Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 11
20 March 2000

Csardas C S A R D A S:
Setting the European House in Order: Human rights and accession

Gusztáv Kosztolányi

Although attention focused primarily on the outcome of the vote concerning what exactly constitutes chocolate - an issue on which major commercial interests hinged - a far more significant debate was held in the European Parliament in Strasbourg last week concerning human rights both within the EU and internationally.

Two reports in particular merit examination in this context, the Malmström report on International Human Rights and European Union Human Rights Policy, 1999 [A5-0060/2000] and the Belder report on the communication from the Commission on countering racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism in the candidate countries (with a draftsman, Baroness Ludford on behalf of the Committee on Citizens' Freedoms and Rights, Justice and Home Affairs as co-author) [A5-0055/2000].

In the realm of human rights, the EU regards the legacy it has inherited from its constituent member states as a proud tradition, unrivalled anywhere else in the world. The principles espoused during the initial phase of the French Revolution have been one of Europe's most successful exports and have become an integral part of the value system in the Old World.

Within today's EU on the threshold of enlargement, human rights and the need to guarantee them are more than a matter of rhetorical flourish: they have been recognised as part of the unique self-consciousness, the self-definition so desperately sought after as a means of sustaining interest in the European project against the tide of apathy and cynicism that relentlessly erodes the foundations of this multi-lingual, multi-cultural latter-day Utopia. A sense of shared destiny acts as an indispensable counterbalance to attacks in the national media, although a collective European identity remains elusive, more a matter of symbols than substance (think of the flag with the twelve stars, the euro and the anthem).

Human rights represents one of the few areas where consensus prevails on the subconscious as well as the conscious level. Freedoms created by the EU are now taken for granted: here I think primarily of Schengen co-operation and the abolition of internal borders and the convenience born of an end to bureaucracy and delays whilst travelling from one part of the continent to the next.

If Europe is to be perceived as worthwhile by its citizens, it must be seen to evolve into something both more appealing and more lofty than the collection of faceless, grasping technocrats promoting unbridled commercialism so beloved of the EU's detractors. Human rights affords both a sense of common achievement and a noble cause that can point to a reality beyond the sordid practicalities of increasing trade volumes, proof that Europe has a compassionate side to it and wishes to cherish and protect its citizens rather than merely facilitate their exploitation by multi-national undertakings.

Within the EU, human rights have become a yardstick against which to measure suitability for enlargement. Genuine concerns exist about the extent to which we in Central and Eastern Europe are fit to be included amongst the select few. Once again, the EU must be seen to be active as a means of staving off anxiety and scepticism amongst existing member states: enlargement must be viewed as a positive act of affirmation, granting recognition of real improvements.

By complying with certain minimum standards, in other words, the candidate countries prove themselves worthy (indeed szalonképes) and the good citizens of the more prosperous West can sleep easy at night. They will not be inundated with armies of indigents willing to work for less than breadline wages or, worse still, living off the generous benefits systems.

Politicians within the EU must tread carefully, they must be careful to reduce the credibility of their efforts in the human rights sphere by creating the impression that they are being used as a mere pretext to put off the day on which accession takes place. This involves a great deal of tact and discretion, as the governments of candidate countries are extremely sensitive to criticism and understandably so.

Frustration and discouragement amongst the candidate countries is a potential source of great damage. Not only could it lead to a backlash of anti-EU sentiment, but it could also mean that the sacrifices undertaken in the interests of transition to market economy are looked upon as futile, as efforts made in vain. The candidate countries would be left high and dry with no reward.

In assessing whether progress has been made, the EU is forced to rely on examining the statute books. If the long decades of Communist rule have taught us anything at all, then it is that law is often not worth the paper it is written on. Fine pronouncements on human dignity and fraternal solidarity are one thing, practice is another entirely.

That the reports concentrate on the downside, the problems rather than the undeniable achievements, does not imply a denial of progress made, but rather an attempt to show where further work has to be done. In this respect, the EU is not guilty of hypocrisy: a third report dealt with the state of play within the EU itself and did not balk at criticism. In defining a role for itself as guardian of human rights on a global level, the EU recognises it must practice what it preaches.

On enlargement, the Malmström report reads as follows:

23. Calls on the Council and Commission to convene a further conference to review the effectiveness of EU support for the efforts of candidate member states to achieve the political criteria established at Copenhagen; this conference should also address the extent to which candidate countries have implemented the obligations they have accepted under international and regional human rights instruments, such as the European Convention on human rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, including what action has been taken to deal with child pornography;

24. Calls for particular efforts to improve the effectiveness of programmes concerning the conditions of minorities in applicant countries, in particular those of religious, ethnic, linguistic and cultural minorities; calls also for the co-operation arrangements to be established with the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance and the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia with a view to combating the rise of such movements in Europe;

25. Calls on the Council and Commission to make particular efforts to improve the effectiveness and rigorous monitoring of programmes concerning protection and respect for the human rights of minorities in applicant countries, and to enhance the ability of these countries to pass and implement anti-discrimination laws, including on grounds of race;


27. Considers it vital that improving the minority situation of Roma and Sinti in the applicant countries in a multilateral EU and applicant country action programme should be declared to be an important part of the accession strategy and should be carried through;

28. Urges the Council and Commission to raise the question of discrimination against homosexuals in the membership negotiations, where necessary;

29. Recommends that representatives of the governments, the national parliaments and civil society from the candidate countries be invited to contribute to the elaboration of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights which will become part of the acquis communautaire.

