Europe Needs to Commit to Protecting National Minority Rights | Opinion

Recently the French minister of the interior announced that the government will begin talks with Corsican representatives aiming to agree upon the autonomy of Corsica. This move is probably related to the situation in Ukraine, where national minorities played a significant role in the outbreak of the conflict. Even though ethnic and national minority issues have created severe turbulence in the past century, they are often swept under the carpet.

The United States—as the leading country in the world in the field of peace, stability and human rights—should be aware of Europe's ethnic/national minorities issues in order to prevent conflicts that arise from them. In this context the European situation is of utmost importance for the U.S., too.

As a result of history, the territories of European countries do not coincide perfectly with the lands where nations live. Some are spread beyond the borders of their nation states. These communities have minority status even though they have been living in their native lands for centuries. At present more than 50 million people (more than 10 percent of the population) in the European Union are members of autochthonous national minorities; in fact, there is such a minority community in almost every member state.

In order to manage the problems that threaten to erase many of Europe's ethnic/national minorities, the concept of the nation state needs to be revised, considering that the era of exclusionist nation states is at an end.

The concept of the inclusive nation state based on democratic rights should prevail. This is the way to preserve the cultural diversity that has been the driving force of the world's development across the centuries.

Europe and the European Union, however, are abdicating responsibility for the fate of national minorities. In fact, on this issue the E.U. remains oddly silent.

European history provides ample evidence that an inadequate response to national minority issues 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 Minister of the Interior
France's Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin speaks on the phone as he leaves the weekly cabinet meeting at The Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris on April 6, 2022. Ludovic MARIN / AFP/Getty Images

1. National minority issues are not a domestic issue, but a European one. Minority rights are part of universal human rights. Effective, successful management of this issue can be achieved only 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 relations"—derives from the protection of human dignity. It is identity that distinguishes between communities and protects the cultural assets by which they enrich all humanity.

3. In order to protect identity, both individual and collective rights need to be guaranteed. A minority is more than a group of individuals. Within these communities—like any other—are many complex relationships. It should be mentioned that demanding integration in the majority society without providing collective rights can generate tensions and real security risks, even conflicts, including the potential for secessionist claims. Among the most important of these collective rights are language rights and the right to education in a mother tongue—key elements of the protection of national minorities.

4. Citizenship and national identity are separate concepts that do not necessarily coincide. State authorities often expect that the identity of national communities living within their territories automatically coincides with citizenship. In other words, the citizen is obliged to align with the identity of the majority society, even if he or she belongs to a national minority. This has given rise to 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 the U.S., where different communities preserve their identities although they all remain American citizens (Mexican Americans, Chinese Americans, etc).

5. National minorities living in the territory of a member state are constituent elements of that state. Throughout the history of Europe state borders have often changed, and therefore several national communities have become minorities, and vice versa. These groups have largely lived in the same area despite border changes, where the imprint of their culture, traditions and religion can be found. In this way, irrespective of the powers that historically have dominated those areas, these groups have contributed to the development of their homeland and enriched the world's common values and culture.

Acceptance of the above principles as legal axioms is a basic condition for the creation of a new Pax Europaea, which will provide an opportunity for Europe to redefine itself in a global world while preserving its core 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 an American one, too.

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

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

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.