MINELRES: Fwd: RFE/RL Feature Article: Minority Protection -- Initiative Seeks To Set Higher Standards

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RFE/RL: Feature Article: Wednesday, 16 June 2004

EU: Minority Protection -- Initiative Seeks To Set Higher Standards
(Part 1)

By Breffni O'Rourke

Just six weeks after the European Union's historic enlargement, a group
of experts is appealing to EU heads of state and government to do more
to protect ethnic minorities. They fear the preservation of Europe's
scores of minority cultures could be neglected as the bloc absorbs new
members from Central and Eastern Europe. In their Bolzano Declaration,
the experts call for measures that could influence minority protection
well beyond the EU's borders. RFE/RL reports in the first of a two-part
series.

Prague, 16 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- If you happen to be from the Cornwall
region of southwestern England, you probably know a few people who still
speak the ancient Cornish language.

Likewise, if you come from Spain's Galicia region, some of your older
relatives may possibly speak Galician, but they don't know how to write
it. Your children, by contrast, may be taking lessons in the local
tongue, but rarely bother to use it.

These are just two examples of ancient European cultures on the brink of
extinction. Now, a group of experts from across the European Union has
started an initiative to ensure that Europe's scores of minorities are
not thinned out or washed away entirely by the pressures of modern life.

The initiative, called the Bolzano Declaration, is aimed not just at
preserving disappearing cultures. It also seeks to improve the lives of
those minorities that are often today at the center of controversy, such
as Europe's Muslim communities and the Roma and Sinti populations.

The panel of 16 experts has appealed to the heads of state and
government of all 25 EU member states to take steps to improve minority
protection and cultural diversity. They note that EU authorities took an
active role in improving the conditions of minorities in the 10
accession countries in the years when these states were negotiating
their entry.

But the experts say in their Bolzano Declaration
(http://www.eurac.edu/pecede) that there is no longer the same "coaching
process" continuing on minority rights now that the accession countries
are safely in the EU.

The rapporteur for the expert group is Gabriel von Toggenburg of the
European Academy in Bolzano, Italy. As he explains, "There are two
reasons why one has to push now for cultural and ethnic diversity within
the Union. The first one is that after [the accession of new members on]
1 May, the question arises whether the union will uphold the strong
momentum in the area of minority protection which has been developed
during the accession process. Or whether the union -- and more so, the
member states -- decide by consensus that they will 'escape' to a sort
of inactive policy, which would see the union retreat from this area of
policy," von Toggenburg says.

The second reason for launching the initiative, says Toggenburg, is that
the EU leaders are about to make a fresh effort to finalize an EU
constitution, and the Bolzano Declaration calls for extra safeguards to
be built into that document.

The chances for the declaration look good. The EU's Irish presidency
announced on 13 May that there "seems to be a likelihood of broad
consensus" to include the protection of minorities under the list of
values the EU and its member states are founded upon, according to
Article 2 of the new constitution.

However, the declaration goes further than that. It calls also for
inserting a clause in the constitution that allows for affirmative
actions at the national level. This would give member states the
possibility to prevent or compensate minorities for disadvantages they
might suffer or might have suffered in the past, without putting the
principles of the EU's common market into doubt.

The task of minority protection is not a small one, considering that
there are nearly 50 million people who belong to some 150 minority
groups in the EU -- out of a total population of 450 million people.

An official with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe
(OSCE), Neil Melvin, notes a certain paradox in the situation. Because
of the demands of the EU accession process, some of the eastern
accession states now have higher standards for minority protection than
the old EU members.

"Indeed, what has often happened is that it's not just a transfer from
west to east of standards, but also sometimes a transfer the other way
-- of positive experience in eastern countries to which perhaps not all
countries in the EU had signed up to," Melvin says.

Another OSCE official, Sally Holt, points out the international
implications of any move to improve EU standards.

"The development of any standards for the protection of human rights and
minority rights generally is a positive thing. And as the EU expands,
these developments are good not only for the EU states, the members, but
also for the states on the Union's borders. And obviously, due to the
enlargement process, the number of countries affected is becoming larger
and larger."

(The second article in this series examines the potential impact of
improved EU minority protection on outside countries, notably the
Central Asian states.)