This article considers the role of secessionist parties at the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE). The formation of the Self-Determination Caucus by nine MEPs raises several questions for the Conference’s proposals to bridge the gap between institutions and citizens. The article offers a brief discussion of the literature on the principle of self-determination movements, in principle and policy. It then gives an overview of the relevant parties at the conference, including their relations with one another, the strategies available to them and the objectives they choose to pursue. This allows for trends to be identified and typologies to be used to sort the players. The article shows that self-determination movements do not engage uniformly across the EU’s institutions. This leads to an exploration of the other actor’s choices when responding to the Caucus. The article then considers the influence that this debate on self-determination has on the Conference, in the short term, and for the EU’s core values in the long term.
The Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) represents a unique chance for small players from across the European Union to band together and join the conversation on how to bridge the gap between the Union’s institutions and its citizens. In the case of several secessionist parties from across the 27 Member States, some have already taken that chance. The avenues that these actors could take to get their ideas into the discussions were made clearer on 15 January 2020 when the European Parliament outlined the themes and processes for the conference. A year later, on 20 January 2021, nine current and former MEPs from different parties seeking to represent ‘stateless nations and nations with territorial disputes’ announced the formation of the Self-Determination Caucus. The group’s stated objective is to enable these peoples to exercise their ‘right to self-determination’ in a free, legal, and democratic manner. While the members of the group have declared their support for the EU project, their ideas will reshape some of the EU’s shared values if they gain acceptance at Union level. This raises a question about how the involvement of these secessionist parties will influence discussions at the Conference.
This article gives an answer to that question in five parts. The first offers a brief background on the principle of self-determination and the complexities that arise when it is applied to the real world. The second outlines the persons and parties affiliated with the Caucus and highlights both their shared and divergent interests. The third shows that these parties cannot engage uniformly across the EU’s institutions and covers the informal network they can count on to integrate their ideas into the Conference deliberations. The fourth considers how larger players from Member States choose strategies to respond to the group’s ideas, since these often clash with their basic principles and national interests. The fifth covers the implications for the shape of the EU’s core values in practice. This includes how democratic rights translate into political decisions, how diversity and integration are reconciled, and how the path to membership adapts to the needs of the future.
In debates over which country is the most likely to become the EU’s newest member, most attention tends to go to the candidate states in its neighbourhood. Meanwhile, for those in the Caucus, there is an alternative path to the enlargement of the Union. From their perspective, Catalonia, which is home to most of the group’s members, represents a potential case for accession from the inside. However, to overemphasise this single case would mask the many differences between the group’s members that are worth unpacking. When its diverse members come together, they find more unity around the idea of self-determination than any of its many principles and policies. However, this idea shapes how the group can broaden its appeal to similar movements in Europe and engage a wider audience at the Conference. Meanwhile, players from Member States that wish to limit the group’s role have several strategies available to them. The members of the Caucus are therefore more likely to succeed in their objectives if they utilise their informal network of national parliament members, party alliances, think tanks, international bodies, and active citizens.
What is self-determination?
In their founding manifesto, the nine Caucus MEPs open their position with a reference to the right to self-determination as enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations. They refer specifically to Chapter 1, Article 2, where the UN sets its role as building ‘friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples’. The idea that a people have a right to determine their own affairs has, in recent decades, gained traction among groups that seek to gain the status of independent statehood for their homeland through democratic and legal means. However, this path is also where the right to self-determination as a principle of international law is the least likely to help those that wish to use it to achieve clear political ends.
There are several problems when turning the principle into practice. These include how to define a people, how to draw borders between them, how to then grant rights to one people without removing those of others, and how to enable that people to decide on their independence within the constitutional framework and democratic standards of their current state. However, it is a leap to assume that the principle in itself could take the issue this far. The classic problem for the right to self-determination, in this view, is that it clashes with the principle of territorial integrity given in the UN’s Chapter 1, Article 4. From a literal reading the Charter only seeks to keep UN member states from challenging each other’s sovereignty. This leaves a theoretical window open for secession from the inside. However, where international bodies have dealt with such a clash between the two principles of international law, they have overwhelmingly chosen to close that window. For instance, in the Helsinki Accords of 1975 there is no contradiction between the two, as the respect for territorial integrity is given clear precedence over the right of self-determination.