The rapporteur takes a more in-depth look at these issues in the explanatory statement:

The respect for minority rights is an important aspect of EU enlargement. Most of the candidate countries have significant ethnic, linguistic or religious minorities on their respective territories. The minorities question arises in education, religion, and equality before the law. The right to use minority languages is also a bone of contention...

Many applicant countries have taken steps to improve the situation of minorities, including through the ratification of international human rights instruments, such as the Framework Convention on National Minorities. However, the Commission's progress reports still record discrimination against minorities.

Discrimination and prejudice still affect the Roma population in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. Roma have a much lower standard of living and suffer disproportionately high rates of unemployment and illiteracy. Access to education, employment and public services is often hampered. There are some signs of systematic segregation, as for example in the occasional practice of unjustly assigning Roma children to remedial schools for the mentally handicapped.

Widespread protests led to the reversal of a disgraceful decision in the Czech town of Ustí nad Labem to build a wall in order to separate Roma from other inhabitants. Yet widespread discrimination have led hundreds of Roma to seek asylum abroad. Whilst most countries have launched programmes to improve the situation of the Roma, discrimination continues in many areas, also by local authorities, police and the general population. This is a case where legislative reform alone cannot resolve the problem; sustained efforts are needed, on the one hand to improve the social situation of the Roma and, on the other, to overcome prejudicial attitudes.

New citizenship laws have improved the situation of (mainly Russian) non-citizens in Estonia and Latvia. All three Baltic states need to find a just balance between the legitimate promotion of state languages and the need to respect the use of minority languages. The requirement of language proficiency in order to qualify for certain jobs or for citizenship risk being misused as an instrument of discrimination...

The carrot of membership has undoubtedly served to strengthen the cause of democracy and tolerance within the applicant countries. This strengthening has at times been necessary in the face of domestic political difficulties and not least in the face of some hostility towards minorities. The conclusion of a friendship treaty between Romania and Hungary in September 1996 is an example of progress. The situation of respective national minorities had been a source of tension between the two countries, and the agreement set out general principles for settling such issues.

The EU commitment is to assist reform, not just call for action. For the Central and Eastern European applicant countries, the main vehicle for assistance is the PHARE Programme, which is the single largest source of grants for the region. The EU sponsors a wide range of programmes to promote minority rights, and these have borne fruit in many ways...

It should be emphasised that membership of the EU should not be seen as a cure-all. Members of minority groups should of course expect and insist on fair treatment as the process of enlargement advances. Membership requires the acceptance of the acquis communautaire, and this will enhance the legal protection of minorities. The Copenhagen criteria, based on the values of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms should also be fulfilled. Arguably, the Treaty of Amsterdam raised the threshold a little, with the addition of expanded provisions on non-discrimination.

It is however unrealistic to imagine that all inherited problems can be definitively solved simply by the act of accession to the EU. Competing claims and competing expectations will remain, and by definition not all competing claims can be satisfied. There are occasional controversies even within the existing member states, for example on the extent to which education in minority languages can be made available.

Discrimination against homosexuals

With the exception of Bulgaria and Romania, the candidate countries have now abolished the judicial prohibition of homosexuality. Yet cases of discrimination are still widely reported, as well as violence and even murder. This is another area in which social attitudes are often based on ignorance and prejudice. The steps taken by several applicant countries to give legal protection to homosexuals are welcome. On the other hand, the Romanian government has failed to provide protection to those who came under attack. Nor has Romania repealed the articles of the penal code, which criminalise homosexuality, and several persons remain in jail under these articles. The EU must raise this question on the membership negotiations...

In the process of enlarging the European Union to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, attention must be paid to the respect of human rights and those of women in particular. The European Parliament believes that full respect of women's human rights, including the criminalisation of domestic violence, is an absolute condition for accession, which should be highlighted in the negotiations for membership.

The Belder/Ludford report elaborating on the theme of combating racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism, begins by criticising the Commission for a lack of specific proposals, urging it to provide for special financial measures under PHARE, in particular with a view to backing up initiatives in civil society to counter racism and racist tendencies.

