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Deeply Rooted in the Regions: minorities are active partners in regional development

Minorities contribute to the economic and cultural development of their homeland regions, they are bridge-builders in interregional cooperation, yet their contribution is not always recognised and the resources they can offer are not always put to good use – these were some of the conclusions of FUEN’ two-day conference in Brussels. The event on minority communities and language groups in the EU Regions entitled Deeply Rooted in the Regions, held between the 30th of November and December the 1st was hosted by the Committee of the Regions.

“Fifty million people belong to a national minority or language group and live in one of the European regions, which they call homeland, as they express a strong regional identity. Regional policy offers one of the most effective frameworks of cooperation in Europe, which created effective solutions and common projects aiming economic, social and cultural development. Unfortunately, the role and the contribution of minorities in this framework is not obvious. So far, too little use has been made of the opportunities that minorities offer for the strengthening of economic and social development and territorial cohesion, and it is time to do more” – said FUEN President Loránt Vincze in his welcome speech.

The regional policy is one of the core elements of FUEN’s most important project, the Minority SafePack Initiative. We aim to call on the EU to amend the common provisions of the regional funds in such a way that the thematic objectives include the protection of national minorities and the promotion of cultural and linguistic diversity, said the President of the umbrella organisation of European nationalities.

The first panel of the conference Added value – the contribution of minority communities to social and economic development in the EU was moderated by the expert in multilingualism, Johan Hagmann. In her keynote speech the Vice President of the Csongrád County Council (Hungary), Anna Magyar pointed out that 15% of European citizens have a different identity than the majority of the country they were born in, and they have the right to keep their identities, because this is true diversity. Minorities contribute to the culture, to the preservation of the cultural heritage, and they can be the facilitators of tourism in a region. Local and regional politicians may support this, but sometimes the national decision makers block the regional initiatives – she said.

Mikel Irujo Amezaga presented the Navarra region, a strong and autonomous region of Spain, where he thinks the key to success has been the Basque language and the cooperatives, a large-scale form of social entrepreneurship practiced in the region.

Member of CoR and president of Harghita county of Romania Borboly Csaba presented the county where Hungarians, they live there in majority and are the driving force of the region: tourism. He stressed the need for programmes aimed to keep the young generation from immigrating or to make them come back there, as this is key in identity preservation. Europe is working if all citizens feel themselves at home, he concluded.

Jens A. Christiansen, Chair of the European Dialogue Forum in the FUEN presented the border region of Germany and Denmark, where the minorities are the bridge-builders, facilitators of dialogue and collaboration between the regions. Minorities are recognized more and more as a resource, he said, adding that it is not enough to recognize the minorities, a framework for collaboration also needs to be created.

Davide Zaffi, Board Member of the Society for the Enhancement of National Communities in Europe explained why South-Tyrol is an economically well-performing province. Part of the answer is the high level of autonomy given to the province: with more decisional power and more money you have a better chance of answering your people’s needs. The role of language is equally important: in the eyes of South-Tyroleans the language is not a good to be preserved, or just a part of the cultural heritage, but the base for everything. There is no field of activity that remains outside the language, and everything needs to be shaped accordingly, Mr. Zaffi explained. His advice: public life must consider the linguistic aspect.

Thursday’s session of the conference was concluded with an open discussion of minority and minority-friendly regions, with an active input from members of the FUEN Presidium Halit Habip Oğlu, Olga Martens, Dieter-Paul Küssner and Gösta Toft. In his introductory remarks MEP Csaba Sógor stated that an arrangement with the majority is a prerequisite for the wellbeing of autochthonous minorities, and this can be obtained through dialogue. Unfortunately, not all European states have such an arrangement with their minorities, and the total rejection of dialogue is unacceptable. „Without legal and institutional guarantees there is no long lasting peaceful coexistence between majority and minority. The Minority SafePack Initiative is important because it reaches out to the European institutions to intervene and raise the minority issue on the agenda where there has been no dialogue” – he concluded.

