“And as long as the minorities are happy in the country, we can be sure that the right solution is found.”
– Olivér Várhelyi, EU Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement
A highly anticipated seminar entitled “Minority Rights in the EU Enlargement Process” took place in Brussels and online on May 23, 2023. The event brought together experts, policymakers, and stakeholders to shed light on the impact of EU accession criteria on minority policies in candidate countries, political engagement in minority protection, and the perspective of minority communities in Ukraine. Diverse perspectives on this crucial topic were presented.
The program commenced with opening remarks from Loránt Vincze, MEP, Co-Chair of the Minority Intergroup and President of the Federal Union of European Nationalities (FUEN), and Francois Alfonsi, MEP, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Co-Chair of the Minority Intergroup. They emphasized the importance of safeguarding minority rights throughout the enlargement process.
A Focus on Ukraine
Overall, the seminar provided a platform for comprehensive discussions on minority rights within the EU enlargement process, with a focus on Ukraine. It highlighted the importance of continued efforts to protect and promote minority rights and the role of international cooperation in fostering inclusive societies.
The seminar recognized the recent developments in Ukraine’s EU accession process, including the presentation of Ukraine’s membership application on February 28, and the subsequent adoption of the Law of Ukraine on national minorities on December 13, 2022. In its opinion on the application, the Commission made several recommendations, including urging Ukraine to complete the reform of the legal framework for national minorities, as advised by the Venice Commission, and to establish implementation mechanisms.
In the seminar, particular attention was given to the ongoing assessment of the Law of Ukraine on national minorities by the Venice Commission, following a request from the Chairman of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Monitoring Committee. The draft opinion on the law will be submitted for adoption in early June. The seminar served as an opportunity to discuss the implications and challenges surrounding this topic and to explore potential ways forward.
Participants emphasized the importance of minority protection and promotion within the European Union, with the view that minority rights are human rights. The recognition of minority identity, language, and culture as integral components of a diverse society was highlighted. The majority culture and language were acknowledged as naturally dominant, while the preservation of minority identity required support, including legislative frameworks, institutions, and funding.
The bilateral implications of minority rights between Romania and Ukraine, and Hungary and Ukraine, were also discussed. It was recognized that these minority groups are not alone in their struggle, as many minority groups within Ukraine share similar aspirations regarding the protection of their identity. The seminar emphasized the importance of the state’s responsibility to support and protect minority rights and, when necessary, international organizations and states should intervene to ensure compliance with bilateral treaties and international commitments ratified by Ukraine.
Francois Alfonsi, MEP, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Co-Chair of the Minority Intergroup, highlighted the inclusion of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and the protection of minority communities as essential criteria within the enlargement process. He underscored the fundamental importance of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities in Eastern Europe and stressed the need for its reinforcement in the future of Europe. He recognized that the future of Europe will encompass countries with significant minority issues, citing Ukraine as an example. He acknowledged recognized the sensitivity of these issues, particularly in Russian-speaking territories in Eastern Ukraine, and the border regions with Western countries where Hungarian, Romanian, and other minority groups call home.
Next, Olivér Várhelyi, Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement, delivered the keynote speech, highlighting the EU’s perspective on minority rights in the enlargement process. Commissioner Várhelyi’s insights provided a comprehensive overview of the EU’s commitment to upholding and promoting minority rights during enlargement negotiations.
Commissioner Várhelyi emphasized that the European Union is founded on the principle of “united in diversity,” which extends to not only the different nations within Europe but also to the diverse minority communities throughout the EU.
Várhelyi emphasized that respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, and the rights of persons belonging to minorities are core values of the European Union; not only legally binding, but integral to the everyday sentiments and experiences of EU members. These values are enshrined in Article 2 of the EU treaty, demonstrating their fundamental importance. He also said the following: “As long as the minorities are happy in the country, we can be sure that the right solution is found.”
The Commissioner stressed the need for legislation that upholds and enforces these values, ensuring that minority rights are protected and promoted within the EU. He highlighted key principles such as non-discrimination, which includes protections for ethnic, racial, and religious minorities. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and various directives, such as the Race Equality Directive and the Employment Equality Directive, which serve as benchmarks for promoting equal treatment and protection of minority rights across the EU.