Academics who support the idea that the two principles are compatible note that self-determination can take many forms. These include varieties of intrastate autonomy for some regions and protected statuses for some minorities, as found in law across Europe. In these cases, territorial integrity serves as a sort of ceiling to a people’s ambitions that sits just under independence. Carlos Closa argues that this idea became enshrined in the Article 4(2) of the Treaty on European Union, when Spain sought a response from the Union to a challenge from the autonomous Basque Country. This drive came after the Ibarretxe Plan of 2003, named after the then president of the regional government, proposed changing the constitution of the Basque Country such that it would be ‘freely associated’ with Spain. The proposal was eventually passed by the Constitutional Court but did not gain the assent of the Spanish Parliament. The failure of this legislative approach is probably what led Ibarretxe’s government to call for a referendum in 2008, which in turn was rejected by the Constitutional Court. This story highlights one of the issues facing the Caucus, that the right to self-determination does not open a clear path to a certain political outcome.
Nor is there a strong precedent for binding legislation based on the principle. The group cites the Parliament’s Strasbourg Manifesto of 2014 as one such case, though this text only goes so far as to encourage the Commission to find ‘democratic solutions in order to resolve conflicts between national minorities and states when the bilateral and internal solution is not possible’. Perhaps because of this, the Caucus has set a clear objective for its participation in the Conference, to propose the creation of a European Clarity Act. This is intended to serve as ‘tool to resolve democratic disputes over self-determination in the EU’. However, at this stage there is little information available from the group about what this would entail. Natàlia Segura, a correspondent from the Catalan News Agency, asked the group for details about their desired content for the European Clarity Act. Jordi Solé, an MEP from the European Free Alliance (EFA), responded that the group would work towards an agreement on how to exercise the right to self-determination, while respecting the EU’s founding principles. A detailed proposal would benefit the Caucus in the next stages of the Conference, though this will require the group to overcome the divergent interests of its members.
Who are the Caucus members?
The Caucus is made up of nine current and former MEPs, of whom five are from Catalonia: Carles Puigdemont, Toni Comín, and Clara Ponsatí, from Junts per Catalunya and Jordi Solé and Diana Riba from Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya. Two of the group’s members are from the Basque Country, with Pernando Barrena from Euskal Herria Bildu and Izaskun Bilbao from the Euzko Alderdi Jeltzalea. There is also one member each from Ireland and Corsica: Chris MacManus from Sinn Féin andFrançois Alfonsi from Femu a Corsica, respectively. In addition to their national parties, the members also represent political alliances in the Parliament, with three from the Greens/EFA, two from the Left in the European Parliament, and one from Renew Europe Group. The members from Junts per Catalunya are not currently attached to any of the Europarties. Of the nine members, Carles Puigdemont, Jordi Solé, and Chris MacManus were chosen to represent the group at the Conference. The makeup of the Caucus shows some diverse interests among its members while also begging the question as to how representative it is of the self-determination movements in Europe as a whole.
Régis Dandoy has developed a set of typologies for understanding parties that defend the interests of a specific ethnicity in a given territory. The framework, shown below, moves from ones that make softer demands to those, like the members of the Caucus, that make stronger demands. This can serve to illustrate some of the divergent interests within the group. Junts per Catalunya and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya have shown themselves to be clear independentists, especially after signing a declaration of independence for Catalonia on 10 October 2017. Euskal Herria Bildu and Euzko Alderdi Jeltzalea are more complicated as they sometimes reposition themselves between autonomy and independence. In the latter case there might also be an irredentist element to their objectives given the presence of Basque people in regions neighbouring the Basque region in Spain. Femu a Corsica fits the mould of an autonomist party in all respects but for some of its members’ rhetoric. Sinn Féin could be seen as either an irridentist or a rattachist party, depending on which side of the Irish border one is standing. This variety in objectives incentivises the Caucus to stick to self-determination as a principle.
Table 1 Typologies for ethno-regional self-determination movements
|Demand category||Actor category||Actor subcategory||Typical demands|
|Soft demands||Protectionist||Conservative||Recognition and preservation for ethnic group|
|Participationist||Access to state institutions|
|Mild demands||Decentralist||Autonomist||Regional autonomy|
|Federalist||Regional autonomy in a federal framework|
|Irredentist||Independence, including for neighbouring territories|
|Rattachist||Integration into a neighbouring state|
|Source: Régis Dandoy (2010, p. 206)|
However, if the group seeks to represent the wider issue of self-determination some of its relations with similar movements will come to the fore. The Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA) is notably absent from among the group’s members. Despite this, the group’s founding manifesto cites Flanders as a nation that is close to the achievement of recognised statehood. Pernando Barrena reported that the party had been invited to join the group but as of 20 January 2021 had not yet decided. While the N-VA remains with the EFA its three MEPs sit with the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) political group in the Parliament. This could suggest a more Eurosceptic leaning that might clash with the other parties of the Caucus, though this remains conjectural, especially since some commentators argue that the N-VA’s move was primarily about signalling to the domestic audience. While the group sometimes lacks ties in the EU it also builds them outside it. François Alfonsi spoke in favour of the ‘friends from the Scottish people’ and the ‘antidemocratic situation’ where they were taken out of the Union against their will. These ties to the wider concept of self-determination also form the basis for the informal network that can help the group to achieve its aims at the Conference.
