The European Union and  Minority Languages

Balazs Vizi


One of  the basic processes of European integration is economic cooperation and the development of  free market competition and a unified market. This is why member states are reluctant for political affairs to be given too much attention in the sphere of influence of the European Union and the same can be said for the formulation of laws (at the EU level) with respect to the cultures and languages of national minorities.Yet in spite of this it can be said that minorities, and above all questions about the laws concerning the languages of minorities, have regularly come onto the agenda: for many years various political and civic fora have considered issues  centring upon the  legal regulations applying to minorities. Beside this there are several EU policies which focus upon laws for minorities (albeit in an indirect and sometimes marginal way).

The study examines relevant documents dealing with the protection of minority languages in the field of international law. It also assesses the extent to which these laws have been effective. It draws attention to the fact that from many points of view the EU approach to poliices towards minorities has been ambiguous.  One of the basic principles of the EU is to support cultural, linguistic and regional diversity, which includes the special identities of  national minorities. At the same time this process demonstrates a highly conspicuous level of double standards with respect to the way in which the claims of minorities living without and within the boundaries of the EU are actually recognised. There are many signs which indicate that the EU’s support for the protection of minorities is primatily a tool serving a foreign policy underpinning the political stability of the European continent. Within this, policies for minorities inside the EU (or, more precisely, the lack of  such policies)  are only able to play a very indirect role.

Beginning with the Arfe declaration of the European Parliament in 1981, more resolutions have been carried in connection with the defence of the interests of language minorities. Such resolutions have been helped by various programmes for the defence of minorities. Outstanding among such programmes has been the “Year for European  Languages”. One of the main purposes of this programme was to introduce the languages used in Europe and to encourage interest in language learning.  Also worth mentioning is the activity of the Office for the Lesser Used Languages of  Europe. Together with the European Council this institution formulated the MERCATOR programme which carried out research into the teaching of minority languages, the legal background for the use of such languagess, the media opportunities for minority languages and the situation of bilingual knowledge.  An important aim of the programme is to provide a reliable information service about the state of minority languages, their position, and the social and and legal environment of minorities which exists alongside that of tne majority nationalities (or their governments).  The EUROMOSAIC programme which was initiated in 1996 aimed to establish and maintain groups of minority language speakers. One of the lessons learnt from this programme was that, given the tendency towards uniformity in the EU, it is possible to avoid preserving language diversity. This is why the author regards it as necessary to amend the currently  valid  European Charter for Basic Laws.

According to the study, in the future actions dealing with minority languages in the EU have a good chance of success in two areas: first, on the level of law-making which is supra to that of the individual EU nations and, second amd more significantly, through greater coordination of the relevant policies of the member states. Despite the fact that in recent years the EU has initiated several programmes supporting minority languages, the experience is that these programmes alone are not enough to deal effectively with problems confronting minority languages. Through such programmes the support of language policy from a culturral point of view can be useful, but on their own they cannot guarantee that minority languages will be preserved. However, with respect to the coordinating role of the EU, in the area of language policy member states are very sensitive and from a legal point of view language policy seems to be a poorly-established enterprise. Although resolutions of the European Parliament concerning minority languages are not obligatory for member states, the Parliament has stood by its demand that political harmonisation of laws relevant to minority languages should be a common responsibility of the member states. Up until now the institution which really has the power to enforce such a principle – the European Court -- has not stated its opinion so unequivocally.