PRIMIS - The protection of linguistic minorities in the EU legal system


The Federal Union of European Nationalities (FUEN) estimates that there are over forty million people in Europe belonging to at least 400 indigenous linguistic minorities; one European citizen out of seven speaks one of about 60 regional minority languages.

The issue of the protection of linguistic or national minorities consequently assumes a social and cultural relevance which, however, until the Lisbon Treaty (2009), the Community regulatory framework mostly operated in terms of safeguarding and non-discrimination of minorities on an ethnic basis rather than addressing the issue of minority rights. The provisions contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and subsequently in the Treaty of Rome (1957) were limited to referring to the freedoms and rights of the person and social groups and the linguistic regime of the institutions.

Greater attention has been devoted to the problem by the European Parliament to which, since the 1980s, a series of initiatives have been owed. In 1981, with the adoption of the Arfé Resolution, is requested the adoption of a community charter that protects the languages and regional cultures of ethnic minorities. Subsequently, the Kuijpers Resolution (1987) concerns the use of the languages and cultures of regional and ethnic minorities, while the Killilea Resolution (1994) raised attention to the protection of "lesser-used" languages and cultures in Europe.

The need to proceed towards full implementation in the field of the "human dimension" in terms of collective rights was also highlighted by the Document of the Copenhagen meeting of the Conference on the human dimension of the CSCE of the 29th June 1990.

In 1991, a draft European Convention on the protection of minorities and specifically on the notion of "ethnic minority" applied to indigenous minorities was presented to the Council of Europe, but it would only be adopted in 1995.

The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages issued by the Council of Europe in 1992 represents a significant step forward in the perception so far of the issue of languages in Europe. It states that languages are no longer to be counted generically among the rights to be recognized to minorities, but that they should enjoy specific rights (to teaching, justice, public services, media, cultural activities and cross-border exchanges). However, being enacted by an international organization, the ratification of the Charter only affects the individual states that join the Council of Europe.

Meanwhile, the growing relevance of the recognition of the protection of the rights of linguistic and ethnic minorities in Europe has been confirmed by its inclusion in 1993 in the so-called Copenhagen criteria adopted by the Council of Europe, as one of the "political" requirements in the accession process to the EU for new members.

Moreover, the sensitivity of the problem has been aggravated by the disintegration of multinational states since the early 1990s which has also raised the question of the adequacy of the treatment of minorities in heterogeneous areas. This was fully perceived by the Central European - CEI Initiative which dealt with it directly in 1994 through the Instrument for the protection of minority rights; a document whose drafting, in fact, developed in parallel with the work of the Council of Europe for the European Framework Convention on the Protection of Minorities approved in 1995.

A new factor was the legal force contained in the Charter of Fundamental Rights (adopted in 2000), which contains in particular two articles which prohibit discrimination based on language and require respect for linguistic diversity. These rights were taken up in the Treaty of the European Union (2012), introducing them among the values of the Union.

In 2013, the Minority Safepack - One million Signatures for Diversity in Europe, was promoted by FUEN as an Initiative of European citizens - an instrument of participatory democracy. It proposes a series of legislative acts aimed at the protection of people belonging to national and linguistic minorities and the strengthening of cultural and linguistic diversity in the Union, also including provisions on state aid. The initiative, recognized by the European Commission only in 2017, was submitted to the EC in early 2020 once 1.1 million signatures had been collected, pending that it decides whether the procedure can be transformed into a legislative process.

In support of this action, a new inter-party group of MEPs has recently been established within the European Parliament, with the aim of supporting the action of the Minority SafePack to safeguard minority rights.