Arduous path for protection of languages in Europe evident as Minority Safepack citizens’ initiative is shelved (for a while)

Civil society organization FUEN to wait to submit signatures until next term over “mistrust” towards European Commission · Inter-state tensions play role in problem

Boxes with signatures collected in Hungary.
Boxes with signatures collected in Hungary. Author: FUEN
A European citizens’ initiative (ECI) calling for enhanced protection for minoritised languages and cultures in the EU will be shelved at least until the next term. The Federal Union of European Nationalities (FUEN), which launched the ECI, says “mistrust” exists over the real intentions of the current European Commission in relation to the Minority Safepack initiative. The story shows how, once again, civil society organizations meet serious obstacles in promoting the linguistic rights of speakers of minoritised languages.

Minority Safepack collected 1.2 million signatures from March 2017 to March 2018, of which 1.1 million were valid.

Having cleared ECI requirements, FUEN sought that the Commission accepted its proposal to start a European legislative procedure —via Parliament or via Council— for the EU to provide a legal basis to promote minoritised languages in areas such as public services, the media, state and sub-state policies, education and culture.

But in a statement last week, FUEN announced it would wait to submit the signatures until the next European term “following the European Commission’s refusal to have a dialogue on the Minority Safepack Initiative.” FUEN wished to meet Commission representatives before submitting the signatures, in order to explore whether the EU institution was ready to bring forward the ECI’s proposals. But according to FUEN, Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans has sent them a letter saying that he would only meet the organization after it had submitted the signatures.

Mistrust over a process got off on the wrong foot

Nationalia has talked to both FUEN and the Commission to clarify the scope of such discrepancies. FUEN President Loránt Vincze says that the organization has a feeling of “mistrust” mainly based “on the general refusal of the European Commission to discuss any issues regarding minorities and also the lack of action on their part with the first four successful ECI.” In light of this, “we would have liked to have a preliminary discussion with the Commission because we want to make sure that the Minority Safepack initiative gets a better treatment, serious consideration and proposal regarding the adoption of legal acts.” According to Vincze, FUEN has to do “everything in its power to reach our ultimate goal, to have laws in the European Union which protect and support minority culture and language.”

Meanwhile, the Commission refers to its decision of 29 March 2017, in which it gave ECI promoters green light to collect the signatures. In the decision, the EU institution accepted that the ECI included 9 of 11 FUEN’s original demands for legal acts of the Union to support minoritised languages. The remaining two legal acts, according to the Commission, were outside the scope of EU’s powers, and therefore could not be included in the ECI.

Commission sources tell Nationalia that jurisdictional limits between the European institutions on the one hand and member states on the other often emerge as one of the problematic aspects on whether the EU can legislate or not in a specific field. The same sources deny that a “general rejection” of the Commission towards the Minority Safepack exists, and further say that, as per EU rules, ECI promoters are only invited to meet Commission representatives after signatures have been submitted. They also hold that Timmermans has an “absolute readiness” to meet Minority Safepack promoters in that event.

Besides this, the Minority Safepack ECI process was born with problems. Being first registered as an ECI in July 2013 —it was at this point that the 11 demands aforementioned were listed—, in September the same year the Commission refused to register it, arguing that the matters proposed fell outside EU powers.

ECI promoters appealed to the Court of Justice of the EU, which in February 2017 ruled in their favour for 9 of the 11 areas. According to the court, the Commission's arguments for not accepting to register the ECI were “manifestly inadequate” by not clearly explaining which of the proposals did not fall within its powers, and what was the reason for that.

In view of this, the Commission finally agreed that FUEN proceeded with the ECI, but —as Vincze also admits— these facts helped to fuel the organization’s distrust of the Commission.

Disagreement between member states

Other sources familiar to the whole process tell Nationalia that two other, intertwined facts must be taken into account to better understand the whole picture.

The first one, “clearly there is no willingness on the part of the Commission to do anything that could lead to a conflict with member states.” This is linked to a long-standing perception among European organizations in defense of minoritised languages: the Union's determination to protect those languages has declined if compared to earlier times.

The second one, “we must not forget the decisive support of the Hungarian government for the signature collection to be successful.” Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had called on Hungary’s citizens to sign the ECI “in order to protect the rights of Hungarians beyond the borders” of the country. Indeed, almost half of the signatures were collected in Hungary. “In that,” the same sources say, “the Commission sees a potential problem over the fact that countries such as Romania or Slovakia” —in which large Hungarian communities live— “could understand Minority Safepack provisions as an interference.” This, “despite the fact that, in reality, the ECI is just proposing very basic rights.” In the proceedings before the Court of Justice, ICE promoters received support from Hungary, while Slovakia and Romania sided with the Commission.

Being asked on this, Vincze —who is also one of the leaders of pro-autonomy party Democratic Alliance of Hungarians of Romania— prefers not to insist much on the subject of Slovak and Romanian opposition: “We aim to convince a critical mass of the states. I am certain the others will follow and accept our proposals.” Vincze believes not too much focus should be put on the Hungarian issue alone, as he underlines, “for example, the support of all the German communities from the EU member states.”

Faced with the evidence that state nationalism is strengthening and that authoritarian discourses are again emerging, Vincze admits that “Europe is changing” but holds that “the direction of these changes is up to us, European citizens. We have to make our voices heard, we have to be there when decisions are taken. There is hope that our adversaries might change their minds.”

Better options after the 2019 election?

The ICE is now shelved, FUEN waiting to submit the signatures when a new Commission holds office after the 2019 election. Vincze is optimistic: “We are in contact with many decision makers and experts, and it looks like there is a general consensus among them that the next Commission can only be better than the present one.” FUEN president further says that the organization will seize the opportunity of the election campaign for “lobbying and trying to convince as many political actors, parties, governments, candidates as possible to support our cause. We want to include the issue of minority protection in the European debate, to make it a campaign topic. We think we can influence the mindset of the next Commission.”