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Minority rights find their place in the European Constitution

20 June 2004

On 18 June 2004, European Union leaders eventually agreed a Constitution for Europe after months of diplomatic wrangling. In a fundamental statement of European Union values, for the first time the EU has recognized the rights of minorities in its statement that ‘The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality and the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.’ But what are the implications for minorities and does it mean that those countries, such as France, which currently refuse to recognize any minorities must now acknowledge them?

A clear reference to minority rights within the constitution text has been welcomed by Minority Rights Group International, which has campaigned for such an inclusion, as both an acknowledgement of, and commitment to minority rights on the part of all EU Member States. According to MRG, analysis of the situation of minorities across European states reveals an inconsistent and often disturbing picture with regard to legislation and public policy, and the treatment of minorities across the range of civil and political, and economic, social and cultural rights. MRG argues that much needs to be done to tackle discrimination and to promote cooperation and understanding between communities. Key to a process of confronting marginalization and exclusion is recognition of minorities and their rights, and acknowledgement of the need for greater participation within society. MRG hopes that the statement that minority rights form a core value within Europe will assist this process and also act to strengthen the ability of minorities to claim their rights even in states with weak domestic provision for them. The reference to minorities within the constitution is doubly useful in that respect for minority rights is not made conditional upon state acceptance that minorities do in fact exist within their territories.

In a recent MRG briefing on recognition of minorities in Europe, Panayote Elias Dimitras, points out that unlike the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM), the European Union lacks its own system of minority protection. However, respect for and protection of minorities has been included in the Copenhagen criteria for EU enlargement. Additionally, the European Constitution also includes the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which contains a non-discrimination clause relevant to denial of the rights of minorities under certain circumstances. While France, for example, does not recognize minorities, the wording of the constitution and the broader debate within Europe regarding recognition of minorities, makes it increasingly difficult for France to maintain its position within a united Europe of shared values and obligations. It is increasingly recognized that it is not for the state itself to define the limits of its human rights commitments based on a ‘subjective’ position, but that such a decision must be based on ‘objective’ criteria. The difficulty of the French position has become increasingly evident around the debate about the wearing of the Muslim ‘hijab’ and other religious symbols in state institutions, a debate which has divided French society, most noticeably along ethnic and religious lines.

Hungary was one of a number of countries pushing strongly for the inclusion of a reference to minorities in the constitution text. In the context of broader EU expansion and its own situation, it considered this important since an estimated 3.5 million ethnic Hungarians live in the neighbouring countries of Croatia, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine. As the union has expanded, so has the possibility for migration within Europe, leading some to consider the need for greater protection of both minorities within a state, and citizens who choose to live outside the state, as equally important. While standards such as the FCNM offer limited protection to ‘new minorities’ such as migrant workers, it could be argued that an increasingly mobile European community requires an increasingly effective protection mechanism, as many more of us choose to become minorities within neighbouring states.

Head of International Advocacy for Minority Rights Group International, Clive Baldwin, stated: ‘The EU’s pressure has and can lead to significant improvements in minority protection in all the countries of the Union and those that wish to join. The inclusion of minority provisions will ensure that EU states, both long-standing and newly acceded, have a strong constitutional obligation to the protection of ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities’.

A controversial issue relating to religious minorities in the EU was the debate over the explicit inclusion of reference to Christian values or roots of Europe, supported by states including Poland and Christian groups. MRG argued that the language of the constitution should reflect the full ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic diversity which exists within the 25 member states, and potential future accession states, including Turkey. Such a reference, it felt, could be misinterpreted by some minority faith groups as failing to conform to principles of equality and non-discrimination and sent the wrong message at a time when religious and ethnic relationships are strained by the war on terrorism and increasing Islamophobia in the media.

Ratification of the European Constitution is the next major hurdle and may see further delays and setbacks to the process. In the meantime MRG is continuing to campaign for Europe-wide ratification of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, which offers a comprehensive and dedicated treatment of minority rights issues. This legally binding standard, MRG believes, complements and elaborates on a broader fundament principle of minority rights now enshrined in the EU Constitution. However MRG also points out that while most newly acceded EU states were obliged to ratify this standard as part of their entry requirement set out in the Copenhagen criteria, some existing EU states, including France, the Netherlands and Greece, still have not done so. In collaboration with other organizations including the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), MRG is also developing initiatives to help further the implementation of the EU Anti-Discrimination Directives, which are binding on all EU Member States.

Bitter lessons were learned in recent European history about the relationship between respect for the rights of minorities and peace, security and stability. Perhaps this is beginning to be reflected in a set of European values which demand that states pay heed not only to the needs of minority communities that may have been neglected, but also acknowledge their dynamic and enriching contribution to society. However, much work remains to be done to fulfil the promise of a European Constitution that asks much of many failing states. The situation of some minority communities, notably the Roma in many European states, stands out clearly and shamefully against the background of an ambitious dream of a Europe of peoples united in peace, dignity, justice and human rights. While ratification of the constitution may be some way away, the inclusion of a reference to minority rights may encourage many of those who are members of minorities in Europe to add their voices to those saying ‘yes’ to the European Constitution.

Notes for editors

For more information, contact the MRG Press Office on [email protected].