Western Europe and Scandinavia

The history of minority questions is intimately associated with political and social developments on the continent of Europe. From the time of the Reformation, religious groups have been the subject of protective treaties. The first examples involved the protection of some groups of Christians from others. Territorial change sometimes resulted in the transfer of groups of one religious confession to territory ruled by a ruler of a different confession. The agreement between transferor and transferee would specify that religious conformity would not be demanded and the group could continue to worship according to its custom. Rulers also made unilateral declarations of religious tolerance towards their subjects. In the nineteenth century, attention shifted from religion to nationality as the doctrine of the nation-state took hold. Race or nationality became the badge of difference and motive for oppression, and various national or international mechanisms of protection were engaged. The incidence of minorities was recognized to only a limited degree under the system of protection of minorities devised by the League of Nations (see Introduction to Eastern Europe): Austria and Finland came under the aegis of the League but not other Western states. A policy of Italianization could therefore be followed by Fascist Italy without attracting significant international condemnation. The assumption was that the Western European states had reached such a standard of civilization that their humanitarian standards were beyond the reach of criticism — unlike the hapless states of Eastern Europe who could not be trusted to respect human rights.

Nazi treatment of the Jews and other groups changed this perception. On the continent of Europe, the response involved both the entrenchment of universal human rights and special measures of protection for particular groups. The protection of the rights of minorities in Europe is attempted through a variety of general and specific international instruments and general and specific constitutional provisions. Postwar Europe has also seen a rise in minority consciousness and the development of local and transnational groupings to promote popular awareness and articulate grievances. The slow though not painless growth of states always claimed its victims. Minorities have reacted to threats to their existence and identity as discrete groups and have refused to merge or be submerged in the social whole whose boundary is the state. The development of supranational organizations like the European Communities has appeared to some as heralding the demise of the nation-state and this too has increased awareness of the cultural and spiritual potential of a specific identity within the larger complex.

The minorities reviewed are basically of three kinds. The smaller linguistic and cultural groups in Europe are numerous and very self-conscious. They make demands for recognition on the part of states and are recognized in many cases. Europe also contains minorities belonging to the category of indigenous peoples and their treatment may be instructively compared with that elsewhere. The Roma or Gypsy population represent a third category by which European pretensions may be judged. They are scattered over the various states and are subjected to different legal and social regimes, but frequent injustice. Their freedom of movement, an inherent component of their culture, is difficult to accommodate within the settled territoriality of the nation-state.

Instruments on Minority Rights

The European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedom does not contain an article providing positive rights to minorities; instead, there is a basic provision on non-discrimination in Article 14: “The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms ... in this Convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.” Attempts to insert a more specific article in the Convention were not successful. The non-binding but influential Helsinki Final Act outlines a specific but weak article on minorities in its “Declaration on Principles”: “The participating States on whose territories national minorities exist will respect the right of persons belonging to such minorities to equality before the law, will afford them the full opportunity for the actual enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms and will, in this manner, protect their legitimate interests in this sphere.” The opening qualification on the “existence” of minorities is unhelpful, since it could function as an invitation to states to deny their presence in the state. Also, the protection of minorities is confined to “national” groups, which is perhaps even more uncertain in meaning than “ethnic” or “racial”, but may imply some narrowing of scope. The limited obligations represented in the Final Act are considerably strengthened by the 1988 Concluding Document of the Vienna Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (see Appendix 3.1) which places emphasis on effective implementation of rights including freedom of religion and the rights of national minorities. Despite weakness in the documents, it is instructive nonetheless that Western Europe has overlapping international instruments on minorities — in addition to the general international treaties on human rights on which the record of European acceptance is commendable.

Additionally, some minority groups are the beneficiaries of specific treaties and arrangements in the manner of the nineteenth and previous centuries. These exist in relation to South Tyrol (Austria/Italy), Danes in Germany and Germans in Denmark (Denmark/Germany), Croats and Slovenes in Austria (Austrian State Treaty), Northern Ireland (Anglo-Irish Agreement), and the Aaland Islanders of Finland (Finland/Sweden). Forms of linguistic and cultural autonomy and rights of representation on behalf of minorities are provided by the treaties which in general reflect the interests of kin-states of the minorities in question. Such treaties are not specific to Europe (see, for example, Introduction to South Asia), but are characteristic. They may make a contribution to the stabilization of some situations but have had only limited success in defusing conflict (see South Tyrol and Northern Ireland).

