Speech by Minister-President Heide Simonis

at the reception to mark the 5th anniversary of the European Centre for Minority Issues (ECMI). 30 November 2001, Sankelmark Academy

State Secretary Bjørnskov,
State Secretary Sonntag-Wolgast,
Director Weller,
Dr. Schöning,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

The fifth anniversary of an institution is not generally a reason to organize a big celebration with prominent guests from Germany and abroad. So if we are doing so nevertheless, the institution must be something very special. As special as the European Centre for Minority Issues - ECMI for short - whose "birthday" we are celebrating today.

ECMI is financed jointly by its three founders: the Kingdom of Denmark, the Federal Republic of Germany and the Land Schleswig-Holstein. But in this speech I shall avoid using the words "our Institute". Although as the Minister-President of Schleswig-Holstein I am very proud, of course, that ECMI was set up in our Land, in Flensburg! But from the very beginning the Institute was separate from the point of view of organization and independent in its work - especially where government policy is concerned. And that is how it must stay!

We politicians have been elected to office by a majority of our voters. Our policy must benefit the whole population. At first sight, that involves a risk that the interests of minorities will be overlooked. But we can approach the subject from another angle. A goal of European politics must be to encourage genuine policy on minorities. It must give the minorities freedom to live in accordance with their cultural, historic and religious identity. A difficult task that we have to face again and again in new contexts.

In Schleswig-Holstein we have already made good progress along this road. It is part of our political conception of ourselves that we pursue a wise policy on minorities, enabling people to live in peace, prosperity and cultural diversity. We have not forgotten the conflicts that were once typical of the relationship between the majority and minorities in our region as elsewhere. And in many parts of Europe conflicts and hatred are a sad reality to this day.

A centre that has to deal with as much restless and dangerous material as ECMI needs a really good location. Flensburg and the beautiful old Kompagnietor building, once a venue for maritime jurisdiction, is such a location - a peaceful meeting point for Danes and Germans and many European minorities as well. The atmosphere invites the search for solutions to conflicts that at first seem incapable of resolution.

It was Kurt Hamer, Schleswig-Holstein's first Border Region Commissioner, who gave rise to the idea for this centre. Shortly before his death on 3 January 1991, he sent a letter and a memorandum to my predecessor Björn Engholm and the Mayor of Sonderjylland suggesting the establishment of a "European Centre for Minority Issues". This is how he formulated its objective:

"It should be an internationally acknowledged scientific institution run by the Land Schleswig-Holstein and the Sonderjylland Region and financed by the European Community as a cross-border project."

And on 4 December 1996 it finally came into being. Prince Joachim of Denmark inaugurated the European Centre for Minority Issues during a memorable ceremony. The Steering Committee of Interreg II A in the German-Danish Border Region approved a start-up budget. The European Centre for Minority Issues was able to take up its work.

Then, in 1997, the Foundation was established. It was made possible by an agreement between the Ministry of Research of the Kingdom of Denmark and the Ministry of the Interior of the Federal Republic of Germany. The founders were Denmark, Germany and Schleswig-Holstein, and it is they who still largely provide the funds. Kurt Hamer's successors, Kurt Schulz and Renate Schnack, have also done a great deal to promote ECMI's success.

We have to thank the European Commission who provided the start-up budget for the Centre from the Regional Development Fund. It also makes an important contribution to financing the projects. So the first steps towards a greater commitment have been taken. In the future we will try harder to collect additional money from Brussels on a bigger scale for the ECMI Institution and specific projects. To build an active policy on minorities and human rights, it is in the best interests of the European Union to promote institutions like ECMI and support them financially.

For five years, now, the European Centre for Minority Issues has been working on methods of constructive conflict management and carrying out research on very practical lines. With such a focus the Centre has become a political player in the current minority conflicts. Much of its success rests on the fact that it can react very flexibly to the causes of conflict where they arise. And very often - as the neutral third partner - it brings together majorities and minorities from regions where conflicts may occur.

From the beginning, the Centre's employees have worked continuously on minority issues in the Balkans, for example in an international study group on Kosovo. There are also study groups on Kaliningrad and the Macedonian conflict and workshops on Bosnia-Herzegovina. Studies have been published on the situation in Moldova, the Ukraine and Estonia. And I could give you a long list of other projects.

In its capacity as a political advisor the Centre has prepared internationally acknowledged material for a body of laws on legal certainty for minorities in Europe and the question of furthering minority languages in the everyday business of European states. This diversity is one of the Centre's greatest strengths, and each new director has widened it a little and set new points of emphasis.

In Stephan Troebst the Centre had a highly competent director during its establishment phase. When he left, the responsibility was taken on temporarily by François Grin. In April 2000, the institute acquired Marc Weller as its new director, and he will now shape the Centre's future development.

Mr Weller, together with the Foundation's chairman, ambassador Peter Dyvig, you have submitted a strategy for the years 2000 to 2005 - a real five-year plan. The plan provides a solid basis for the future work of the research institute. So in this respect we certainly have no need to worry.

One of the immediate items on the agenda is an evaluation of the institute by an independent team of experts. The evaluation has been brought forward a little at the request of the Federal Government so that the findings can be included in the budget for 2003. We are eager to hear the results of this investigation. I feel sure the experts will prove us right in our commitment to ECMI! The Land government will continue to support the Centre in the coming years, too.

Since the dramatic changes in Central and Eastern Europe, discussion of how minorities and their rights should be handled has been a permanent feature of European politics. The explosive potential of unresolved minority issues has been demonstrated most dramatically in the Balkans and the Caucasus. But not only these regions, and states like Russia and Georgia, are having difficulty in organizing the co-existence of minorities and the main body of the population on peaceful lines. There are unsolved problems of this kind in some Western European countries too.

In future, the protection of minorities will become a yardstick for the success of modern politics. All European states will be obliged to find a satisfactory answer to these questions. So we must keep up our efforts to ensure an effective protection of minorities that is accepted by the majority of the public.

Actually that includes the question of how to integrate people newly arrived in our country, in our society. We must not allow whole sections of the population to be placed under general suspicion because their origin, the colour of their skin or their religion is different from ours. Since 11 September we must be especially careful in this respect.

On the one hand, integration can only work if the migrants have a chance to relate favourably to their own origins and cultural traditions while living in Germany. At the same time we have a right to expect people who want to live among us to accept the basic values, rights and obligations of our society. We are not asking for assimilation without criticism; it is a question of the foundations of a liberal, open society. And these foundations have to be defended!

The European Centre for Minority Issues is organizing this international conference on the rights of minorities in Europe, together with the Federal Union of European Nationalities, to mark its anniversary. The discussions across national boundaries offer a good forum for reaching an understanding on such vital questions.

I wish this conference every success in these next few days.

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ECMI founders:

The German Federal GovernmentThe German
Federal Government
The Danish GovernmentThe Danish
The Federal State Schleswig-HolsteinThe Federal State