Regarding the EU enlargement process, Várhelyi emphasized that compliance with these values and requirements is essential for countries aspiring to become EU members. The Commission monitors and assesses the progress of candidate countries and potential candidates, examining their compliance with the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, among other aspects. The Commissioner stressed the importance of inclusive processes, involving partners, the Council of Europe, the Venice Commission, civil society organizations, and the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities.
Mr. Várhelyi highlighted the significance of regional cooperation and stability, particularly in the Western Balkans, where political tensions and the protection of minority rights are closely intertwined. He acknowledged the impact of Russia’s war against Ukraine on minority rights and expressed the EU’s commitment to supporting both Ukraine and its minorities. The Commissioner recognized the ongoing reforms in Ukraine related to minority rights and emphasized the need for continued efforts to address outstanding issues, such as education and language policies, as well as the implementation of the minority law. The Venice Commission’s opinion on the minority law will play a crucial role in Ukraine’s progress toward becoming an EU candidate country.
“For countries applying and aspiring to become members of the EU, we need to be very clear what the requirements are, and we also need them to demonstrate clearly that they are capable of ensuring the respect for these values and to enforce and implement these values not only when they become member, but also before they do.” – said Várhelyi.
Status of the Seven Candidate Countries Currently on the Accession Path
Tove H. Malloy, PhD, renowned professor of European Studies at Europa-Universität Flensburg and external lecturer in International Studies at Roskilde University, took the stage to discuss the impact of the accession criteria on the development of minority rights policies in candidate countries. Her expertise shed light on the challenges and opportunities that arise in the pursuit of harmonizing minority rights standards within the enlarged EU.
In her presentation, Professor Malloy emphasized that compliance with the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities is directly linked to EU membership. The Convention is legally binding, and participating states are subject to monitoring and scrutiny of their compliance.
Malloy discussed the seven candidate countries currently on the path towards EU membership, providing an overview of their progress in the areas of minority rights. She highlighted the Advisory Committee’s assessments for each country, pointing out areas where improvement is needed.
- Regarding active policies to integrate minorities, all candidate countries have adopted comprehensive laws on the rights of national minorities or ethnic communities. However, there are challenges in the practical implementation of these laws. The Venice Commission has provided reviews and recommendations on specific laws related to minority rights in some candidate countries.
- Language legislation is another important aspect. While some candidate countries have specific legislation on language, the ratification of the Council of Europe’s European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages varies among countries. Challenges exist in implementing language rights, including the enforcement of thresholds for language use, and the limited protection of certain minority languages.
- Malloy emphasized the importance of finding an appropriate balance between strengthening the state language and protecting the linguistic rights of Ukraine’s minorities. The Venice Commission has raised concerns about the language law in Ukraine and the need for an adequate balance in language policy:
“Moreover, concerns have been raised, of course, about the provision of education and languages of national minorities, support for national minority cultural institutions, and the ability to influence decision making at the local level. (…) In Ukraine the 2012 law on state languages was replaced with a new law in 2019, and the Venice Commission issued an opinion on that law. The Commission recognized that it is a legitimate aim of every state to strengthen the state language but emphasized the need t balance it with guarantees and measures for the protection of linguistic rights of Ukraine’s minorities.
This balance must not be unduly diminished to prevent language issues from becoming a source of interethnic tensions within Ukraine. However, none of the four Ukrainian texts assessed by the Venice Commission fully met this criterion, as stated in their 2019 opinion.
It is worth noting that Ukraine has undergone other reviews by the Venice Commission, including one in 2017 where the Commission concluded that Ukraine was not in compliance with language rights regarding the law on education.”
The seminar then focused on political engagement in minority protection with Željana Zovko, MEP, Vice-Chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Vice-Chair of the Delegation for relations with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, providing invaluable insight.
Željana Zovko acknowledged the importance of initiatives and resolutions focused on minority rights in the European Parliament playing a significant role in establishing peace and stability based on the rights of the smallest and weakest minority groups.
As a Croatian member of the European Parliament, Zovko has consistently advocated for the implementation of the Copenhagen Criteria and Council of Europe resolutions in candidate countries.