Besides treaty guarantees on minorities, Western Europe displays a range of constitutional arrangements to incorporate minorities into the life of nations. Linguistic, cultural and political autonomy within essentially unitary states, federalism, specific regimes for language speakers in education and public life short of autonomy, laws forbidding discrimination, are all represented. Some arrangements test the fabric of a coherent, integrated state. The new Constitution of Belgium (finally effective in 1989) divides the nation into the autonomous regions of Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels: the basis of the division is linguistic, between Dutch- and French-speaking groups, with the capital Brussels as the third, bilingual autonomous zone. The whole intention of the division into language communities is to maintain cultural distinctiveness even at the expense of individual choice. The territorial principle is dominant: the rights of the individual do not altogether depend on preferences but on geographic location. The effect of a complicated bifurcation of rights is that each linguistic community is treated as a corporate entity with its own rights. Effects reach from the level of government to the level of the individual. The case of Switzerland is another extreme example of coping with linguistic particularism. The 25 cantons have different cultural and religious characteristics, but even these have minorities within their borders, and cultural sovereignty reaches down to the village level. This paradigm of the importance of local identity in state organization does not always remove disaffection: the Jurassien separatists of the 1960s and ’70s fought a public campaign to free themselves from the canton of Bern, adopting the tested techniques of liberation movements in the wider world.

Spain and Italy, two states with centralist traditions, have attempted to combine national unity with a commitment to a high degree of linguistic/cultural autonomy for particular groups. The Spanish Constitution of 1978 expresses the view that: “The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, the common and indivisible country of all Spaniards, and recognizes and guarantees the right to self-government of nationalities and regions of which it is composed and solidarity amongst them all.” Article 3(3) expresses a theorem which many have tried to argue in relation to minorities: that they help to consolidate rather than threaten the nation: “The wealth of the different language variations of Spain is a cultural heritage which shall be the object of special respect and protection.” Self-governing communities in Spain, including the Basque country (Euskadi) and Catalonia, exercise a broad range of functions within their territorial bases, including linguistic and cultural rights. The elaboration of these rights rests on specific autonomy statutes. Italy is in concept a unitary state with substantial devolution. Article 5 of the Constitution describes a “Republic . . . one and indivisible . . .”. It is nonetheless a Republic which recognizes and promotes local autonomy. Article 116 recognizes regional autonomy in accordance with special statutes for Sardinia, Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, Val D’Aosta and Sicily. The background is a general Rights of Man constitution. Ethnic identity in Italy is sometimes as important as membership of the wider Italian community: in the South Tyrol, identity governs which school a child attends, access to employment in public administration, housing, and the qualifications of candidates for elections.

Treatment of minorities

Whatever the limits of local control for particular minorities, the recognition of a group by the state is an important step towards recognition of cultural pluralism. Many groups do not, however, benefit from such initiatives. France is a state which has maintained a centralist tradition largely intact to the detriment of groups such as the Bretons whose identity would be better recognized in almost any other European state. Recognition of the Saami in the north of Europe is a state-dependent variable. Territorial concentration of minorities is an important preliminary to recognition — witness the precarious position of sometimes nomadic Roma.

Constitutional developments and experiments have proceeded apace especially since World War II. It is not inconceivable that further constitutional innovations will address the problems of groups outside the purview of the contemporary developments. Many of Europe’s minorities remain under threat. Processes of assimilation pose constant questions on how the integrity of cultures can be maintained. In the main, assimilation has been abandoned as official state policy, but smaller groups may be unable to command the resources necessary for the preservation of language and culture. Larger groups may have larger ambitions, and display extremes of militancy. At one end of the spectrum, the politics of ETA and the IRA challenges the state in the name of self-determination. It is not clear if their activities “colour” perceptions of the legitimacy of minorities’ grievances in general, but there is always that danger. The contemporary European experience displays some of the virtues of accommodation between state and minority, and some of its limitations.

Aaland Islanders




Belgium: Flemings, Walloons and Germans



Ceuta and Melilla


Croats of Austria

Danes of West Germany

Faroe Islanders



Gaelic Speakers of Scotland


Germans of Denmark


Greeks, Croatians and Albanians of Italy

Jurassians of Switzerland

Ladins of Italy


Northern Ireland

Protestants of Eire

Roma in Western Europe

Romantsch Speakers of Switzerland



Slovenes of Austria

Slovenes of Italy

South Tyroleans