Nations, states and stateless nations

Why talk of “stateless nations” rather than “national minority”? The term “stateless nations” largely transcends that of “minority” which is often very restrictive and perceived in a derogatory manner. The term “minority” defines a state relative to a majority. However, it does not refer specifically to what it aspires to be, that is to say a minority people with the characteristics of a nation without having the attributes of a sovereign state. Accordingly, defining the terms “nation” and “stateless nation” seems essential.

In the beginning, the tribe?

“Minority” refers to many terms which often have political overtones. Whenever one speaks of “minority”, one often thinks of tribes and ethnicities. In fact tribe is a type of minority, more specifically qualified as indigenous or first people. Also, these minorities can be native or foreign.

The nation, a dual concept

The nation, for its part, is a human community having the belief of belonging to the same group. It falls within defined geographical boundaries. Thus, numerous minorities are defined as people or nations. The distinctive characteristics of a nation are language, culture, religion, history… In contrast, certain nations recognise themselves without being homogenous. In fact, even if language constitutes one of the corner stones of nations, some are multilingual (and respect this fact) or they are comprised of distinct religious communities.

The Council of Europe tried to find a consensus definition of the concept of nation. This exercise is complicated where, according to the languages and the states, this word is perceived differently. Certain countries use it to define their citizenship, i.e. the legal relationship between citizens and the state. Others use it in the sense of a united ethnolinguistic community.

In Latin, however, the word “natio” is derived from “nascere” (to be born). It was used in the Middle Ages to describe membership of a community. In the 18th century, this concept evolved into being related to a community of individuals enjoying equal rights independent of ethnic origin. This concept is very close to the definition of the State-nation or civic nation. In contrast, the notion of the cultural nation is, for its part, a concept defining the nation as a homogenous ethno-linguistic entity.

In its conclusions concerning the definition of the term “nation”, the Council of Europe considers that these two definitions are “once again valid today”. True, but can we compel a community to accept these two definitions? In fact, the text of the Council of Europe quotes from Ernest Renan, a Breton author considered to be one of the theoreticians of the nation. “‘The Nation’ is a daily plebiscite”. This sentence sums up the situation. We cannot force people to live in a state without their consent and, worse, make them deny their own identity in order to be a citizen of that state, such as the Kurds in Turkey.

The state and state-nation

The state is a form of political organisation, based by nature on the sovereignty of the nation. The state is the setting in which the people or the nations can legislate and vote for their own territorial laws. The state-nation characterises a sovereign state constituted objectively or artificially by a desire to live together. We can distinguish between the state-nation and the nation-state. The state-nation can enforce a national feeling. France, Greece and Turkey correspond to the archetypeal state-nation. Conversely, a group can be recognised as a nation and manifest its desire to live together in establishing a state, which we would call a nation-state.

Stateless nations

A stateless nation is a non-sovereign nation with no state structures. Its people often live in varying degrees of attachment to their original nation. Thus there exists in all the stateless nations feelings of identity that can be qualified as contradictory.

  • Certain people do not exclusively feel part of their nation of origin.
  • Others, on the contrary, exclusively feel they are members of the state of which they are citizens.
  • Finally, a fraction of the population is often divided by two identities, the citizenship acquired by the state and the nationality which attaches it to the nation of origin. Indeed, strictly speaking, citizenship is the link which heightens the authority of the state, contrary to nationality, which is relative to the feeling of belonging to a community in a nation (without necessarily being a constituted state).

From nation to nationalism

Nationalism is the expression which consists of imposing one’s view of the world. It is expressed either by the desire to impose one vision of the nation, the so-called negative nationalism, or it can be characterised by the desire to assert one’s existence as a nation. This is positive nationalism. These claims may lead to two scenarios: the introduction of a regional autonomy system or the desire for self-determination.


Autonomy allows people to have their own powers and to legislate. Autonomy is characterised by devolution, i.e. the transfer of powers from central state to a more local level. Thus Catalonia, the Basque Country, Scotland or, to a lesser degree, Friesland and Sardinia are today autonomous regions. Unfortunately, many people do not have any status to express their individuality. This is particularly the case of the stateless nations present in France, such as Brittany, Alsace and Corsica, or Kashubia in Poland.


More radical forms of demands can be expressed, such as the quest for independence, i.e. the total detachment from the central state. This is separatism or secessionism. Despite its often sustained character, this is recognised by international law. The right to self-determination is written in the UN Charter, whose objective is “to develop friendly relations among nations based on the principle of equal rights of people and their right to self-determination”. In the English version, the term “self-determination” is more explicit.

Ethnocentrism, no to dialogue!

Others consider that this right corresponds to communitarianism or ethocentricism, i.e. the desire to live closed in on oneself and to refuse the dogma of the indivisible state. Denying the existence of minorities, identities and regional languages tends to impose a sectarian and imperial vision of the nation.