The Autonomy Concept

The Autonomy Concept

The Autonomy Concept

It has to be emphasized at the outset that the aim of this brief introduction into the various types of autonomies is not to break new ground in terms of theorizing this phenomenon, but to provide a working definition for the purpose of this online tool.

Any autonomy arrangement requires a state which – due to various circumstances: historical legacies, geopolitical rationale, security concerns, commitment to fairness, justice or preservation of diversity – is willing to share part of its autonomous powers (Mann 1986) with one or more sub-state entities (Suksi 2011). The sub-state entity regularly emerges due to political mobilization of a part of the state's population interested in the maintenance of the ethnic, linguistic, religious, cultural, legal or regional characteristics which single out the respective population segment, either within a territorial unit, or without a territorial basis. In other words, diversity is not merely a reality, but also has political salience (Choudhry 2008). It forms the basis for political mobilization which leads to quasi political communities (Bauböck 2008) which claim recognition and institutional arrangements providing for a certain degree of self-rule. The outcome of the whole arrangement is a redefined political community within which attempts are made to reconcile democracy with diversity, and the principle of self-determination is not monopolized.

Two important institutional preconditions of any autonomy arrangement follow from here: official recognition and empowerment, both being seen as critical for self-perpetuation. Official recognition presupposes the establishment of the sub-state entity as a territorial-administrative unit, a legal person (under public or private law) or a set of institutions with a clear legal standing and guaranteed funding. The institutional arrangements providing for limited self-rule can vary from internal self-determination (the quasi political communities give themselves their own law), through limited self-governance (the devolved power to take decisions of executive nature within the limits of the law established on the level of the state), to self-management (of the institutions of interest from the point of view of self-perpetuation like schools, media and cultural institutions, bodies of local administration, hospitals, etc). While recognition is regularly clear-cut and entrenched in some sort of legal status, empowerment is often elusive which makes the boundaries of the autonomy concept rather vague. 

The institutional arrangements which result in the end can be classified in various ways, though the most widely used categories are often not mutually exclusive. The arrangements are regularly labeled as territorial (Benedikter 2009; Suksi 2011), personal (Renner 1899/2005), cultural (Eide 1998), or functional (Heintze 1998, Tkacik 2008). Though rarely included in the literature on autonomy arrangements, legal pluralism (Hooker 1975, Griffith 1986, Glenn 2000) is an important institutional arrangement based on the official recognition of parallel legal systems guiding the life of (quasi political) communities, both with or without territorial bases. The concept of institutional completeness (Breton 1964, Léger 2014) also seems to become increasingly relevant to the study of non-territorial autonomy arrangements. Consociational arrangements (Lijphart 1977, 2008) are seen sometimes as opposite to the logic of autonomy since they foster cooperation among elites across ethnic fault lines (Bauböck 2005). Consociationalism is often a supplement to territorial autonomy with power-sharing mechanisms established at the national level (e.g. Switzerland and Canada), at the subnational level (e.g. South Tyrol or Northern Ireland) or as in Belgium at both levels (McGarry-O'Leary 1993; Wolff 2009). The above-mentioned categories are often overlapping or have a complementary role in the various institutional setups functioning in different regions of the world.

The success of any autonomy arrangement can be measured with the help of two major indicators: the impact on the stability of the overall arrangement and the contribution to the desired self-perpetuation of the target group. Stability is fostered if the overall political community succeeds to integrate the officially recognized sub-state entities into a joint political project supported by the constituent quasi political communities, reflected by the fact that the political agents acting on behalf of those constituencies lose interest in external self-determination. Though the success or failure of self-perpetuation is often self-evident, it is yet an open question whether autonomy arrangements can prevent, on the long run, the disappearance of various non-dominant communities in different parts of the world.

1. Territorial Autonomy

​For the purpose of this online tool, territorial autonomy (TA) is defined as asymmetrical or symmetrical self-government of a territorial entity within a state, which is characterized by substantial ethno-cultural and/or territorial diversity. This working definition derives from responses to three key questions.

HOW is self-government exercised? The asymmetrical design of territorial self-government within a state is what ultimately differentiates TA in a strict sense from TA in a broad sense. The latter encompasses self-government of territorial entities in the context of any form of vertical division of powers. Thus, it also includes, for instance, the autonomy of the German Länder within a symmetrical federal state. For our purposes, by contrast, we use TA in a narrower sense to identify one or more specific territorial entities, which have within their respective state a special status. This means that they either are the only self-governing entities (e.g. the Åland Islands) or enjoy a higher degree of self-government than the average entity (e.g. South Tyrol). TA in this narrow sense is inherently asymmetrical because it is often a solution, which is bilaterally negotiated by representatives of the central government and of the territory in question, and thus tailored to a specific case, in which diversity had become politically salient.

