The recent opinion of the European Commission for Democracy Through Law (also known as the Venice Commission) on Ukraine’s minority protection framework serves as a reminder of the country’s dubious preparedness for EU membership. The case also brings the EU’s own shortcomings in safeguarding minority rights – framed by the European Commission – into focus.
It happened just a few weeks ago: in mid-June, the European Commission for Democracy Through Law (CDL, Venice Commission) published its official opinion on the legal framework for the protection of minorities in Ukraine. The document deals with such pivotal issues as, for example, the right of national minorities to organize their events in their own language, the presence of national minorities in the media, and their relations with the Ukrainian authorities. One issue cannot escape the attention of Hungarian analysts when reading the opinion: according to 2021 census data, 150,000 Hungarians live in Ukraine.
At first glance, the opinion essentially echoes the sentiments expressed by the Venice Commission regarding the Kyiv administration’s stance on the matter. Insufficient measures taken to address concerns regarding minority protection are among the factors contributing to Ukraine’s lack of readiness to join the European Union, one might conclude.
But does anyone from the European Union have a moral basis to say this? The European Commission seems to think so, as it was relieved to note that the grunt work in the case of Ukraine has already been done by the Venice Commission.
Indeed, the work of the Venice Commission proves to be partially effective: the Ukrainian legislator has postponed the full implementation of the reform implying the gradual transformation of the secondary minority language school system into a state-language framework – again.
And although one can only agree with the decision in Kyiv, postponement – as FUEN (The Federal Union of European Nationalities) president Loránt Vincze explained – does not mean an effective solution.
If we are talking about solutions, the obvious question arises: why can national minorities in Europe expect more effective legal protection from one European Commission over another one?
The question, though rhetorical, may, unfortunately, be deemed less relevant in the foreseeable future. The EU had a prime opportunity to effectively enforce Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union, which, notably, carries a conservative undertone. It states that “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.”
It may sound idealistic, but in the realm of policy-making, the most effective way to demonstrate respect is by actively contributing to the preservation of the promotion of policy goals enshrined in legislative texts.
The European Commission missed out on this opportunity when it concluded in January 2021 that the full implementation of legislation and policies already in place provides a powerful arsenal to support the Minority SafePack Initiative’s goals.
But what is Minority SafePack? In fact, the Minority SafePack – one million signatures for diversity in Europe had the potential to become a remarkable success story of cross-party advocacy. Undoubtedly, the Minority SafePack Initiative breathed new life into the previously stagnant European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), reviving it from a state of dormancy.
Essentially, the institution of the ECI empowers EU citizens, who by the way hold citizenship in multiple member states, to initiate a request to the European Commission for the submission of a relevant proposal. This mechanism allows citizens to express their judgment on situations where they believe EU legislation is required for the effective implementation of the founding treaties.
The ECI is part of a series of measures that are – in theory – aimed at enhancing participatory democracy within the European Union and making the Union more accessible and tangible for EU citizens.
In accordance with the regulations governing the ECI, an impressive total of 1,123,422 verified signatures were gathered between April 3, 2017 and April 3, 2018, exceeding the required minimum of 7 member states by encompassing participation from 11 nations.
The European Parliament also backed the project: in December 2020, the body assured its support for the initiative in a resolution with a significant majority of 524 votes (with 67 against and 103 abstentions).
Much ado about nothing – the initiative failed in January 2021, and the Commission’s decision was confirmed by the Court of Justice of the European Union. So much for participatory democracy on the EU level.
But unfortunately, so much for the illusion that the European Union would be an excellent place for indigenous minorities as well. Last year, the Polish Sejm amended the law on the annual budget in such a way that, as a result of the amendment, approximately 10 million euros were withdrawn from education in minority languages. Moreover, despite the official recognition of Basque or Catalan as languages in Spain, it is widely acknowledged that accessing public services in these languages is, at best, a challenging endeavor. The situation is similar for the Dutch Frisians.
As long as the situation remains unchanged in the European Union in this regard, the European Commission will continue to owe the bloc a debt. It must undertake the responsibility of developing comprehensive legislation and establishing mechanisms designed to address the unique challenges confronted by minority communities.
The occasional occurrence of significant harm to the interests of minorities within the European Union serves as evidence that the European Commission has fallen short in fulfilling its duty to enforce existing regulations. This failure highlights the need for the Commission to address shortcomings and improve its performance in safeguarding the rights and well-being of minority communities.
The situation becomes particularly disheartening when considering the consistent inclination of the European Commission and the Court of Justice of the European Union to champion ‘more trending’ minority cases, such as the LGBTIQ Equality Strategy 2020-2025. Moreover, this approach inadvertently fuels negative political narratives around countries labeled as uncooperative.
In light of the above one might cynically suggest that it is enough for Ukraine to wait until accession to the EU by paying attention only to the Venice Commission in matters of ‘selective’ human rights protection, as one can observe this in the field of minority protection. However, cynicism equals cheap journalism in our contemporary world of rule of law reports.
Gergely Dobozi is a commentator and editor holding a law degree from ELTE University. Currently he is a Research Fellow at Danube Institute and editor-in-chief at Hungarian Conservative Online. He began his career as a commentator at Mandiner in 2020 where he maintained the column titled ‘Precedens’ that covered and analysed developments in the world of law. As a third-year PhD student at the University of Public Service, his areas of expertise include state sovereignty, judicial activism, international and EU law.