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World: Analysis From Washington -- Ethnic Challenges And Majority Nationalism

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 7 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Government measures designed to give more power to ethnic minorities and thus preempt broader challenges by these groups may not only fail to do so but also may generate a nationalist response by the dominant ethnic community. And such a response by the dominant group will almost inevitably have the effect of leading to further demands by ethnic minorities.

This possibility helps to explain why most governments tend to be extremely cautious in extending special rights for such minorities and also why such grants are often discussed less in terms of the minority ethnic groups involved than with regard to the consequences for the dominant community.

These various aspects of coping with ethnic challenges have been very much on public view this week in two major countries in Western Europe. In the United Kingdom, the British government of Prime Minister Tony Blair on Thursday conducted elections for new regional parliaments in Scotland and Wales.

And in France, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's government announced on Wednesday that Paris will sign the European charter on regional and minority languages and thus commit itself to allowing the use of regional languages in Alsace, the Basque region, Brittany and Corsica in schools, official documents, the news media and a broad variety of social functions.

Both these actions are part of the new European commitment to decentralized government, to what many call a "Europe of the regions." Both seek to meet the demands of ethnic minorities for greater control over their fates and more recognition of their particular needs. And both are intended to undercut demands by more radical minority nationalists for independence.

There are good reasons to think that these measures will have that effect for the ethnic minorities in both countries at least in the short term. All polls suggest that the Scottish National Party will finish behind the Labour Party and that Welsh nationalists lost out to pro-London politicians. At the same, many in France who speak minority languages seem certain to see Jospin's decision as a reason to ignore nationalist agitators.

But over time that may change both because of the dynamics of these new institutional arrangements and because of the reaction of the English and French to these steps by their national governments.

Precisely because they seem destined to become a focus for national identity, the new parliaments in Scotland and Wales seem likely to generate ever more demands by the Scottish and Welsh for more power, demands that the central government in London may be unwilling or even unable to meet. And such failures can become the stuff of nationalist agitation, even by those who now have no interest in independence.

Meanwhile, by gaining new linguistic rights in a country where language is so central to national identity, the regional groups in France are likely to build on what they have been given this week, to demand ever more opportunities to use their own languages both locally and in Paris, and thus to put the French government in a position where it too will say no -- and with the same effect on these minorities.

But the greatest nationalizing impact of these two actions may be on the English and French majorities. In the United Kingdom, many English are asking what is called the "West Lothian question," named for the constituency of the member of parliament who first asked in more than 20 years ago.

In questioning proposals for devolution, this parliamentarian argued that the Scottish should not be allowed to send representatives to the parliament in London and decide on English questions if the English are not permitted to send representatives to the Scottish parliament to decide on Scottish ones.

And now that the Blair government has pushed through decentralization, some English writers are calling for the creation of a special parliament for England to parallel those for Scotland and Wales. Such an arrangement would constitute a threat to the United Kingdom not only by pitting the largest group against two smaller ones but by seriously reducing the importance of or even need for an all-UK body.

Similarly, many French intellectuals who already see their language under threat from English are certain to react to the first steps in the history of their country to reduce the status of French by elevating the status of other tongues. And at least some of them may turn to nationalist groups which already seek to play one group off against another in their quest for political power.

Because both Britain and France are long-established democracies, their peoples and governments are likely to be able to avoid ethnic fragmentation. But the difficulties each appears likely to face as a result of these latest actions call attention to complicated ways in which ethnic attachments and political power can interact.