Mr Sigve Gramstad’s speech to the Chamber of Regions of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe

(31 May 2005, afternoon)

The European Charter for regional and minority languages

Ladies and Gentlemen, distinguished representatives of the Chamber of Regions,

It is a great honour and pleasure for me to address your Chamber. We have not forgotten that the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages was first conceived in the Standing Conference of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe. It was on the basis of a text put forward by the Congress’ predecessor that the Charter was eventually adopted.

The Charter has since considerably moved forward. 17 European States have ratified it so far, from Armenia in the East to United Kingdom in the West, from Norway in the North to Spain in the South. 55 different regional and minority languages and more than 28 million users of such languages are covered. 14 more states have signed it. The rhythm of ratifications has slowed down in the last few years, owing in particular to the fact that ratifying the detailed provisions of the Charter may require time and sometimes leads to complicated domestic debates and revision of national legislation. However, new ratifications are expected in the near future.

One of the oustanding features of the system set up by the Charter is its monitoring mechanism. It is thanks to the work of the independent Committee of Experts, whose detailed and in-depth assessment of the implementation of the Charter is followed by the political intervention of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, that the Charter has now truly become a living instrument.

So far, the Committee of Experts has adopted twenty-two evaluation reports (compared to seven just two and a half years ago). For seven countries [Austria, Denmark, Germany, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom] only the first evaluation report has been adopted. In seven other cases, a second monitoring round has now taken place, [Croatia, Finland, Hungary, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, Norway and Switzerland]. All these reports which have already been considered by the Committee of Ministers have been made public and are available online1 or in paper form from the Charter's Secretariat in DGI/Directorate of Co-operation for Local and Regional Democracy. In the next months the Committee of Ministers is going to receive the second evaluation report concerning Croatia and the first evaluation report concerning Spain, including proposals for recommendations which the Committee of Ministers may consider forwarding to each country.

The Committee of Experts is presently dealing with the second monitoring round for Germany and with the first monitoring rounds concerning Armenia and Slovakia. Furthermore, in the next few months it is expected to start the first evaluation round concerning Cyprus, the second round concerning Sweden and the third round concerning Norway.

It must be said, in this respect, that the too small Secretariat of the Charter is struggling to keep up with the very demanding rhythm of the monitoring mechanism.

The monitoring mechanism has in many cases initiated, even before the adoption of an evaluation report, an internal dialogue between central and regional or local authorities on the one hand and regional or minority language organisations on the other hand, not infrequently in cases where such a dialogue had not existed, or in a marginal manner, prior to the ratification of the Charter. This has fostered, inter alia, greater awareness and responsibility by all the relevant actors, both on the authorities’ and on the speakers’ side.

The functioning of the monitoring mechanism has also established a dialogue between the European mechanism and the various actors concerned, particularly State and regional or local authorities. This is also thanks to the fact that a crucial element of the monitoring process is the on-the-spot visit that we almost invariably carry out when we monitor the implementation of the Charter in a country. This means, in practice, that we shall hear the point of view of the speakers as well as of a mayor in Croatia or in Sweden, an autonomoous government in Spain or the government of a Land in Germany.

The Charter is however not only about establishing a dialogue but also about achieving results. Let me give you a few examples of the measures taken by some of the States parties as a result of the first monitoring cycle :

    § the Hungarian act on criminal procedure has been amended in order to explicitly allow for the use of regional or minority languages in criminal proceedings ;
    § the status of Romansh and Italian in the Swiss Canton of Graubünden has been upgraded following the adoption of a new cantonal constitution ;
    § the legislation on the Sami language in Finland has been reformed and pre-school education has been provided for all three variants of Sami ;
    § the Dutch province of Fryslan has adopted an action plan aimed at increasing the number of pre-school institutions offering Frisian or bilingual education ;
    § the Norwegian authorities have adopted a significant policy measure by officially informing public services of their duty to use Sami in dealings with those speakers who so request.

The Charter is one of the most ambitious instruments of the Council of Europe, in that it aims at countering very powerful trends in nowadays societies: owing to a number of factors, with few exceptions European regional or minority languages are in most cases regressing. In the most serious situations the pressure by majority languages, carried by the media and combined with social, cultural and/or historical factors, may lead to future culturally levelled and monolingual societies, which, translated into the Charter philosophy, means societies which are poorer in cultural terms,less familiar with cultural and linguistic diversity and as a result less tolerant and acceptant of others.

The monitoring so far has indeed highlighted the attention that has to be paid to educating the majority population and raising their awareness about the minority cultures and languages in their country. The treatment of regional or minority languages (and of their speakers) seems to depend very much on how they are “perceived” by the majority. A lot of work remains to be done in this area.

Another important aspect, of particular concern for your institution, is the fact that the provisions of the Charter cover all the diverse fields of public life which are relevant to the use of minority languages. As a result, the competences for implementing these provisions are distributed among several different authorities. Local and regional authorities have a crucial role to play. Depending on the circumstances, such authorities may either be willing to fully implement policies and laws devised at regional or central level to implement the Charter obligations or which already correspond to the latter, or may be indifferent (in the best case) or openly hostile. The problem may be summarised in the following terms: how can the central Government, which entered into the Charter obligations at European level and which is internationally responsible for their respect, ensure that these obligations are properly implemented at national, regional or local level without infringing the fundamental principle of local self-government or the sometimes complicated constitutional structures that implement this principle at domestic level.
Of course, if all the authorities concerned have been fully consulted in the ratification process, or at the latest at the beginning of the implementation process, then the solution to this sort of problems will be greatly facilitated.

In conclusion, the Charter is asserting its crucial role as the only European legal instrument specifically devoted to the safeguard and promotion of the linguistic diversity within Europe, which is one of the distinctive features of Europe’s identity. Regional (and local) authorities have a crucial role to play in this area and I would encourage you to set up a regular practice of hearing the Charter Committee to be informed of the results of the monitoring and therefore to contributing to the full implementation of the Charter within your spheres of competence. We therefore very much hope that the Congress will do all it can to continue to support the Charter, which is its beautiful but still delicate child.

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