“The EU should be the guardian of national minorities”

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Interview. Loránt Vincze is the first person from Eastern Europe to become president of the Federal Union of European Nationalities. “Of course this means a new perspective”, says Vincze who has recently been responsible for collecting one million signatures in Europe to protect national minorities in the EU

By Anna-Lise Bjerager  (Editor of Grænsen magazine, Grænseforeninge)

Anna-Lise Bjerager: Mr. Loránt Vincze, you have been the president of the Federal Union of European Nationalities, FUEN, the largest umbrella organization of the national minorities in Europe, since May 2016. What has been your main objective during these two years?

Loránt Vincze: The main objective of the FUEN is to become a strong voice for the national minorities in Europe. Another focus is central and Eastern Europe where the national minorities experience many problems, especially in Ukraine, in the Western Balkans and the Caucasus region. Within the FUEN, we now have a good balance between members from central and Eastern Europe and members from Western Europe. I am the first person from East of Vienna, to become the president of the FUEN. Of course that means a new perspective.

AB: During the last year, FUEN has been engaged in collecting one million signatures for a European Citizens’ Initiative, the Minority Safe Pack Initiative. The Initiative, once formally registered, will allow one million citizens to invite the European Union to propose legal acts concerning protection and strengthening of cultural and linguistic diversity within the EU. How would you describe the process of collecting one million signatures?

LV: The Minority SafePack Initiative campaign has been FUEN’s main objective since April 2nd 2017 (until April 3rd 2018). From the moment the intiative was registered, on 2nd of April 2017, the clock started ticking. We put all our energy into collecting the one million signatures. It is a human instinct that people are more active as a deadline is approaches, so most efforts were made close to the finish line. The process of collecting the signatures led to an important conclusion: The national minorities in Western European countries seem to be in a good situation and they are a bit too relaxed. Why this conclusion? Because it was very difficult to collect signatures in these countries. Also, we have learnt that FUEN must give more capacity building training to its members in order for them to be stronger in challenging situations, such as the Minority SafePack Initiative.

AB: European Citizens’ Initiatives, have since April 2012 provided EU citizens with a tool to participate in shaping EU policy. However, so far this has not proven to be successful at a larger scale in influencing European politics. Will the Minority SafePack Initiative make a difference? What do you think?

LV: I think that this initiative is different from the earlier initiatives, since it is not targeting a narrow policy aim. Our initiative is more generally aiming at improving the cultural and linguistic conditions for EU’s national minorities and I think it will have the chance of catching the attention of the EU institutions. I noticed that Margrethe Vestager, the Danish EU commissioner, was interviewed by the Danish German-speaking newspaper, Der Nordschleswiger, saying she had heard about the initiative. At the very least, the campaign has set a focus on national minorities in Europe and thus made a difference.

AB: Why is it necessary to focus on national minority rights in Europe?

LV: At the moment, there is no EU legislation protecting national minorities, their languages and their culture, because this is within the competence of the member states. This would not be a problem if the member states would do their job, however, this is not the case for not only in Eastern Europe but also in many Western European countries. In France e.g. autochthonous (national, ed.) minorities are not recognized, and in Greece, the Turk minority is not recognized even though they have lived in the country for many centuries. Within the FUEN, we are of the opinion, that the EU should find a way to be the guardian of the minority groups and promote best practices from countries like e.g. Germany, Denmark, Finland and South Tyrol.

AB: You yourself belong to the Hungarian minority in Romania. What does your own background look like?

LV: My family has its deep roots in Transylvania, which today is a region in central Romania with 1,200,000 inhabitants with ethnic Hungarian background. My family has roots in different parts of Transylvania. They never moved, but the borders shifted several times. Today, one third of the Hungarians live outside of Hungary.  Romania does not recognize the Hungarians as a community. As ethnic Hungarians, we have individual rights to use our language, to have mother tongue education and schools, but we are not recognized as an autonomous community being in charge of our own public education, cultural and media institutions.

AB: So being president of the FUEN is also a personal matter for you?

