Commission rejects call for new laws protecting national minorities

Traditional homemade food products from fruits and vegetables, display for sale on the occasion of the Hungarian minority days organized by the City Hall, Timisoara, Romania, 2019. [Shutterstock/Florin Cnejevici]

The European Commission said on Friday (15 January) that it would not propose new laws in response to a petition demanding a protection package for national minorities that garnered 1.1 million signatures across the EU.

The executive said it would take no new legislative steps in response to the “Minority SafePack” initiative (MSPI) launched by the Federal Union of European Nationalities (FUEN), despite the fact that the petition was backed by the European Parliament in December.

There are about 50 million people who belong to a national minority or a minority language community in the EU.

Rejection, point by point

The Commission said there is no need for new Council recommendations and earmarked financial resources, arguing that there is already sufficient funding and non-discrimination protections scattered across various EU initiatives.

The Commission also said that no new legislation is necessary “to guarantee approximately equal treatment for stateless persons and citizens of the Union,” since its new integration plan “may take account of” their situation, “in particular, their need to be better integrated in society via better employment, education and social opportunities.”

The 25-page action plan mentions “minorities” once, and does not mention stateless persons at all.

The Commission also pointed to audiovisual rules revised in 2018, which now ensure that at least 30% of content provided by traditional broadcasters and online media platforms such as Netflix is European.

However, those rules do not include any specific protections for national ethnic minorities and their languages, which often face impoverishment and disappearance.

Win for Romania

The rejection of the petition’s demands is a win for Romania, which has opposed the initiative from the beginning.

“Romania’s position is principle-based, referring to the correct dividing of competences between the Member States and the EU, based on the fundamental treaties,” the foreign ministry told EURACTIV Romania in emailed comments in October.

Bucharest claims Brussels does not have competencies in the the field of protection of the national minority rights.

In turn, Romanian representatives said the country is “a model, a landmark in the field” of national minority rights protection.

While agreeing that minority protection is not an EU competence, MEP Loránt Vincze  (EPP) and President of the FUEN pointed to increased EU action in the fields of fundamental rights or the rule of law.

“And if that is the case, then it must also apply to minority rights,” according to the lawmaker, himself a representative of the Hungarian minority in Romania, told EURACTIV in October.

Vincze described Romania’s fears that EU action on minorities would lead to pressure on national governments to change domestic legislation as “a very extreme view,” adding that the vast majority of other EU countries were supportive of Union action that would aid and provide financial resources for national minorities.

In 2013, the Commission at first rejected the request to register the initiative, saying it did not fall within its competence but was overturned by the European general court, which said the reasons given for rejecting it were not substantive enough.

In that case, Hungary supported the organisers, while Slovakia and Romania, both countries with a sizeable Hungarian minority of about 8%, sided with the EU executive.

In 2017, the Commission gave its blessing to 9 out of 11 proposals of the initiative, a decision Romania sought to annul in court but failed. Hungary once again intervened in support of the initiative.

Hungary, through its foreign ministry and external action fund for Hungarians abroad, has contributed €717,000 to the organisation’s “MSPI/FUEN development and European engagement” budget heading between 2017-2018, making it by far the biggest donor, according to publicly available financial statements. The expenses under the same heading in these years amounted to €608,000.

Meanwhile, Hungarian contributions made up 40.6% of FUEN’s income in 2018.

As part of its policy to support Hungarian ethnic minorities abroad Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government channelled some €67.3 million to Transylvania in Romania, a region where about 17.8% of the 6.7 million inhabitants identify as Hungarian.

An often touted priority for the ruling Fidesz party, Hungary has spent almost €167 million abroad on “national policy goals” in 2018 alone, according to hvg.hu.

Budapest’s hawkish stance on support for ethnic Hungarians abroad has also led to frequent diplomatic spats with its neighbours.

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Loss for democratic engagement

By collecting at least 1 million signatures and reaching pre-determined minimum thresholds in at least 7 countries, the EU’s European Citizens’ Initiative can ask the EU executive, who holds a monopoly on introducing new Union law, to propose legislation.

The Commission then has to propose a law in line with the initiative or reject the petition giving official reasoning for its decision.

Out of the 76 initiatives that have been registered since 2012, 6 have so far reached the threshold of one million signatures and only one resulted in legislation.

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[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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