Article 22 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union stipulates that “The Union shall respect cultural, religious and linguistic diversity.” Furthermore, Article I of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (which has been ratified by nearly all European countries) stipulates that “The protection of national minorities and of the rights and freedoms of persons belonging to those minorities forms an integral part of the international protection of human rights, and as such falls within the scope of international co-operation.” Both of these important European documents make it clear that Europe has acknowledged its responsibility to protect the rights of national minorities. But before we move any further, what exactly is a national minority?
A national minority is a group that identifies as being separate from the majority in a country due to ethnic, religious, or linguistic reasons. These minorities often criss-cross country borders, reflecting the complicated mosaic of identities that make up Europe. Some examples include: the Basques in France and Spain, German-Austrians in Italy, Romansh in Switzerland, and Székelys (Szeklers) in Romania. All in all, there are dozens upon dozens of national minorities of various kinds that can be found in Europe, and the extent and type of minority rights that they have are just as varied. In the case of the German-Austrians, their region of South Tyrol enjoys a unique form of autonomy within the Italian state, and the Romansh language is recognized as one of the official languages of Switzerland. The case of the Basques is slightly more complicated, as in Spain they have their own autonomous province, while in France they have very few language rights and are constantly under pressure to assimilate. The Székely minority of Romania does have certain language and cultural rights, but any move towards regional autonomy has been met with strong opposition from the majority.
It is for this reason that the Székely (Szekler) National Council, a body with the goal of achieving autonomous region within Romania, launched the European Movement for Protecting National Regions, a European Citizens’ Initiative. Its purpose is to increase the rights of national minorities at the European level by increasing the availability of cohesion funds for such national regions, with national regions broadly meaning areas inhabited by national minorities. To put it in simpler terms, this would allow for national minorities to directly apply for EU funding.
The initiative requires 1 million signatures across Europe, with at least 7 countries reaching a certain threshold. If reached, the issue will be brought before the European Commission. This initiative is important, because currently nearly all EU cohesion funds are routed through national channels, meaning that country governments have the final say on funding allocation. Often, this means that funds either serve purely economic motives, or the interests of the majority. Especially where countries have a history of conflict with their national minorities, it is not far-fetched to assume that they will be less than enthusiastic to fund such minorities. Therefore, it is necessary that such national regions be preserved by making EU funding available for them.
Without straying too deep into this mess of a topic, it has recently become apparent that the European Union stands at a sort of crossroads when it comes to identity. At the one extreme, there is the idea that individual national identities must give way to a hegemonic pan-European one. On the other hand, there is the concept of the Europe of Nations, emphasizing the sovereignty of individual member states in the face of federalization. Yet neither truly reflects reality, because such a pluralistic federation cannot exist without protecting national minorities, and we must also recognize that Europe’s “nations” do not correspond to existing borders at all. The EU officially recognizes 24 languages, but the number of native European languages numbers closer to 100!
Therefore, it is clear that for a pan-European identity to exist, we must also preserve the myriad of identities that exist outside of the handful that are officially recognized. Providing national regions with their own sources of funding would be a massive boost to the preservation of ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity within the European Union. Our motto is “United in diversity”, after all.
In the featured photo illustration: Szekler girls in Csíkszereda. Photo by Nándor Veres/MTI