Zovko specifically highlighted the rights of the Croatian minority in Serbia, expressing concern that their rights are still not fully respected and protected. While some positive steps have been taken, such as the appointment of a representative from the Croatian minority as a minister, there is a need for the nondiscriminatory use of the Croatian language in the public sphere and education; as well as the preservation and promotion of Croatian culture, heritage, and tradition.
She also noted that additional efforts are required in Montenegro and Kosovo to ensure equal opportunities, nondiscrimination, and full participation of minority communities in all aspects of life.
In the Western Balkans, Zovko highlighted a challenge related to the legitimacy of representation within state institutions. She cited instances where a particular community exploits its numerical advantage to claim seats reserved for minorities, thus distorting the intended representation of minority communities. She called for efforts to address this issue and align policies with European standards.
Zovko concluded by urging the European Parliament to pro-actively develop a comprehensive approach to minority protection. She also highlighted the need to prevent the weaponization of minority rights by authoritarian regimes and emphasized the significance of respectful debates on these issues.
By respecting minority rights and engaging in constructive dialogue, Zovko believes that preventive diplomacy, peaceful enlargement in the Western Balkans, and the promotion of cultural diversity can be achieved, contributing to a peaceful and inclusive European Union.
EU enlargement from the perspective of national minorities in Ukraine was the next topic addressed. Aurika Bozhescu, Executive Secretary of the Romanian Community in Ukraine (CRU), and László Brenzovics, President of the Transcarpathian Hungarian Cultural Association (KMKSZ), shared their experiences and challenges faced by minority communities in Ukraine. Their contributions sparked thoughtful discussions on the role of minority rights in the EU enlargement process.
“The recent laws in Ukraine do not allow for this, nor do they promote it; in fact, the opposite is happening. We also observe that in Brussels, in many cases, there is a lack of awareness regarding the true situation of the Hungarian, Romanian, or Bulgarian minorities living in Ukraine and what is actually taking place. Therefore, it is important to draw attention to the oppressive laws and discriminatory practices and emphasize that only a Ukraine that respects fundamental human rights and views national minorities as equal citizens can join the European Union. Because if this were the case, these minority communities could become the most dedicated supporters of Ukraine’s European perspective. That is why it is crucial for the Ukrainian government, after receiving the opinion of the Venice Commission, to genuinely provide space for that opinion and ensure that the minority communities are satisfied with their situation,” underscored Brenzovics.
Following the presentations, a Q&A session allowed participants to engage with the speakers and delve deeper into the topics discussed. The interactive nature of the seminar facilitated an exchange of ideas and fostered a greater understanding of the complexities surrounding minority rights within the EU enlargement context.
As the event drew to a close, Michael Gahler, MEP, EPP Foreign Affairs Coordinator, presented his conclusions, summarizing the key takeaways from the seminar. Gahler’s insightful remarks highlighted the importance of continued efforts to ensure minority rights are central to the EU enlargement process.
Lastly, Kinga Gál, MEP, Member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Co-Chair of the Minority Intergroup, along with Andrea Bocskor, MEP, Substitute member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, delivered closing remarks. Their speeches emphasized the ongoing commitment of the Minority Intergroup to promoting and protecting minority rights within the EU enlargement process.
“The European Parliament and the most important institutions of the European Union should also get a clear picture of the level of support for Ukraine’s accession process among the national minority communities living in Ukraine. Despite the fact that the ongoing conflict has somewhat hindered minority protection, we believe that now is the most appropriate moment for addressing the issues and situation of minorities in a satisfactory manner within the accession process. Unfortunately, since 2017, we have witnessed a narrowing of minority rights in Ukraine, particularly in areas such as education, language use, representation, and other fields. Regrettably, there have also been several ethnically-motivated atrocities, which is highly unfortunate as minorities have always maintained a positive stance towards the majority; expect to be able to live and prosper in their homeland as equal citizens, free from discrimination,” affirmed Bocskor.
The event served as a platform for fostering greater awareness and understanding of the challenges and opportunities related to minority rights in the EU enlargement process. Experts, policymakers, and stakeholders provided a forum for constructive dialogue and the exchange of best practices. Participants came away with a renewed sense of urgency and determination to advocate for robust minority rights protections as the EU continues to expand. The knowledge and perspectives shared during the event will contribute to shaping future policies and strategies to address the concerns of minority communities.