Friday’s first panel, moderated by Dieter Paul Küssner was entitled Anchored in the Homeland – regional identities to strengthen territorial cohesion and to protect cultural and linguistic heritage. In his keynote speech Herwig Van Staa, member of CoR and president of the Austrian Land Tirol stated that Europe simply would not exist without diversity. But, when it comes to  diversity, Member States sometimes tend to see it on state level only, and the same applies to some regions as well. Minorities have the right to take part in the decision making process and they deserve self-governance, said Mr Van Staa.

The Minister President of the German Community in Belgium, Oliver Paasch presented the German speaking community’s situation in Belgium. Although they are a small community of less than 1% of the total population, they have their own region and autonomy, which helps them to take measures, which answer the needs of the German speaking community. This is why currently they are the only one of the five regions of Belgium with a positive budget and a very low unemployment rate. The Minister President said that their example proves that giving self-governance to small communities does not hurt anybody.

Peter Kaiser, Member of CoR, the Governor of Carinthia, home of the Slovenian minority of Austria had a more philosophical approach towards the issue, stating that every person can have several homelands, depending on the different identity-creating aspects. We need to strengthen these identities, as the minorities have to feel at home in their region, in their state and in Europe, was his conclusion.

Johannes Callsen, Minority Commissioner of Land Schleswig-Holstein said in his intervention that minorities are an added value for the society, but in order for them to act as bridge-builders a majority has to build the foundation of such a bridge. The organisational integration of minorities and creating a legal framework for participation are essential in this process – he added.

Roman Kolek, the Vice-Marshall of Voivodship of Opole presented the smallest region of Poland, where 80,000 Germans live. He presented the region’s plans for next year regarding minority programs, but he also added that in the last two years the nationalist rhetoric made things harder and the role of the self-government has diminished due to centralisation.

In the conference’s last panel, entitled Updating priorities, Aleksandra Pivec, Deputy Minister for Slovenian Minorities and Slovenians abroad, presented the Government Office for Slovenians Abroad. The institution is in permanent contact with Slovenians living in neighbouring countries and in other parts of the world, and finances these communities. They aim to facilitate cross-border collaboration and have special projects developed to involve young people.

MEP Gyula Winkler stated that after the Minority SafePack Initiative would become a success, “we have to make sure the European Parliament and the EU institutions recognize the formal consultative role of FUEN on minority issues. We also expect the European Commission to develop EU funding programs to support minority communities in culture, education, language use and local development to preserve their identity and build a predictable future in their homeland for the next generations as well. It would be very useful to have an aid program that would help FUEN and minority organizations build a network of language and minority centres in the regions where this is needed”, proposed the Hungarian politician from Romania.

David Statnik, President of Domowina presented the Sorbs from Germany and drew attention to the fact that every region is shaped differently, and that there is no magic potion or universal cure for the different problems minorities are facing.

Tove H. Malloy, Director of the European Centre for Minority Issues said that there is a total lack of references to minorities in almost all of the essential EU funds, and saving the culture and language of minorities is not mentioned as a priority objective. As the ECMI’s studies have shown, minorities contribute to regionalisation and to general development. This is why the EU policies must acknowledge minorities as active partners and participants, and must recalibrate the definition of regions, including the minority factor – she concluded.

The President of the Committee of Regions, Karl-Heinz Lambertz was presented at the conference by FUEN President Loránt Vincze as a great supporter of FUEN and the MSPI, as he is a member of the Citizens Committee of the MSPI.

The President of the CoR told the audience that two national delegations have asked him not to host this event. His answer was that what has been discussed here was not the official position of the CoR, but FUEN is a credible partner who can always start a dialogue while he was president.

Mr Lambertz proposed the creation of an interregional group within the CoR for border-regions or for minority delegates from the regions, and also to propose a resolution in the CoR to support the Minority SafePack Initiative. 

Minority rights should be connected with general policies we already have inside the EU and UN: multilingualism, regional cohesion, human rights, cultural heritage, foreign policy – said the President of the Committee of Regions.

*The project was supported by the Federal Ministry of the Interior and funded by the Federal Republic of Germany.