WHY self-government? The ultimate driver for institutionalizing TA is commonly cultural and/or territorial diversity. In the minority discourse, the emphasis is placed, quite understandably, on the first dimension. Such a focus on cultural diversity covers, indeed, most of the complex reality of TA arrangements concluded as a response to politically salient diversity. In practice, however, TA also includes cases, in which territorial diversity, most prominently the remoteness of an area, has acted as a key driver in conjunction with cultural diversity (e.g. Greenland) or even without it (e.g. Madeira).

WHO exercises self-government? In any event, even if politically salient cultural diversity is the raison d'être of many TA regimes, the subject of self-government is always the entire population of a territorial entity. This distinguishes TA fundamentally from non-territorial autonomy, whose subject is by definition, and by its very name, defined in a non-territorial way, i.e. according to the principle of personality or on a functional basis, as a group of people. That TA aims at self-government of the whole population of a territorial entity is overlooked when this tool is perceived as a means of empowering exclusively a culturally distinct national minority, which forms in this entity a regional majority. This perception negates the fact that self-governing territories are in many cases just as culturally diverse as the whole country and themselves characterized by the presence of "internal minorities" (e.g. Italian-speakers and Ladin-speakers in South Tyrol). The roots of this narrow view lie in a notion of historically justified "ownership" of the autonomous territory and, as a consequence, of territorially-based power by the regional majority. It is challenged by the opposite view that TA is to comprise mechanisms of sharing autonomous power between the regional majority and minorities.

2. Non-Territorial Autonomy

We define non-territorial autonomy (NTA) as self-rule of a group of persons, through a sub-state entity with a non-territorial character, in matters considered vital for the maintenance and reproduction of their culturally distinctive features. These distinctive features may refer to the language, culture, religions or customs of the concerned groups. Just like in the case of TA, the constitutive elements of NTA can be derived from responses to the same three questions.

HOW is self-government exercised? NTA is inherently an asymmetric arrangement. NTA involves the creation of structures (legal entities) or institutions providing services for the minorities which are inexistent in the case of the titular majority, since mainstream national institutions are performing, in their case, the respective tasks. However, as opposed to territorial arrangements, which are self-governing entities within the state with strong singular characteristics, non-territorial autonomies following the same pattern are often granted to all recognized minorities of the state, and usually there are no asymmetries between the competences they wield.  As far as the agent of the self-rule is concerned, NTA may be defined according to the personality principle (Renner, 1899/2005) or according to a functional logic (Heintze 1998, Tkacik 2008). If the personality principle is the driving logic of the arrangement, the agent of self-rule can be a legal entity registered under public or private law. However, in order to qualify as NTA, the right to self-rule must reach beyond the freedom of association (Eide et al. 1998, Benedikter 2010). If the functional logic prevails, a network of minority serving institutions (schools, cultural or media institutions, public administration bodies, courts, hospitals, etc) are the agents of self-rule – rather self-management, in this case – which carry out a part of the state competences for the benefit of the particular target group.  NTA arrangements are regularly implemented either if territorial solutions are not feasible or deemed too costly to assume, or as complementary arrangements for a territorial solution.

WHY self-government? While TA may be granted to a territory also for other reasons than cultural diversity (e.g. geographic distance, historical circumstances), NTA is always institutionalized in order to manage some aspect of cultural diversity. Here, too, the desired outcome is the self-reproduction of the recognized group. It is not a mere coincidence that NTA arrangements are often referred to as cultural autonomy, because in most cases the competences transferred to the autonomous entity are in the domain of culture and education. Self-reproduction is particularly salient, for instance, with regard to language, which is often one of the core concerns of NTA arrangements, because the chances for long term survival of a language which is not dominant in certain territory are doomed to failure without proper institutional underpinning. The competences delegated by the state and exercised by the agent of the self-rule are seen as institutional guarantee of the desired outcome.

WHO exercises self-government? NTA is usually granted to communities living dispersed who share the territory with a dominant majority. Although NTA may be politically less costly than TA, it also faces some challenges regarding its practical implementation. The key issue of NTA is membership. The challenge is to reconcile the "ownership" and legitimacy of the autonomy (which require guarantees that only the members of the targeted group take part in the decision-making process) with the principle of freedom of identity. If the NTA is based on the personality principle, special lists may be necessary in order to determine who is entitled to vote for the elected bodies of the autonomy, which may involve the registration of every person within an ethnic group. In the case of functional autonomy, the target group is regularly easily singled out by the nature – in most cases: the language – of the delivered service. Self-rule, however, reflected in the ways in which governing bodies of the respective institutions are elected is more difficult to be articulated. In general, it is difficult to think of non-territorial arrangements capable to guarantee the the maintenance and reproduction of a group's culturally distinctive features if the jurisdiction of the arrangement is not clear and the legitimacy of the internal decision-making processes is not warranted.


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