ECMI Minorities Blog. National Minorities and the Future of Europe

Podium in Press conference on the launch of the digital platform of the Conference on the Future of Europe in Brussels, Belgium on April 19, 2021. Image courtesy: Alexandros Michailidis/

Author: Ljubica Djordjević  |


On 9 May 2021 the Conference on the Future of Europe was finally launched, after a one-year delay caused by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The process, which rests on the Joint Declaration of the presidents of the European Parliament, the Council and the European Commission, has opened “a new space for debate with citizens to address Europe’s challenges and priorities”. It strives to underpin participatory elements in the democratically fragile EU construction, and to give new impetus to “the project of European integration after a decade of crises”. The Conference is based on three core layers: the Multilingual digital platform, conceptualized as “the place for citizens to share ideas and send online submissions”; European Citizens’ Panels, as forums for randomly selected EU citizens to discuss various aspects of the EU future; and the Conference Plenary of 450 members representing both institutions and citizens. Content-wise, the framework for the Conference is set through an indicative list of nine topics: climate change and environment; health; a stronger economy, social justice, and jobs; EU in the world; values and rights, rule of law, security; digital transformation; European democracy; migration; and education, culture, youth and sport. Despite the uncontested need for a deeper citizens’ involvement in the process of European integration, the mandate of the Conference remains unclear and its outcome uncertain: is it simply a space for citizens to voice their ideas and concerns, or a democratic step towards a more substantial reform? As it had been rightly observed, the Conference must go beyond the simple dialogue exercise, and should result in some sort of tangible action. Otherwise, it might indeed deepen the trends it essentially tries to mitigate: disappointment, skepticism and fatigue.

Against this background, the main question here pertains to the role of national minorities in the whole process. The Joint Declaration explicitly claims the process to mirror “Europe’s diversity”, but what kind of diversity? It appears that age and gender are the core diversification parameters. Under the argument that the “young Europeans play a central role in shaping the future of the European project”, the focus is put on the European youth (reflected also in the one third of seats in European Citizens’ Panels being reserved for young people of 16-25 years). The gender balance has also been observed under the principle of parity. Other elements of EU diversity that have been considered are geographic origin (nationality and urban/rural), socioeconomic background and level of education. But is this enough for the minority voice to be heard? There is a reasonable risk that the Conference might show weaknesses that are generally observed regarding the EU participatory exercises: “unequal access, limited representativeness and disparate influence of participants”. The Conference remains in effect more open to “more informed and educated individuals”, and regrettably, “no effort was made to include marginalised communities”. Thus, there is a higher responsibility on national minority representatives, minority elites, and minority rights advocates to provide a channel for minorities for their position to be voiced too. A good example in this respect was a public hearing at the European Committee of the Schleswig-Holstein's Landtag on the “Future for Europe”, where the minority perspective of the issue was considered too. But will the message reach Brussels, so rigidly pursuing the ‘color-blind’ approach?

Topic-wise, the Conference addresses a wide range of areas from climate change to sport, with the possibility for participants to add any other issue that matters to them. Minority issues, similar to any other group issue, are not directly tackled, but nevertheless each of the thematic areas might be of concern for national minorities and calls for taking into consideration minority perspective too. Since European integration connects not only the EU member states but also the peoples of Europe, it goes without saying that these ‘peoples’ are not only the ethnic majorities (members of the ‘titular nations’), but also all minority groups and their members, some 50 million EU citizens. Notwithstanding the fact that European integration has brought many advantages for national minorities (e.g. the softening of state borders allowing easier access to kin-states, or the positive influence of the EU enlargement policy on the protection of minorities in the 1990s), a minority perspective is still almost invisible in EU politics. The rejection of the “MinoritySafePack”-initiative has plausibly showed that the EU is not ready to tackle minority issues in a holistic way. The position that the protection of national minorities is the sovereign competence of the member states remains dominant and prevents a comprehensive EU minority policy. Moreover, the so-called ‘minority mainstreaming’, i.e. considering the effects of certain measures through the prism of minority protection, is inexistent in EU policies. All these demonstrate the need for awareness raising and higher sensitivity for national minorities and the impact the EU policies have on them. Since any substantial change in the EU stance towards national minority protection appears unrealistic in the short run, an interim solution might be a strategy of small steps: claiming better visibility for national minorities in the EU politics, precisely through ‘minority mainstreaming’, and consideration of the effects of (general) EU measures on national minorities.

Against the background of the thematic areas of the Conference and the need for a more nuanced approach towards ‘minority mainstreaming’ in the EU, I propose here four points for consideration.

1. Minority protection requires supportive context. (The EU as a community of values)

Minority rights are human rights and can only be exercised and granted in a system based on human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Although national minorities can enjoy some level of protection in authoritarian systems too (e.g. in return for regime support), this has always proved to be a short-term, unstable, and ultimately negative solution. A democratic legal order is an essential prerequisite for the effective and stable protection of minorities, which is based on the postulate of human rights. In this sense, any strengthening of EU values ​​can only have positive effects on the European minorities. The values ​​from Article 2 of the EU Treaty should not just remain programme statements and slogans but need to be implemented through concrete measures. Every EU action should reflect, support and strengthen these values, and reaffirm the EU's identity as a Union of democratic values. In this sense, the EU’s accession to the European Convention on Human Rights would send an important signal for the affirmation of human rights (but unfortunately this process is stagnating). The ongoing power struggles between the EU Commission and certain member states in relation to upholding the rule of law are also detrimental to the EU's identity as a community of values. Consequently, a new impetus in the direction of human rights, democracy and the rule of law is desirable for a Europe that also protects its minorities.

