ifa: May 9th is Europe Day – the official holiday of the European Union to commemorate the first steps in the unification of Europe. The motto of the EU is 'United in diversity'. You are part of the German minority in Poland and head the Association of the German Social-Cultural Society there. Minorities are often described to as bridge-builders between cultures. To what extent do you contribute to living this motto at your places of residence?
Bernard Gaida: Generally speaking, you can say that minorities foster a certain openness in society. In regions where the majority society has a lot to do with minorities, it's easier for people to become more comfortable with the European idea. Diversity is seen in these places as nothing dangerous and rather as an enrichment – though not, unfortunately, always. As a person belonging to a minority, I say that we are fundamentally for Europe, but primarily in the sense of a community of values. This includes above all the appreciation of personal freedom and differences between peoples and cultures, but also the recognition of different historical experiences. I myself live in the Opole region, in Silesia, in western Poland. In Poland election results clearly show that in places where there is a large visible minority, pro-European parties get more votes than in regions without minorities. A good minority policy can therefore also be seen as a European policy.
We share the experience of being a minority
ifa: In total, there are around 100 million people on the European continent who belong to a minority. About half of them live within the European Union. Their position within nation states can be very different, and so too their realities. Is there something that unites them all – a common interest at the European level?
Gaida: We all share the experience of being a cultural and linguistic minority in a state. Education in the minority language is a very important issue for almost everyone. Even if the legal situation at the European level is theoretically the same for all minorities, there are strong regional differences in practice and in the legal situation in the individual nation states. Romania has a very well-developed German-language school system, from kindergarten to university. In Hungary, too, things are getting better every year. We would like the same in Poland as well. In Poland the German minority is numerically much larger than in Romania, but there's no school with German as the language of instruction and very few classes are taught bilingually. So it's difficult to preserve German as an everyday language.
In Europe there should be clear and uniform standards for all states on the implementation of minority rights.
ifa: Why these differences?
Gaida: I see two main reasons: the numerical size of a minority group in a place and the political will of the government in the state where the minority lives. The Ukrainian minority in Poland, for example, is very fragmented. It's difficult for them to organise themselves. The protection of minorities has so far not been an area of competence assigned to the European Union, but lies instead with the Council of Europe. There are two important agreements here: the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, or European Language Charter for short. They secure the right to multilingualism.
ifa: In addition to the European Union, the Council of Europe is an international European organisation that deals with European issues, particularly in the area of human rights. All 47 member states have signed the two agreements. So there are already common European standards, aren't there?
Gaida: The Council of Europe makes recommendations to states, but has little authority to implement them. We minorities in Europe perceive its work more as a kind of monitoring process: every three years there's a committee of experts before which minorities present their concerns, but then in practice little happens –that's our impression. For example, what exactly does the right to multilingualism mean and how should it be implemented specifically in a state? There are enormous differences in practical implementation within European countries, and not only when it comes to the school system. Another example is bilingual place-name signs: in Poland, this requires that at least 20 per cent of the locals identified themselves as a minority in the last census. In the Czech Republic it's only 10 per cent. In Germany, Sorbs have a historical right to bilingualism without having to provide a number. We would like minority policy to fall more within the competence of the European Union and not just that the Council of Europe.
'A strong minority policy in the EU also helps minorities outside the EU.'
ifa: The common political voice of minorities at the European level is the Federal Union of European Nationalities, or FUEN for short. It has launched the Minority SafePack initiative to make minority protection a matter for the European Union.
Gaida: With the Minority SafePack initiative, FUEN is bringing our common concerns to institutions that have executive powers, such as the European Commission. In this way best practice examples from different countries could be more easily adopted by other states – such as the successful implementation of the right to equality of minority languages, that is, the right to multilingualism. Minorities outside the EU would also benefit from this. Let me cite again the example of the German minorities: there are also German minorities outside the EU and Europe, as in Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Russia. If minority policy were an important part of the policy of the European Union, states outside the EU would certainly also deal more with minority issues. Unfortunately, the European Commission is currently showing little interest in the Minority SafePack initiative.
Interview conducted by Mirjam Karrer