LV: I believe it would not even be possible to be the FUEN leader without a minority background. Only then you are able to understand the problems and dilemmas which minority groups are facing.

AB: You currently live in Brussels with your family. How do you maintain your minority identity?

LV: My wife is also from Transylvania and we have a 12-year-old son. At home, we only speak Hungarian. We also visit our home regularly to meet his grandparents. Our son has a teacher in Transylvania who teaches him lessons via Skype every week. He attends a French school where he also learns Flemish and he takes private lessons in English. My wife and I think it is important that he is familiar with his own background, that he maintains his Hungarian identity, while at the same time he learns about other languages and cultures as well.

AB: Your country, Hungary, lost two-third of its territory after World War One. Almost 1.9 million Hungarians now live in Romania, Slovakia, Serbia and Ukraine. The territories lost, still play a role in Hungarian policy today and might be one brick in a complex puzzle in explaining why Hungary experiences nationalism today. How do you consider the political situation in Hungary today?

LV: Hungary has a tumultuous and heavy history and it is understandable that Hungarians strongly debate all influences from the outside world. It is a result of the collective mentality of the Hungarians. I do not want to be a defender of Mr. Orbán (Prime Minister of Hungary since 2010, ed.) and the policy of the Hungarian government, but one can notice that Hungary does a lot to support national minorities in Hungary as well as Hungarians abroad when it comes to language, culture and business development for small and medium size enterprises and farmers.

Nationalism is not a bad thing, if it aims at strengthening the national identity and culture and creating a common narrative for the people. Nationalism is dangerous when it becomes extreme and threatens individuals or groups who are not a part of the ethnic group. The latter is certainly not the case in Hungary: The ethnic minorities are recognized, they have a cultural autonomy system and state funding, however, there is still much to do, especially regarding the Roma people.

Today, Hungary does not want immigrants as part of the working force and this should be respected. Regarding the refugees coming to Europe during the migrant crisis in 2015, the Hungarian policy is to support them in the nearest safe place to their home countries so that they have the chance to go back home and rebuild their countries, when it is safe to do so. As I understand it, this is also the Danish stand.

AB: Prime Minister Orbán sees Brussels as the modern equivalent to Moscow during the communist era. With “the Minority SafePack Initiative” in mind, you seem to consider Brussels as the capital of hope when it comes to minority rights. How do you explain this difference in opinion?

LV: I believe in the European project, but at the same time, I am of the opinion that one should always be critical towards all institutions with a political mandate. In my opinion, the EU should not only be a political and economic project but it should also protect and nourish the European cultural and linguistic diversity. Minority cultures and languages are part of the diversity. I believe the minority communities from all over the EU are the most EU-enthusiastic citizens because they count on Brussels to stand up for them.

AB: FUEN has its main office in Flensburg and additional offices in Brussels and Berlin. Together with Sydslesvigsk Forening (SSF), FUEN has proposed a “House of Minorities” in the city of Flensburg including “a European Centre of Information and Documentation” – an initiative that as of now seems to have failed. What are your comments to this latest development after the Danish government has cancelled its support?

LV: There are several aspects of answering this question. I think the Danish government made a political decision when it cancelled its support and that I find regrettable.

Secondly, the fact that the Danish minority in Germany was not agreeing on this topic, made things difficult. At the moment, the Danish government will not change its decision. However, Germany is still in support, as well as the FUEN for the house of minorities’ project and its location in Flensburg. Now we need the Danish minority to make up its mind and take a position.

I am very disappointed about the fact, that FUEN lost the support of the Danish government. It is not a main problem financially speaking, but politically speaking it is hard to understand as we in the FUEN share the point of view of the Danish government that the Danish-German border region represents the best practice region when it comes to protection of national minorities. The support from the Danish government meant an investment in promoting this best practice in other border regions within Europe.

AB: Where do you see a “House of Minorities” placed in the future?