2. Minority culture is part of the common cultural heritage. (Respect for cultural and linguistic diversity, and protection of cultural heritage under Article 3 TEU)

The basic idea of ​​the protection of minorities is to preserve specific minority identity and thus to preserve cultural diversity. This does not mean, however, that the minority culture should be isolated and regarded as merely a ‘cultural reservation’. Such a view of minority culture leads not only to (cultural) segregation, but also potentially to harmful cultural hierarchies. In this sense, it is important to ‘pull’ minority culture out of the shadow of the 'private’ sphere and consider it as part of the common good. Unfortunately, in reality throughout Europe the presence of minority languages ​​in majority schools is rather limited, the use of minority languages ​​in communication with the public authorities is fairly low, and interest in minority media is mostly limited to members of the communities they serve, to name but a few problematic aspects. Many of the official languages ​​of the EU are minority languages ​​in one or more EU member states, but they attract little attention. The EU could, therefore, give more support to its multilingualism and promote the learning of official languages ​​through specific programmes, as well as use its cultural programmes to make the small European languages ​​more visible and draw the attention of the majority populations to them. Another possibility is the endorsement by the EU of the European Language Charter and giving more support to its ratification in the respective Member States. Finally, through cultural programmes and projects it is feasible to increase the presence of minority cultures, in order to sensitize the majority population to them and thus establish cultural diversity not as ‘exotic’ but as European ‘mainstream’. A clear strategy is required here, since ad hoc projects cannot achieve the desired sustainability.

3. National minorities build bridges. (The EU as an area of free movement and regional development)

One of the key benefits of the EU integration is the softening of state borders and creation of a common EU area. This is of enormous importance for national minorities and the implementation of their right to free cross-border contacts. The experiences of walls, fences, border controls, exit and entry permits etc., which were a reality in Europe only 30 years ago, all show the value of free movement that the EU has brought with it. The Covid-19 pandemic, similar to the migrant crisis of 2015, has again illustrated how valuable, and at the same time fragile, this freedom is. Open borders are essential for national minorities, for their culture, education, economy, and for the change in the perceptions of their position as peripheral and outsiders. Cross-border cooperation creates a different role for minorities as bridge builders and an important factor in regional politics. Undoubtedly, EU regional policy has contributed to strengthening the regions where national minorities live. It goes without saying that national minorities throughout Europe have benefited from the EU structural funds. However, it appears that the programmes involve minorities only indirectly/collaterally. In this sense, targeted projects are desired that take into account national minorities as an important planning factor (Standortfaktor). The positive example of Schleswig-Holstein can be exemplary here.

4. Leverage of the EU. (The EU as a global actor)    

The EU enlargement policy has proven to be an important leveraging instrument, also in the area of ​​minority protection. The EU's conditionality policy has made a decisive contribution to improving the protection of minorities in the candidate countries. Since the enlargement has reached a stalemate, the EU's potential for leverage has also been reduced, freeing up space for other global players in the Western Balkans region. The perspective for enlargement is unclear, the conditionality therefore rather ineffective, and the focus narrow (limited to stability, rule of law, and corruption). As a result, minority issues remain only on the margins of the current enlargement policy, pursued out of inertia rather than out of real commitment. It is therefore not surprising that certain issues remain at a standstill.

The situation is similar in the countries of the Eastern Partnership, where the prospect of the EU accession is even smaller, if at all. The antagonistic relations between the EU and Russia put the large Russian-speaking population (as in Ukraine) or the pro-Russian minority population (as in Moldova or Georgia) in rather delicate situation. This has an effect on the support for the EU: put in the position of conflicting loyalties, some population groups ‘navigate’ between these two, also by showing skepticism towards the EU. A nuanced approach is therefore desirable so that EU-Russia relations do not adversely affect the situation of Russian-speaking minorities in the EU member states and Eastern Partnership area.

There is a need to review the EU's role as a global actor, to give new impetus to enlargement policy, and to nuance the Eastern Partnership in relation to the complicated relationship with Russia. The main argument here would be to bring minority issues back onto the EU external agenda and to consider (effective) EU instruments of promoting minority protection in non-member states. The idea of ​​the EU as a community of values, its commitment to human and minority rights, and the situation of the minorities in the EU member states play a decisive role for the EU’s leverage abroad.

The references to minority rights and respect for diversity cannot remain pure ‘slogans’. Instead, they should be perceived as calls for resolute action, in line with conferred powers. In a complex and increasingly diverse Europe, the EU has to take responsibility and search for innovative models of diversity management, including the protection of national minorities. Rigid insistence on the premise that minority issues lie in member states’ competence, alongside the understanding of diversity management as limited to policies prohibiting discrimination appear inadequate for an actor aspiring to the role of a global player. The Conference on the Future of Europe offers a good opportunity to reconsider the EU’s position with regard to the protection of national minorities. Provided that it is inclusive enough (both regarding participants and topics) and results in some tangible action, the Conference might be a valuable step forward.

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