Conclusions of the
Seminar on “Regional or minority languages in Europe today”

Paris, 9-10 December 2013
(by Jean-Claude Frécon, 1st Vice-President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe)

Protecting and promoting regional or minority languages has been a long-standing priority of the Council of Europe in general and its Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in particular. As President van Staa pointed out yesterday, it was in the predecessor of the Congress, the Standing Conference of Local and Regional Authorities, that the foundations were laid during the 1980s for what was to become the first legally binding instrument in this area: the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

21 years have passed since the adoption of the Charter and its opening for signature on 5 November 1992. Substantial progress has been made, in particular in the 25 Council of Europe member states which have ratified it. We have seen many examples during our discussions. We have also shown the very active part played by local and regional authorities in the progress made. This can only confirm the political will of the Congress – and, in particular, its Chamber of Regions – to continue pursuing this issue as one of its priorities.

Like the Congress at local and regional level, the European Parliament is a vital and irreplaceable political platform at European level. Hence the importance of the report prepared by François Alfonsi during 2013, which led to the adoption of a European Parliament Resolution on endangered European languages and linguistic diversity in the European Union in September. The resolution provides a key political basis for carrying forward our efforts, especially because almost 90% of MEPs voted in favour of it, as was pointed out by the rapporteur.

We must not, however, delude ourselves: the current situation is not very favourable and the political, economic and social processes under way are not conducive to increased efforts to promote regional or minority languages. It is symptomatic that no new countries have signed the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages since 2005, even though several countries which had signed have ratified it recently (the latest being Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2010).

This lack of interest, if not reluctance, being shown regarding the promotion of regional or minority languages is mainly – but not solely – due to the political, economic and social crisis that has been affecting Europe since 2008. In periods of crisis, even some important issues seem less urgent and the substantive work done by the experts has less political follow-up, as was underlined by the Chair of the Charter Committee of Experts, Vesna Crnic-Grotic. Indeed, the purpose of our seminar was to make a link between the work done, the progress made and the difficulties encountered, and the political support it needs to be successful.

Clearly, what matters is the ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Once political commitment is transformed into legal obligations, things start moving and progress is made, in particular as a result of the in-depth work of the Council of Europe committee of experts and the dialogue it establishes with the authorities in the states concerned. This was amply demonstrated by our discussions and the reference documents on which they were based: the summary of the observations and recommendations of the Charter Committee of Experts for the period 2012-2013 and the analysis of the impact of the Charter on the legislation and practice of states which have ratified it since it entered into force 15 years ago.

When the political will is there and when the various players at local, regional, national and European level join forces, results are achieved. Among other things, we have commended the progress made in the Scandinavian countries in terms of protecting the Sami language; the steps taken in the countries of Central Europe, where borders changed so much over the last century, to promote the use of neighbouring countries’ languages; the efforts made to protect Yiddish and Romani in several countries; and the reconciliation work done in the former Yugoslavia (and, more broadly, throughout the Balkans) through language policies that take account of the political upheavals that swept the region during the 1990s.

We held a specific session on the six countries which undertook to sign and ratify the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages upon accession to the Council of Europe. By order of “seniority”, they are:

    - Albania, the Republic of Moldova and “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, which joined the Council of Europe in 1995;
    - the Russian Federation, which has been a member of the Council of Europe since 1996;
    - Georgia, which joined the organisation in 1999;
    - and Azerbaijan, which joined the Council of Europe in 2001.

In all cases, a significant period of time has elapsed – between 12 and 18 years – showing that the commitment is not easy to honour. It is therefore necessary to continue the dialogue with these countries, in the hope that the positive examples discussed during our seminar will persuade them to move forward. We saw some positive signals in this respect this morning, and I am delighted, in particular, by the positive attitude of the new Albanian government, which gives grounds for hoping that the country will at least sign the Charter in the near future.

Another specific session was held on two major countries which have signed the Charter (respectively in 1999 and in 2000) but not yet ratified it: France and Italy. My colleague from the French Senate, Jean-Vincent Placé, who is also the chair the Contact Group between the EU Committee of the Regions and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, yesterday confirmed the commitment of the ruling majority to honour the promise made by President François Hollande during his 2012 campaign, in spite of the difficulty involved in the resulting need to amend the French constitution, and I am delighted that this morning’s discussions were in the same vein. As far as Italy is concerned, recent developments are encouraging, in spite of the political instability the country has seen and its financial difficulties, and it would seem that it is not unrealistic to hope for ratification of the Charter by the Italian parliament in the near future. That would obviously be a very important development, which would give fresh impetus to the efforts we are making elsewhere to achieve the same objective.

It is on that optimistic note that I will conclude my address, while thanking our partners who have joined with the Congress in arranging this seminar – in particular, the Charter Committee of Experts and its secretariat – and once again underlining our political will to continue promoting this issue now and in the future.