Minorities Issues in the New Europe

The hard path to the approval of Lisbon Treaty highlights the unresolved problems of minorities in Eastern and Central Europe. The hasty accession to EU of new countries since 2004, has left minorities issues far behind. Problems turn up every time European Union intends to take a step forward.

The new wording of the Treaty on European Union according the Lisbon Treaty mentions protection of minorities rights in article 2:

“The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.”

This mention would not have been possible in a European stage where countries of Central and Eastern Europe had not been present. New Lisbon Treaty adds the sentence “including the rights of persons belonging to minorities” to the previous wording of the ancient articule 6.1, made by Amsterdam Treaty (1997) which entered into force on 1 May 1999.

Since the enlargement of 2004, European Union faces unresolved problems of minorities that had passed unnoticed in negotiations of accession. In those days, negotiators were concentrated in the acquis implementation, leaving the thorny minorities matter aside. It goes without saying that European Commission monitored this question superficially, following the provisions given by The Copenhagen criteria of 1993 in a very soft way. Perhaps Commission thought that minorities issues would be better resolved in the framework of European Union, once the big enlargement took place. But the sleeping problem woke up earlier than expected.

On the occasion of the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, a minorities subject has been posed by Czech Republic and one of its regulations, popularly known as Beneš decrees. This regulation, made up of several decrees, laid down, among others provisions, the expropriation of the property of wartime “traitors” and collaborators accused of treason, but, in fact, was applied to all Germans and Hungarians collectively. Apart from this, about 90 % of the ethnic German population was expelled from Czechoslovakia, after revoking Czechoslovakian citizenship.

The Beneš decrees’ matter arouse on the occasion of the accession of Czech Republic, at the end of 90s, remaining in the round table long time. Really, the problem of Beneš decrees referred to German minorities, is far more than a minorities issue, because most of German minority, by virtue of these decrees, was expelled and, therefore, does not live in Czech territory. It can be said, that Benes decrees refers to an ancient minority or to the phantom or soul of this minority that appears, from time to time, to remember us old offenses that have not been repaired yet. The fact is that Benes decrees’ problem was not considered then as a insurmountable obstacle even though the question was discussed for a long time. Needless to say that the most interested countries in Czechoslovakia accession were, undoubtedly, Germany and Austria, because this new member would be the natural area of business expansion due to both historical and geographical proximity. An hypothetical compensation to victims granted by Czech Republic for the ethnic cleansing fostered by Benes decrees would be infinitely lower than expected profits of German and Austrian companies in an enlarged EU. Freedom of capitals deserved to turn a blind eye.

Normally problems not well solved in the past use to appear, suddenly, in the present, and the phantom of German minorities of Sudeten is not an exemption. Lisbon Treaty was seen by Czech Government as a new threat of waking up that phantom through the application of the article 6 of the Treaty on European Union, (TEU) according to the new wording lain dawn by the Lisbon Treaty. This article confers to the rights, freedoms and principles set out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights the same legal value as the Treaties and states that fundamental rights, as guaranteed by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and as they result from the constitutional traditions common to the Member States, shall constitute general principles of the Union’s law. Based upon this article Czech Government feared futures claims made by expelled, expropriated Germans or their successors.

New institutional crisis has been resolved several days ago as Czech President Vaclav Klaus ratified the Treaty in 13 November 2009, after Czech Constitutional Court had ruled that the Lisbon Treaty was in line with the constitution. Klaus signed the Act of ratification having obtained of UE the engagement of excluding Czech Republic from the application of article 6 of TEU. Czech Republic would ratify the Treaty in exchange for enriching the latter by a new Protocol, coming in addition to Protocol 30, that provides guarantee clauses on the application of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, affecting only United Kingdom and Poland. By virtue of this Protocol the ability of the Court of Justice of the European Union, any court or tribunal of Poland or of the United Kingdom, does not extend to find that the regulations, practices or actions of such countries are inconsistent with the Charter’s fundamental rights, freedoms and principles. The expected modification would not be immediate for Czech Republic but these changes would be introduced in the text of Croatia’s EU accession treaty that would take place in 2012 according to realistic forecast.

The crisis arouse by Czech Republic’s stance highlights that the pavement of enlargements of 2004 and 2007 was built in a hasty way, with poor materials and without any guarantee for the rest of Europe. Current minorities of Central and Eastern Europe or their phantoms of the past have not achieved theirs claims and hope to achieved them in the New European System. As far as a lot of countries have recently joined EU without resolving this matter, waiting for a solution since the Austrian-Hungarian Empire’s collapse, minorities issues will threaten any attempt to take steps forward in the European Construction.

In particular, the opt-out granted to Czech Republic could be demanded by Slovakia. Although this country has already ratified the treaty without any additional requirements, due to the demands of the Czech president “we have become, against our will, part of the process”, said Slovakia’s foreign ministry. Needless to say that this same argument can be used by other countries in Est and Central Europe to ask for a privilegied status in UE, simply reminding other Members about unfortunate facts of their History in which minorities are involved in.

EU Institutions must not commit this basic mistake with foreseen enlargement towards Southeastern Europe. Ethnic cleansing in Balkans has been a recent problem, for which a new hasty accession could fracture the European Construction because of minorities issues still present in collective memory.

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