The EU and Minority Languages: Missed Opportunities and Double Standards

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Series Details No.5, 2007
Publication Date November 2007
ISSN 1360-1326.
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Abstract: Since its enlargement in 2004, language has occupied an increasingly important place in the European Union (EU). But it seems that minority languages and their speakers are a forgotten category in this new environment. In general, the official languages of each Member State are also the official languages of the EU (Council Regulation n. 1, O.J. 017/385, 15 April 1958 and article 314 EC), but despite a significant increase in the EU’s minority languages in 2004, the EU has been silent on how linguistic minorities and minority languages incorporate EU policies. So far, the EU has been reluctant to interfere in a sphere that is seen primarily as of the competence of each Member State, an attitude highlighted by Leonard Orban’s recent comments when the Multilingualism Commissioner Designate at his hearing by the European Parliament stated that “[t]he protection of language rights was a matter for the Member States’”

This paper will discuss the EU’s shortcomings in providing protective measures for its minorities in line with international and regional standards and its failure to adopt a clear European standard or model to promote the protection of minority languages. Firstly, with regard to the protection of linguistic minorities the EU should develop a more prominent role in this area. Indeed, respect for and protection of minorities is a condition for accession to the EU. Furthermore, the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe (Constitutional Treaty) has elevated the protection of people belonging to minorities to the status of a value, as it states that “the Union is founded on the values of respect for the rights of persons belonging to minorities” (O.J. C310/1). Secondly, with regard the protection of minority languages, the current language regime is primarily focussed on the official languages of the EU to the detriment of minority languages despite the cultural diversity pledge made in 1992 in the Treaty on the EU (TEU: Article 151 (1) EC, TEU, O.J. C191, 29 July 1992). A necessary corollary to enlargement of the EU’s membership is the increase in official languages. This has gradually shifted the focus of its language regime towards facilitating dominance of a few languages to the detriment of the more vulnerable languages. Finally, the EU’s role will become more defined with the adoption of the Constitutional Treaty and Charter for Fundamental Rights which refers to respect for linguistic diversity. Hence there is scope for the EU to develop a more active coordinating role both in the protection of linguistic minorities and minority languages. The EU might thereby provide Member States with a standard for minority language right protection in line with International Treaties and in cooperation with other regional organisations such as the Council of Europe.

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