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EU Constitution risks letting states off the hook on minority rights

7 October 2003

The draft European Constitution currently fails to address issues of minority rights among its fundamental principles, missing an important opportunity for a common European commitment to minorities. This is in contrast to the Copenhagen Criteria for new EU membership accession states, which stipulates conditions for entry concerning minority rights. If the EU Constitution fails to be consistent with these strict criteria, the risk is that new member states will have much less commitment to the protection of minorities once within the EU, than they did outside.

The Intergovernmental Conference (IGC), which began in Rome on 04 October, creates the opportunity to amend this omission. The inclusion of minority provisions will ensure that EU states, both existing and newly acceded, have a strong constitutional obligation to the protection of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities. Minority Rights Group International (MRG) has highlighted the fact that a European Constitution risks repeating the major problem of the Treaty of Amsterdam which also failed to consider minority rights among the guiding principles of the Union. Of those due to join the EU in 2004, Latvia stands out as cause for concern, because to date it is the only one of ten accession states not to have ratified the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM). MRG highlighted in April 2003 that some existing EU states including the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France and Greece have also not ratified the Convention.

In a positive move, endorsed by MRG, Hungary have also proposed inclusion of reference to minority rights in the basic provisions of the Constitution, a move which President Chirac and Prime Minister Simitis have expressed support for. At the very least, MRG has called for Article 57, relating to EU accession, to be amended to include specific reference to the Copenhagen Criteria, including that of minority protection. Director of MRG, Mark Lattimer, stated that: ‘There is still a risk that future EU applicants, such as Turkey and countries in the western Balkans, will argue that there is no legal basis requiring them to comply with criteria on minority protection for membership.’

Mr Lattimer highlighted that the non-discrimination provision, fundamental to minority rights, within the draft Constitution is problematic, since in its current form it would require unanimity for future EU laws in this area. This, MRG suggests, would be almost impossible to achieve in an enlarged Union of over twenty-five states. The EU has recognized the important role of minority rights in contributing to stability and conflict prevention, notably in regard to Central and Eastern Europe, and in its requirements of new member states in this respect. However, in its current form, the draft Constitution continues to neglect this link by continuing to omit reference to minority rights provisions, including reference to protection of religious and linguistic rights. MRG believes that the language of an EU Constitution should reflect the full ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic diversity which exists within Europe.

‘Minority rights will remain key in all the countries that are still discussing accession, including the western Balkans’ stated Mr. Lattimer. ‘Minorities exist within every state in Europe and the process of formulating a Constitution which adequately addresses their rights is a vital step towards true equality and non-discrimination. These are fundamental principles of international law and must be treated as such.’

The IGC has the task of finalizing the text of the draft Constitution which is due to be concluded by May 2004. Minority Rights Group International strongly supports calls by NGO networks and environmental, social, human rights and development actors, to ensure that the process and negotiations should be transparent, consultative and participatory. The EU’s pressure can lead to significant improvements in minority protection in all the countries of the Union and those that wish to join.

Notes for editors

For interviews or further information, please contact the MRG Press Office on [email protected].