LV: Firstly, I still hope for a solution in Flensburg. As I said, we will await the position of the Danish minority. If the Danish minority will not be in agreement on this, I think that many other regions will be interested in hosting a “House of Minorities”.

AB: The Danish-German border region has been considered a stronghold when it comes to minority rights. The Bonn-Copenhagen Declarations from 1955 stating the rights of the Danish minority in Germany and the German minority in Denmark is an example often referred to internationally. How do you consider the Danish-German border region’s importance in the future?

LV: No border region in the world could uphold its privileged status forever or take it for granted. The legacy of the border region between Germany and Denmark must be nourished and kept alive as must the legacy in any border region. From both sides of the border, investments into this must be made constantly. Otherwise, the importance of the region will fade. The Danish-German border region is still vital and I hope it will manage to uphold its status as an best practice example.

AB: Today, many “new” minorities are present in Europe. In Sweden and Hungary, the Jews have been granted the protection of “the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities” under the European Council. It has been suggested that the Turkish minority in Germany should be granted the same protection. What do you think of this?

LV: It is an ongoing discussion, but FUEN fights against this. We believe that the national minorities are in their own right and thus need their own legal instruments. In the concrete matter in Germany, FUEN was asked from the highest level and spoke against it. Within the FUEN, we want to uphold this legal instrument (the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, ed.) for the national minorities. Maybe in the future new instruments must be implemented to guarantee the new minorities in Europe.

AB: Will it be possible to differ between ethnic, religious and national minorities in the future, what do you think?

LV: In my opinion, these three minorities groups are totally different and their priorities are not the same. Immigrants made a decision to move from their homes and need to integrate in their host society, whereas the national minorities have been living in the same area for centuries, struggling not to let themselves assimilate into the majority culture. They never moved. The borders shifted. 

AB: Does FUEN support the Catalonians and other separatist/regionalist movements in Europe?

LV: FUEN is of the opinion that good solutions must be found inside the states through dialogue and thus does not support separatism as such. However, to find good solutions two sides are needed: The minorities must present their requests and on the other side the majority must listen and be generous. In this way, the minorities will be satisfied and become loyal citizens in their respective states. Regarding the development at the end of March, with mr. Carles Puigdemont being arrested near the Danish-German border, I am of the opinion that the EU should negotiate between the separatists and the Spanish government. Dialogue is most needed and the EU could facilitate this dialogue.

AB: How do you see the future for the national minorities in Europe?

LV: I believe we have a very big chance of making a change. One million Europeans have signed in support of cultural and linguistic diversity in Europe. This is a strong signal which must be taken into account in Brussels. Maybe not tomorrow. But we will keep on fighting in order to make a change and we are aiming in the right direction. 


 Loránt Vincze
, born 1977, belongs to the Hungarian minority in Romania, president of the FUEN since 2016. MA in public administration and e-government, earlier: CEO and editor-in-chief of the Hungarian language daily in Bucharest, radio journalist, parliamentary assistant to the Hungarian members from Romania of the European Parliament. Since 2018 he has been the Advisor on minority protection to the Antall József Knowledge Center in Budapest. Lives in Brussels, married, one son.

FUEN (Federal Union of European Nationalities) is an international non-governmental organization established in 1949 representing the civil society of the autochthonous, national minorities and regional or minority languages in Europe. FUEN works together with the European Union, the Council of Europe, the OSCE and the United Nations. FUEN has consultative status at the UN and participatory status at the Council of Europe. Until 1989/90 FUEN had only minor contact with Middle- and Eastern Europe. Today, the FUEN also represents the national minorities in these countries representing more than 98 member organizations from 33 countries.

This interview with Loránt Vincze was first published in the Danish magazine Grænsen, (The Border), published by the border association, Grænseforeningen, Copenhagen, on April 19th, 2018. It is brought with the permission of Grænsen.

Key Topics

  • Political Participation
  • Fundamental Rights
  • Linguistic Diversity
  • Solidarity with the Roma
  • European Citizens' Initiative
  • European Network
  • Forum of the European Minorities / House of Minorities


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