German MEP slams Slovak language law

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A new state language law passed by the Slovak parliament does not conform to EU standards as it discriminates against minority languages, the vice-chair of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee said yesterday (9 July).

German centre-right MEP Michael Gahler (EPP) fears that Slovakia’s Language Act, passed on 30 June, will criminalise the use of ethnic minority languages in the country. 

The amended law, tabled by Culture Minister Marek Ma?’ari?, will introduce fines of up to €5,000 for using ‘incorrect’ Slovak as of September. It also enforces stricter official regulation of ‘correct’ Slovak. 

For example, memorials and plaques featuring texts in both Slovak and a foreign language must not carry a foreign inscription that is larger than the Slovak one. 

Citing a requirement for Slovak to be used first at cultural events at which only minorities are present, Gahler described the new law as “absurd” and “disproportionate”. 

Earlier drafts of the legislation went even further, but a proposal by Ma?ari? to force local radio stations to broadcast first in Slovak and then the minority language was scrapped from the adopted law. 

“Slovakia is violating commonly respected standards in the EU and is disregarding respective recommendations of the Council of Europe, which foresee the extended use of minority languages,” Gahler said, going as far as declaring that the country “risks discrediting itself as an EU member and becoming a totalitarian state again if the new provisions are consistently applied”. 

The German MEP claimed the new law proves that Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico’s coalition government has not yet “mentally or politically arrived in Europe, whereas the previous Christian Democrat government had already proved that problem-free relations between ethnic groups in Slovakia are possible”. 

“A modern and open Slovakia communicating and cooperating closely with its neighbours in the centre of Europe would be the better alternative for this country and its citizens. However, this can hardly be expected from the present government coalition,” Gahler declared. 

Opposition criticism 

The opposition Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) criticised the law for violating the principle of equality by discriminating against minorities. 

“Slovak officials know very well that we’re dealing with human rights here, which are not a domestic state issue, especially not when the state is an EU country,” SMK MP Agnes Biró told the Slovak Spectator. 

Biró is concerned that fear of being fined under the new law will discourage ethnic minorities from using their own languages. 

Tensions between Slovakia and Hungary have been riding high since the law’s passing last month. 

Slovak Prime Minister Fico fanned the flames on 5 July by insisting that the Slovak language must be protected from “the dangerous irredentism which breathes stronger and stronger from the other side of the Danube,” the TASR agency reports. 

Hungarian anger 

Hungarian officials have made no secret of their displeasure, with the speaker of the parliament in Budapest, Katalin Szilli, telling Slovak Radio that the law brings disadvantages for the Slovakia’s Hungarian minority that are “unprecedented in Europe”. 

For political analyst Laszlo Öll?s, “Slovaks know very well from their own history what it means when a language is excluded from official communication”. “And Hungary doesn’t want to stay silent,” he told the Slovak Spectator. 

Indeed, Hungary’s foreign affairs ministry condemned the legislation on the day it was passed, describing it as “worrying from the point of view of international law” and representing “a murky political message,” according to the SITA agency. 

"The socialist-nationalistic government in Slovakia has proved again that it is not interested in the real co-existence of ethnic groups in the country and apparently does not consider itself bound to European values," according to the vice-chair of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee, German EPP MEP Michael Gahler

"The swaggering about 'threats from the other side of the Danube’ [by Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico] is without precedent," he added. 

For Gahler, "it goes without saying that national languages are to be respected in the European Union". "This must be equally applied in all member states with regional languages or minorities. It would be extremely odd if a state tried to forbid or force citizens to use specific languages on specific occasions," he said. 

Slovak Socialist MEP Monika Benova (SMER; PES) said Gahler's words were too strong. "Michael Gahler probably didn't see the content of the language law. I'm not saying that it was necessary to introduce this law, but its content is not discriminatory against any minority. I'm surprised by his words."

Boris Zala  (SMER; PES), another Slovak socialist MEP, urged Gahler to read the law himself rather than listen to interpretations of it. "There is no need to react to the words of Vice-Chairman Galher because he will finish [in his current position] in the European Parliament in three days' time," he added. 

"The act includes a lot of sentences formulated very ambiguously and I think that was done for a purpose, to give as much power as possible to bureaucrats, so that they alone can decide when to apply the law and when not to," political analyst Laszlo Öll?s told the Slovak Spectator. 

"There are parts which indicate that if a Hungarian, Ruthenian, or whoever goes to hospital and sees a doctor who happens to speak their respective minority language and they start talking it, that can be classified as a violation of this law," Öll?s said. 

The Slovak parliament passed a new Language Act, tabled by Culture Minister Marek Mad'ari?, a member of Prime Minister Robert Fico's governing social democratic coalition, on 30 June 2009. 

Minority languages are a sensitive issue in Slovakia, where 10% of the population speaks Hungarian as a first language. 

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