Europe must commit to protecting the rights of national minorities

Recently, the French Minister of the Interior announced that the government would start talks with Corsican representatives aimed at agreeing on the autonomy of Corsica. This decision is probably linked to the situation in Ukraine, where national minorities have played an important role in triggering the conflict. Although ethnic and national minority issues have created serious turbulence over the past century, they are often swept under the rug.

The United States, as the world’s leading country in the field of peace, stability and human rights, should be aware of the problems of ethnic/national minorities in Europe in order to prevent conflicts arising therefrom. . In this context, the European situation is also of the utmost importance for the United States.

Due to history, the territories of European countries do not perfectly coincide with the lands where nations live. Some are spread beyond the borders of their nation states. These communities have a minority status even though they have lived in their native land for centuries. Currently, more than 50 million people (more than 10% of the population) in the European Union are members of autochthonous national minorities; in fact, there is such a minority community in almost all Member States.

In order to deal with the problems that threaten to erase many ethnic/national minorities from Europe, the nation-state concept needs to be revised, as the era of exclusionist nation-states is coming to an end.

The concept of an inclusive nation-state based on democratic rights should prevail. It is the means of preserving the cultural diversity which has been the engine of the development of the world through the centuries.

Europe and the European Union, however, abdicate responsibility for the fate of national minorities. In fact, on this issue, the EU remains strangely silent.

European history provides ample evidence that an inadequate response to the problems of national minorities is a main cause of conflict and human rights violations. To maintain peace and stability on the continent, we propose the inclusion of the following five basic principles in the European legislature.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin speaks on the phone as he leaves the weekly cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris on April 6, 2022.
Ludovic MARIN / AFP/Getty Images

1. Issues relating to national minorities are not a national issue, but a European issue. Minority rights are part of universal human rights. Effective and successful management of this issue can only be achieved at European level.

2. The protection of national minorities should be based on the right to identity. The right to identity, recognized in international treaties as the right “to preserve [one’s] identity, including nationality, name and family relationships” stems from the protection of human dignity. It is identity that distinguishes communities and protects the cultural assets with which they enrich all of humanity.

3. In order to protect identity, individual and collective rights must be guaranteed. A minority is more than a group of individuals. Within these communities, as in all others, there are many complex relationships. It should be mentioned that demanding integration into the majority society without guaranteeing collective rights can generate tensions and real security risks, even conflicts, including the potential for secessionist demands. Among the most important of these collective rights are linguistic rights and the right to education in a mother tongue, key elements in the protection of national minorities.

4. Citizenship and national identity are distinct concepts that do not necessarily coincide. State authorities often expect the identity of national communities living on their territory to automatically coincide with citizenship. In other words, the citizen is obliged to align himself with the identity of the majority society, even if he belongs to a national minority. This has created serious tensions, which are not only a source of conflict between the majority and the minority, but also endanger the peace and stability of Europe. A better model, in this respect, is that of the United States, where different communities maintain their identity although they all remain American citizens (Mexican Americans, Chinese Americans, etc.).

5. National minorities living on the territory of a member state are constituent elements of that state. Throughout Europe’s history, state borders have often changed and, as a result, several national communities have become minorities, and vice versa. These groups have largely lived in the same area despite changes in borders, where we find the imprint of their culture, traditions and religion. Thus, regardless of the powers that have historically dominated these regions, these groups have contributed to the development of their homeland and enriched the common values ​​and culture of the world.

The acceptance of the above principles as legal axioms is a basic condition for the creation of a new Pax Europaea, which will offer Europe the opportunity to redefine itself in a global world while preserving its fundamental values. Only legally binding legislation based on this agreement can bring true equality between nations, parts of nations and national minorities in Europe. This is not only a European interest, but also an American interest.

Let’s not forget that prevention is always cheaper than treatment.

Dr. Katalin Szili is the former President of the Hungarian Parliament. Ferenc Kalmár is the former Council of Europe rapporteur on national minorities.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.