Minority SafePack: what does this European Citizens’ Initiative reveal about the EU?

Posted on 15. July 2014

by Doris Manu

doris-manuOne year ago, on 15 July 2013, a request was made to the European Commission for the registration of a citizens’ initiative (ECI) under the name ‘Minority SafePack – one million signatures for diversity in Europe’ by Mr Kelemen Hunor, president of the main political party of the Hungarian minority in Romania, and Mr Hans Heinrich Hansen,  president of the Federal Union of European Nationalities.

This document was strongly supported, among others, by the ethnic Austrians in South Tirol, ethnic Italians in Slovenia, ethnic Germans in Belgium and Denmark and ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia and Romania. It requested the EU to adopt and amend a set of legal acts to improve the protection of persons belonging to national and linguistic minorities in EU Member States. ”We believe that the European Commission must do more than it is doing now”, stated the petitioners. They demanded solutions to halt the extinction of languages and cultures, better anti-discrimination legislation, rights for stateless minorities equal to those of EU citizens and the abolishment of  licensing barriers that prevent minorities from accessing content in their mother tongue. Most importantly, they identified the problem of limited representation of minorities in the European Parliament due to the inability of the minorities’ parties to meet the threshold in elections. The petitioners therefore proposed the creation of a ‘minority platform’ that EU institutions could use as a consultation body.

Two months later the Commission rejected the initiative, arguing that it falls outside the framework of its powers as provided by the treaties. Although the petitioners noted in the document that ”if one of the proposals is deemed to be inadmissible, this should have no effect on the other proposals made”, the EC replied that ”the Regulation on the citizens’ initiative does not provide for the registration of part or parts of a proposed initiative.”

The signatories appealed to the European Court of Justice, convinced that the topics which form the subject of the ECI do fall under the framework of the Commission’s powers to submit a proposal for EU legal acts. Several member states, regions and NGOs sided with the signatories of the initiative.  Romania however, through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, supported the Commission. Now the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania, whose president initiated the ECI, threatens to redraw from the government coalition it is part of, provided the MFA does not change its mind.

Besides the threat to create a rift in the coalition government in Romania, the Minority SafePack also disclosed the possibility that an imbalance exists between EU values and the instruments needed to sustain them. Respecting personal rights of people belonging to a national minority is one of the European Union’s fundamental principles.   And – in the words of the Commission –  the treaties do contain a basis for adopting legal measures regarding the personal rights of minority citizens.

It is true that many of the member states have a good minority rights protection system in place, as recommended by the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities of the Council of Europe. But there is less EU legislation on minority rights, despite the commitment to this objective in the treaties. Some problems have surfaced, such as the effective participation of persons belonging to national minorities in EU politics: in most cases minority community representatives don’t stand a chance in elections for the European Parliament, unless the member state has separate constituencies for its minorities. If this would be addressed in the way Minority SafePack proposes, it would actually have the effect of Roma people and other minorities being able to make their voices heard in the EU decision-making process.

Does the Minority SafePack case reveal an upholding of the principle of subsidiarity, a lacuna in the treaties or a resistance to minority rights protection becoming an EU policy area? The Court of Justice will decide and whatever the conclusion is, this request from citizens on behalf of a large number of national minorities should not be disregarded in the debates about European issues and in future treaty revisions.