How can the Caucus members influence the discussions?
While the three participating members of the Caucus will be able to directly influence the Conference, they risk being overshadowed by the sheer weight of other themes and players there. These include important topics that will be difficult to tie to the group’s agenda, such as climate change, as well as representatives of governments that are openly resistant to their views on self-determination. Nevertheless, the group has aroused the interest of some journalists by its mere formation ahead of the plenary. Martin Banks, for instance, has written about the group’s agenda in an article on how the EU engages with its citizens. However, there are limits to how far the Caucus members can push this connection. Chris MacManus has commented on the irony of referring to citizens at the launch of the Conference, given that the outcome may well ‘undermine the power of citizens’. Framing the issue in such a way could be risky for the group since one of the recurring hurdles for self-determination movements in democratic systems is their need to build trust in their stable participation in official processes with the other actors.
The Caucus members would have an easier time getting their ideas into the heart of the debates on citizen engagement if they can convince other players to adopt them. The EFA published its own press release on 21 January 2021 welcoming the group’s establishment. This is not surprising given that Jordi Solé leads the EFA group of seven MEPs in the Parliament. A bigger step forward came on 19 May 2021, when the whole Greens/EFA group adopted its agenda for the Conference. Their document includes a provision on ‘unity in diversity’ which states that ‘the right to self-determination has to be protected in the EU’. The Greens/EFA group consists of 73 MEPs, 11 of whom were chosen to join the Conference. They also have a large outreach network at their disposal, such that their agenda was shared much more widely than the Caucus’s manifesto. While this may appear to be an early win for them, it is worth recalling the different interpretations of self-determination as a principle. While the EFA group’s statement voiced its support for a European Clarity Act, the Greens/EFA group’s agenda called instead for ratification of the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages by all Member States of the EU.
At this stage it is unclear how the Caucus’ ideas are likely to be received by the other Europarties. However, there are two other kinds of organisation that are likely to support the group, namely think tanks and international bodies. The Coppieters Foundation, a think tank aligned with the EFA group, is the most notable of the former. It has ties with several regional associations and has published research on topics such as independence, as in Matthew Bumford’s report on the seats that autonomous regions would gain in EU bodies if they became Member States. Recently it has adopted ideas similar to those of the Caucus, such as Marc Sanjaume-Calvet’s argument that regional secession and European integration are compatible in principle and could be so in practice. Among the international bodies that could give an indirect push for the idea of self-determination to be discussed at the Conference is the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation. Fernando Burgés, the Organisation’s Programme Manager, has for instance spoken at the Parliament to promote self-determination as a democratic principle.
But to achieve its aims, the Caucus will also need to build a rapport with the European citizens who bring their views to the Conference. The outcome depends as much on the citizens themselves as the outreach strategies of the group members and their partners in their informal network. This the most difficult aspect to predict beforehand and opens the door to both support and contestation of the Caucus.
How can other players respond at the Conference?
While it is possible to anticipate which players will promote the right to self-determination at the Conference, understanding who is likely to oppose their objectives is more difficult. A Union-wide agreement setting out its position on the principle does not necessarily hurt the interests of anti-secessionist actors in practice. Nevertheless, given the lack of a detailed proposal from the Caucus at this time, their rivals will probably come close from home. Spanish parties that remain critical of the Catalonian regional government’s independence declaration of 2017 are a case in point. However, such disputes can also have knock-on effects for diplomatic and political relations that might lead unexpected players to become invested in the debate. While most governments called for a return to constitutional order in Catalonia, some countries went somewhat beyond that. Cypriot diplomats made a point of affirming their ‘unwavering support’ for Spain’s territorial integrity and expressing solidarity for the Spanish government. Flemish representatives, meanwhile, gave messages of support to the secessionist politicians in Catalonia, which then led Spain to briefly lift the diplomatic status of the delegate from the Flemish regional government. Other countries, for whom the idea of self-determination is deeply tied to their own domestic political debates, might choose to side at the Conference in a similar manner.
