as Sarajevo and Srebrenica. When the hurricane abated, all these new sovereigns knocked at the EU’s door. Only the newcomers brought with them and to us the seeds of discomfort so well described by Istvan Bibo in his “The Misery of the small States of Eastern Europe”. And finally Viktor Orban in Hungary, Mateusz Morawieck in Poland and the Freedom Party in Austria have opened an ultra-nationalistic agenda that includes: forced nationalization, hatred of the immigrant, holocaust denial, anti-Semitism, and last but not least, the rejection of European integration and national minorities.

Orban is intent on solving these issues via ultra-nationalism—the anomaly of more than three million Hungarians living outside the frontiers of Hungary proper. Meanwhile, Austria has declared it is willing to ‘passport’ the Austrian minority to Italy. 25% of the population in Estonia and Lithuania are ethnic Russians. In Ukraine, there are Poles, Russians and scattered people or national minorities practically everywhere- in old Imperial territories, including Bosnia, which is an open case; like Kosovo and its Serbian minority, a metaphor of all the chaos lurking in the region. Of course, both Russia and Turkey are on watch and not on the sidelines.

We had a recipe for all of this. A European Federation following the American model, which is what our “European Founding Persons” dreamed of and the “Great American” generation hoped to see. But it seems that this dream is fading away to be replaced by the ghosts of yore. What is worse? The President of the US himself praises Brexit and would like all the European countries to follow suit. His man in Europe is Orban. But Orban is also Putin´s man. As if it were not enough, European academia seems to point to the European Federal strategy as the analysis reserved for settled postmodern societies. The diagnosis being that federalism is an unfulfilled dream of childhood and the EU a totalitarian Leviathan created by irresponsible fat cats and the like.

Alright, kids. Take the advice of a seasoned senior diplomat in his twilight. Before embarking upon European studies, tour the military cemeteries of Europe. And do not forget to look intently to the dates of birth and death in the slabs. Many of the fallen were not even your age. It will be an exercise in catharsis—the opposite of hubris. A good prologue to, I hope, a brilliant academic career. And when your professor begins to discuss Lacan, Jung, Freud and the like to discredit a Federal Europe, toss at him the mobile pictures of so many tombs and scream with all the strength of your youth. “It’s the war, stupid!” And since we are upon the 50th anniversary of May 1968, you may add: “Shame on you!”

Ambassador Jose A. Zorrilla is a career diplomat from Spain with postings in Milan (1989), Toronto (1993), Shanghai (2001), Moscow (2004), and Tbilisi (2009). He has published a book on the rise of China “China la primavera que llega” (China, the spring that arrives) and shot two documentary films (“Los Justos” (The Righteous) and “El desierto y las olas” (The Desert and the Waves)) and one full length film “El Arreglo” (The Deal) that won the Opera Prima Prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival in 1983. He has just published a novel “El espía en Saratov” (The Spy in Saratov) (De Librum Tremens) and “Historia fantástica de Europa” (An Imaginary History of Europe). He is a frequent contributor to El Mundo with articles focusing mostly on current affairs.

Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.

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