Dinner Speech by Dr. Cornelie Sonntag-Wolgast

on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the European Centre for Minority Issues (ECMI), 30 November 2001, European Academy Sankelmark

Madam Minister President,
Mr Consul General,
Mr Elle, Mr Hansen, Mr Tonkovic,
Director Weller,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

In view of the fundamental political changes that occurred in Europe around the year 1990 resulting in the overthrow of totalitarian systems, the building of constitutional structures and respect for human rights in many states of Central Eastern, South Eastern and Eastern Europe, any observer who were to take a merely superficial look at the scene, might ask why, in the years after 1990, the idea was born to found a research institute for minority issues, an idea that subsequently took more concrete shape and was finally implemented five years ago.

By the same token, one might ask why the Council of Europe has been dealing intensively with minority rights ever since 1990 and why it finally adopted the Draft Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities in 1995.

My imaginary naive observer would be right in assuming that the events which took place around the year 1990 and the developments which have occurred since have opened up the possibility in many countries of the former Eastern bloc to claim minority rights. However, as we all know, granting people the possibility to claim their rights is one thing, while applying and respecting those rights as a matter of course is quite a different matter; at the very least, it will take some time until these rights are generally applied and respected. The developments that have occurred since the late 80s have characterised the perception and the situation of minorities:

The rejection of the totalitarian systems and the move towards a democratic future in many states of Eastern Europe in fact have made it possible for many minorities to reflect on their own history, their traditions and culture, to organise themselves as a nationality and to once again use their ancestral languages - also in public - and to publicly articulate themselves.

This is reflected, inter alia, in the fact that quite a number of minorities from Eastern Europe have joined the Federal Union of European Nationalities (FUEN) since the early nineties.

In his expert opinion Consul General Dr Becker-Christensen1, who represents the Kingdom of Denmark tonight, said that there were more than 100 minorities in Europe. According to the most recent publications, however, their number is estimated at as many as 250. How can this increase be explained? Well, I already mentioned one reason, namely the fact that these minorities either regained or were indeed for the first time given the chance to organise themselves as a nationality and to penetrate the consciousness of the political and scientific classes throughout Europe.

Secondly, the development of the nation-states, in particular following the disintegration of the Soviet Union and of Yugoslavia but also of Czechoslovakia has produced quite a number of new minorities. On the one hand because the classical minorities found themselves dispersed over numerous successor states (this holds true e. g. for the Germans in the former Soviet Union) and on the other hand, because the former national majority populations now frequently form a minority in the successor states (this holds true e. g. for the Russians in the Baltic States, the Czechs in Slovakia and vice versa).

These newly developed or newly organised minorities frequently live in states that are either new themselves, have been re-founded or have at least adopted a completely new constitutional system. In each of these new or completely re-organised states there are minorities striving for their place in the political or constitutional system of state and society. While it is true that this process is now underway and supported internationally by the Council of Europe and the OSCE, it is by no means finished; instead there are, as Mrs Simonis outlined before, currently some setbacks and new challenges involved.

This is the context, Director Weller, in which ECMI as a rather young institution fulfils its indispensable mission. Based on a scientific collection of the multifaceted forms and needs of the various nationalities on the one hand and on the different - more or less successful - legal regulations governing the peaceful and fruitful coexistence of majorities and minorities on the other hand, ECMI has to provide practical advice to governments, minorities and international organisations and to act as a facilitator in conflict situations.

I must say, Mr Weller that Flensburg is indeed an ideal location for your institute. At a distance of just a few hundred metres on the premises of the Flensborghus, there are the Centre of the Cultural Association of the Danish minority and their political organisation and the FUEN-Secretariat. Within a radius of a mere 50 km there are settlements of the North Frisians and of the Germans in Denmark, plus the German Sinti and Roma. You can obtain two daily minority newspapers here, the "Flensborg Avis" and the "Nordschleswiger" and you have two adult education centres for minorities right at your doorstep, namely the venue of today's conference and the Jaruplund Academy next door.

You can rely on all this for the first part of your mission for the scientific collection of information on the various forms of nationalities and the legal and practical status of minorities in the state.

Thanks to the excellent way in which German-Danish relations have developed ever since the early fifties of the last century, particularly with regard to the minority issue, your advice is not all that much required here on the spot.

Instead, this region should be a fertile ground offering you, Director Weller, in your work and in all the difficult situations that you may encounter, a spiritual and very real home where minorities and majorities live together in an orderly and peaceful way.

As far as the financial basis of your work is concerned, the Federal Ministry of the Interior will not let you down in the next few years to come and will, through the official in charge, Dr. Rein, accompany your work both critically - as our budget law requires - and quickly - to serve the interest of the matter.

Ad multos annos!

In 1994, Dr Becker-Christensen, then Director of the Danish Institute of Border Region Studies in Aabenraa, was asked to prepare a report on the realization of a European Centre for Minority Issues by the Danish-German commission set up to investigate the establishment of such an institute. [Editorial note]

ECMI founders:

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