While it is unclear whether the Caucus’ proposals will receive much contestation at the Conference, the methods open to those who would seek to respond to them are clearer. Participants against secession are unlikely to band together in a formal group since they have their own unrelated priorities and would need to spend time to locate and coordinate with others. Therefore, if the discussions on self-determination result in pushback, this is likely to be unorganised. It could come in several forms, including agenda setting, forum shopping, conceptual reframing, and open discussion. For the first response, anti-secessionists can try to set the agenda to any number of other important topics. There is no shortage in this regard. Guy Verhofstadt gave an overview of the anticipated topics for the Citizen’s Panel in a briefing on 14 September 2021. Discussions on democracy, for example, were expected to focus on reforms to the European elections while those on values will focus on the enforcement of human rights standards across Europe.
For the second response, the classic case comes about when a player has multiple bodies where it can raise an issue, incentivising it to shop for a forum where it is most likely to get what it wants. Since anti-secessionists are more likely to come from larger parties that from Member State governments, they are also more likely to bring ideas before the Commission and Council. Meanwhile, the pro-secessionists are less able to engage uniformly across the institutions from within the Parliament’s delegation. Janis Emmanouilidis and Johannes Greubel have shown that some key themes from one body do not necessary feature in the other’s priorities for the Conference. The weight of deliberation also varies, with negotiations between the institutions often becoming stuck on how much influence the plenary should have and who will be involved in drafting the overall conclusions. Therefore, this could encourage anti-secessionist actors to work within bodies that are more receptive to their objectives.
The anti-secessionists can also engage with self-determination more directly. For the third response, this would mean reframing the concept so that it clashes with other values. The Caucus members have been keen to show a side of self-determination that fulfils pro-secessionist ambitions while remaining supportive of European integration, democratic processes, diverse societies, and stable governance. Therefore, anti-secessionists could push the view that self-determination movements are divisive, destabilising, or exclusionary. The downside for such methods is that they can burn bridges between parties that could be used in the search for long-term resolutions, which can calm the domestic political climate. The final response is, of course, for pro-secessionists and anti-secessionists to have open discussions wherever the topic of self-determination comes up. This might seem the best option for the sake of dialogue, though at a gathering of so many actors with difference priorities and diverse backgrounds it will be difficult to know why one topic might hold more interest than another at any given point.
What does this mean for the future of Europe?
The Conference is a chance to elevate debates on what the right to self-determination entails to a Union-wide discussion. It cannot enable open dialogue for disputes where key players are unwilling to negotiate. It is also unable to empower one side to bypass domestic rivals with whom they are in deadlock. Therefore, it would be best for every side with a vested interest in the issue to be realistic about what can be achieved at the Conference. Self-determination disputes can often mobilise large numbers of citizens in a region in the context of a constitutional crisis or an independence referendum. At the Conference, the issue will not have the same urgency. Therefore, achieving a comprehensive citizen-backed and Union-wide position on the right to self-determination should be seen as a long-term objective, with the Conference offering a potential springboard for future action, rather than serving as an arena for conclusive debate.
A plan to developing the principle of self-determination to include a clear path to independence would have big implications for the shape of the EU’s core values if it were accepted. The principle is sometimes paired with the idea that it can change the way people engage with politics, giving them a voice at the most fundamental level of their statehood. However, this view still raises many questions for the role of democratic processes. A Union-wide approach to resolving self-determination disputes would need to clarify whether decisions ought to be made with a direct people’s vote or an inclusive process involving political parties. If both are desirable then more detailed agreement would be required, which comes with its own costs, such as the time invested in the negotiations at the EU.
The relationship between the ideals of unity and diversity could also change with the adoption of self-determination as an EU value. The accession of a former region of an existing Member State could lead to a more diverse makeup within the EU institutions. However, this should not replace protections for ethnic minorities within Member States, especially since the set of people groups that would be able to push for statehood through regional secession remains much smaller than the overall set of national minorities across Europe. There is also an open question as to whether independence remains the best way of ensuring ‘unity in diversity’ since those people groups who might be capable of achieving statehood are also more likely to achieve other arrangements such as protected status or regional autonomy.
A newly independent former region could also trigger a change in the EU’s accession process. The potential case of Scotland could complicate matters further. In this case, a Union-wide discussion on the priorities for enlargement would be beneficial beforehand. A question would be whether the EU should change its accession process to be more flexible and responsive to outside events or maintain its comprehensive and measured approach to letting in new members. What these implications show is that the ideas proposed by the Self-Determination Caucus could raise more questions than they solve. But the Conference on the Future of Europe is thus the right forum to give topics such as this a gentle but helpful push towards the building of consensus through deliberations between diverse politicians and citizens.
If you want to read more about the Conference and the Future of Europe, accession and other relevant EU topics, feel free to check this other Future of Europe Journal article here.
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