by Zsombor Ambrus

In the European Union alone out of the 500 million citizens, 50 million belong to a national, autochthonous minority or a minority language community, and a number of them are not even recognized by their states.

The Hungarian minority from Romania is the largest autochthonous minority in Europe, living in one country. According to the 2011 census 1,237,746 citizens, 6.5 percent of Romania’s population are of Hungarian nationality, the overwhelming majority (99%) of whom live in Transylvania. Nota bene, the region of Transylvania was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire until after World War I, when the Treaty of Trianon reduced Hungary to one third of its former size, leaving millions of Hungarians outside the borders of Hungary.

Transylvania is home to a Hungarian minority rich in culture, a Hungarian folk heritage that is one of a kind in the world, living traditions, a region that is unique in natural treasures, historical architecture, fine arts, and a language that is very different from the languages of Europe. People who visit Transylvania immediately notice that the region is somewhat different from the other regions in Romania. The numerous bilingual signs of the cities and villages in certain areas of Transylvania, the architecture, the culinary and cultural specifics are all indicators of a region that is culturally and linguistically outstanding in Romania, thus adding to the diversity of the country and Europe as a whole.

Despite the fact that the Hungarian community represents a valuable asset in terms of the multicultural aspect of Romania, Hungarians in the country are more than often considered a threat by some members of the majority population. 27 years after the fall of communism in Romania, the creation of democratic institutions and the establishment of the rule of law, and after 10 years of EU membership, the Hungarian community of Romania still faces serious discrimination. There are numerous unresolved issues when it comes to minority rights, such as guaranteeing bilingualism, respect for the symbols of the minority communities, advancements in the educational and health care system, and the enforcement of the legislation providing rights to the national and ethnic minorities, in general.

Without detailing the history and the system of protection for autochthonous minorities in Europe, it should be mentioned that for the citizens of the EU member states, there are no established mechanisms for protecting minority rights, other than the instruments provided by the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The European Union itself provides no framework for minority protection, since it is not one of its competences. States seeking EU membership have to conform to a set of criteria pertaining to the protection of minorities. However, with the moment of accession to the Union, minority protection is basically reduced to a state competence, legislation and policies on the issue become troublesome to sustain, not to mention their improvement or further development.

As legal recognition of the different minorities in Europe continues to spark a series of heated debates, the EU has refrained from including the minority protection in the acquis communataire, acting only within the limits of the competences established within the Treaties. Unfortunately, certain member states are reluctant to give up control over minority issues.

The various EU member states use different norms, establish and apply different standards in recognizing minorities and ensuring their right to use their native language, the right to educate their children in their mother language and to preserve their culture. This obvious discrepancy is to the detriment of the Union as a whole, since the fate of 50 million citizens must be regulated on a supranational level. The situation of European autochthonous minorities, ethnic communities, regional and linguistic groups should not be considered an internal affair of the different member states. Minority protection should rather be developed and enforced on an EU level. In order to achieve this, minorities first of all need to formulate a relatable and clear message, to persuade the member states and the EU that minority protection is beneficial for every autochthonous, national and linguistic minority of Europe, and most importantly, it does not take away anything from the majority. Currently, the member states have no desire to further the implementation of the various minority-related legislation that has been adopted during the pre-accession period, as a result of the obligations imposed by the “Copenhagen-criteria”.

Starting with 2011, there is a new tool at the disposal of the citizens of Europe, a new political participation instrument, through which citizens can now directly propose and affect European legislation. The ”Minority SafePack” (MSPI) is such a European Citizens’ Initiative that calls upon the EU for legislative support and the protection of persons belonging to national and linguistic minorities, and to strengthen the cultural and linguistic diversity of Europe. Multiculturalism and diversity are fundamental values of the EU, and it is in the best interest of Europe and all of its citizens to protect these key principles.

What the MSPI basically means and what it asks for is to stop and reverse the extinction of languages and cultures in Europe, equal access to European funds (since all European citizens pay taxes), a Language Diversity Centre, strong regions, strong communities, research into the role of minorities, an improved anti-discrimination framework, rights for stateless persons, unlimited access to information and entertainment in the mother language, and saying goodbye to digital borders and geoblocking.

The gathering of signatures has officially begun in May 2017, and EU citizens can sign the Initiative at Nevertheless, this is merely the first step. The next challenge is to spread the word, since MSPI needs 1 million signatures in order for the European Commission to consider turning this Initiative into a legislative proposal. In the meantime, however, there is a need to build support for the Minority SafePack by sustaining a dialogue with the majority population, in order to reinforce the fact that the MSPI is a common European cause.

The Hungarians in Romania, just like every other autochthonous minority in Europe, want to preserve their mother tongue, their identity and culture. In order to achieve this, they need a set of measures and concrete legal acts for the promotion and protection of the European minorities and the regional or minority languages. A European Union divided on minority protection is not sustainable in the long run. And that is where the importance of the Minority SafePack Initiative lies.

“Unity in Diversity” can only be truly achieved if each and every person belonging to an autochthonous minority feels that they are equal citizens of the European Union, and for that they need partners, and they need Europe to accept them as integral members of the European community.

07 October 2017
This text was published in Bullseye issue 69