EU urged to use new treaty to support language rights

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The European Commission should use legal changes introduced by the Lisbon Treaty to protect the rights of linguistic minorities in the European Union, Latvian MEP Tatjana Zdanoka has urged.

Greens/European Free Alliance MEP Zdanoka, a member of the European Parliament’s civil liberties committee, called on the EU executive to “name and shame” member states that fail to adequately protect minority languages. 

The Latvian MEP pointed out that as of today (1 December), an EU treaty clause states that the Union is “founded on the values of respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”.

The EU’s Lisbon Treaty, eight years in the making, came into force across the bloc’s 27 member states today. 

EU leaders believe the Lisbon Treaty will rejuvenate the decision-making apparatus of the EU institutions, making the functioning of the 27-member Union more efficient and democratic. 

The Commission should make clear that anyone “who acts against the rights of persons belonging to minorities (including linguistic rights) acts against the core values of the European Union,” Zdanoka said, calling for “a more focused statement” from the EU executive in respect of minority rights. 

“We name and shame those countries outside the EU which have a bad human rights record, even though the EU cannot impose legally-binding obligations upon them. Why, then, are we so reluctant to name bad examples inside the EU – even if we cannot impose obligations?” she asked. 

Minority languages hit the headlines recently amid concerns that a state language law passed by the Slovak parliament does not conform to EU standards as it criminalises the use of ethnic minority tongues in the country (EURACTIV 10/07/09EURACTIV 01/09/09). 

Meanwhile, earlier this year, a European Parliament vote exposed divisions between centre-right MEPs and their left-leaning socialist, Green and Liberal counterparts over how far the EU should go in backing minority language learning (EURACTIV 25/03/09). 

Zdanoka believes more should be done to promote multilingualism in the EU institutions, expressing regret that she is not yet allowed to address the Parliament in her native Russian: despite its status as the first language of 40% of the population of Latvia. 

There is a precedent for minority-language use in the EU institutions: in July, an agreement struck between the European Commission and the UK government paved the way for the Welsh to be able to write to the EU executive in their native language (EURACTIV 09/07/09). 

Moreover, last November, Welsh was heard and interpreted at EU level for the first time during a meeting of culture ministers (EURACTIV 24/11/08). 

Since then, the Welsh have been able to write to the European Council, and receive a written response, in their native tongue. 

Zdanoka, meanwhile, wants the Commission to do more to monitor the treatment of minority languages in EU countries. 

Minority languages in Europe are protected by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which was adopted by the Council of Europe in June 1992 and came into force in 1998. 

It seeks to promote threatened languages as part of Europe's cultural heritage and facilitate their use in daily life. 

Last year, the European Commission stood accused by MEPs from the European Free Alliance of not being "courageous" enough to set out concrete initiatives to promote minority languages in its multilingualism strategy (EURACTIV 25/09/08). 

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