Territory and history

Last week we looked at the predicament of Hong Kong, and the Chinese government’s apparent will to tear up its treaty obligations in order to enforce its sovereignty there. But Hong Kong is far from the only place where territorial concerns and self-determination are topical issues.

Readers may well have seen some of the coverage given last week to the centenary of the Treaty of Trianon (here’s the BBC report), in which the victors in the First World War carved up historic “great” Hungary – what had been half of the Austro-Hungarian empire – and reduced it to the smallish central European state that we’re familiar with.

Hungary’s authoritarian government under prime minister Viktor Orbán has made a big deal of the anniversary, using it to stoke a sense of national grievance for its own political purposes. At the same time Orbán firmly disclaims any intention of revisiting the treaty’s results, saying “This is not about turning back the clocks or questioning borders.”

There’s nothing new about Orbán’s troublemaking. Back in 2011, his government legislated to make Hungarian citizenship available to descendants of former Hungarian citizens in the lost territories, provoking some alarm among the country’s neighbors.

But the thing about self-determination is that it should be available to everyone regardless of their politics. And Hungary’s grievances with Trianon are not imaginary. While it was certainly necessary for Hungary to be truncated, the process did involve many ethnic Hungarians being transferred to other countries, even where in some areas they amounted to a clear majority – and still do.

So it would be entirely logical for a small strip of south-western Ukraine, a slightly larger strip of southern Slovakia and a small area of northern Serbia to be returned to Hungary. (Here’s a map of the ethnic makeup at the end of the Communist period.) But no-one in Europe wants to contemplate such revisions, for fear of where the process might end.

The really troublesome case is Transylvania, the historic region of Hungary that was given to Romania. Its majority was (and is) ethnically Romanian, but there are a large number of ethnic Hungarians as well. The problem is that the biggest concentration of them, including the two counties where they form a majority, is well away from the Hungarian border, preventing any simple idea of partition.

Romanian president Klaus Iohannis got into trouble last month for using fears of the Hungarian minority as a political weapon, and was fined by the slightly Orwellian-sounding National Council for Combating Discrimination. But post-Communist Romania has done better than a lot of countries in promoting national reconciliation, and its Hungarians are sufficiently numerous that they can wield some political power.

There’s no substitute for real self-determination: if the Hungarian-majority area wants to leave Romania and become a detached part of Hungary, even under Orbán’s rule, it should be allowed to. But in the circumstances it’s probably not a bad thing for its people to set themselves more modest goals.

And talking of self-determination, it would be remiss not to mention another anniversary: it’s 250 years this week since the Spanish expelled a British settlement from the Falkland Islands and temporarily took control of the whole archipelago – one of the precedents that Argentina, Spain’s successor in title, relies on in claiming the islands for itself.

Globally, Spain at the time was no match for British power, so the following year the Spanish backed down and the two went back to sharing the islands, with each reserving its claim to full sovereignty. The British garrison left in 1774, without relinquishing its claim; the Spanish did the same in 1811, and the islands remained unoccupied for a decade or so until the newly-independent Argentina starting trying to assert control.

Those attempts were halted in 1833 when Britain expelled the Argentinians and took full control of the islands, which, apart from a few months in 1982, it has retained ever since.

With a historical record as long and as murky as this, it seems clear to me that the wishes of the current inhabitants should be given more weight. As I put it a few years ago:

Whatever the rights or wrongs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Falklanders are there now, and have been for a long time. Certainly they should aim for reconciliation with Argentina as much as is possible, but Argentina should also start by recognising that the rights of the inhabitants cannot just be imagined away.

And there’s no room doubt about what the islanders think, since at that time they had just voted 99.8% in a referendum to say they wanted to stay British. Which means they’re probably not having much of a celebration for this week’s anniversary.

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