The points, which address problems of special relevance to Central and Eastern Europe moving beyond general initiatives aimed at eradicating the unholy trinity of racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism are as follows:

14. Calls on the Commission and the candidate countries concerned to pursue and continue, on a consistent basis, the measures to integrate and afford equal opportunities to the Russian minorities in Estonia and Latvia;

25. Considers that the Commission should appraise the extent to which national minorities have been able to benefit from the right of establishment set out in the existing Association Agreements and should act on the results of the appraisal;

26. Urges member states and the applicant countries to promote acceptance of differences and tolerance through their educational systems; takes the view that, in some cases, this may require the revision and adaptation of the contents of textbooks which could incite racism, xenophobia or anti-Semitism or any form of intolerance or discrimination;

27. Calls for the radical reinforcement of co-ordination of national, multinational and European action programmes for Roma minorities, giving a high priority to education, health care and the representation of Roma in public life and including campaigns to support NGOs and combat prejudice; requests the Commission to consider regrouping the different EU programmes for Roma in one comprehensive programme in the interests of effectiveness and transparency; calls on the Commission to present proposals in 2000 for such an approach based on a joint framework devised by the EU and the candidate countries in question, with objectives and timetables;


29. Calls on the candidate countries as well as the member states to sign, ratify and implement not only the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, but also the Council of Europe Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

Mr Belder, from the Group for a Europe of Democracies and Diversities, made the following speech on his report:

President! Racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism are completely incompatible with the political foundations of the European Union. Allow me to make a direct addition. These evil and damaging human phenomena are equally completely at odds with the Bible. The Word of God speaks repeatedly and emphatically of hospitality and charity towards strangers and of genuine love of one's neighbour as a consequence of love of God as the Creator of us all.

Daily reality in the meantime is somewhat of a disappointment. Racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism are realities in Eastern and Western Europe. However, this situation ought not to lead to paralysing mutual recriminations or insinuations. Quite the opposite: a common danger to society calls for common political efforts.

This is why we have the opportunity to examine the Commission communication from May of last year and the current report from the Committee on Foreign Affairs. The report and the opinions prove that the European Parliament attaches a great deal of importance to combating racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism in the candidate countries. At the same time, paying specific attention to these issues requires us to examine ourselves... The moral yardsticks applied to newcomers apply equally to the member states themselves.

As regards manifestations of racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism, the member states are not at all free from blame. Worse than that, extreme right-wing movements from Western Europe are seeking out contacts with like-minded groups in Central and Eastern Europe and are fanning the unholy flames of their doctrine there. Flames of a fire that was ignited by the secret services of the earlier Communist regimes. In this respect the huge problems of the Roma in Central and Eastern Europe stand out in two different ways. Quantitatively, because it affects several million people and qualitatively, because the mere subsistence of this very differentiated segment of the population is at stake.

Having said this, we have only scratched the surface of the complexity of the issue of the Roma. How, for example, can social isolation be broken out of and how can the virtually all-pervasive discrimination against the Roma be combined with the preservation of a Roma identity? How can the Roma themselves be mobilised in terms of social participation and encouraged to move towards the change in mindset needed?

Fortunately, probing questions of this sort are being dealt with officially and unofficially within the candidate countries. The result has been a series of well thought-through, hopeful domestic initiatives and projects. They do cost extraordinarily great amounts of money. In short, this represents a direct appeal to the solidarity of EU members with their future fellow members. Or does the razor-sharp criticism expressed by one Western academic about the European Union in conjunction with the rejection of Roma asylum-seekers cut ice? I quote: "On the one hand, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are being pilloried for their policy of structural discrimination and so on, whilst on the other, most of the countries of the EU collectively deport the Roma as economic refugees".

In the constellation of three comprised of racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism in aspirant member states, the latter evil should definitely not be overlooked. After the Holocaust, after that deliberate act of mass murder killing millions of members of the European Jewish community anti-Semitism had not and still has not disappeared from Central and Eastern Europe. The extreme left and the extreme right did not and do not shy away from this abhorrent and pernicious political weapon.

Indeed, it is obvious that anti-Semitism bears no relationship whatsoever to the numerical presence of Jews. Hence one of the preferred methods employed by rabble-rousers is to draw attention to the presumed Jewish background of their detested political rivals. Hence there has been reprint upon reprint throughout the entire region of the notorious anti-Semitic Protocols of the Council of Zion, that falsification of the Tsarist secret police from 1897 about the Jewish bid for world domination.

The conspiracy theories concocted by the ultranationalists whereby the so-called traditional enemies - for this read national minorities in various candidate-countries - are systematically linked with the Jews sound even more incredible. In this way of looking at things, Jews and Hungarians are synonymous with traitors to the Fatherland in Romania, whilst the same applies to Jews and Germans and Jews and Czechs respectively for Czechoslovakia and to Jews and Germans in Poland and Jews and Turks in Bulgaria.

It is against this sombre backdrop that paragraph 32 of the draft resolution must be viewed. The European Parliament calls for constant political and social vigilance and tougher constitutional prosecution of the ceaseless expressions of anti-Semitism in the various candidate countries as well as the relatively widespread phenomenon of latent anti-Semitic feelings and concepts.

Mr Moraes of the Socialist Group, draftsman of the opinion of the Committee on Legal Affairs and the Internal Market, responded immediately in his contribution:

Mr President, I would like to welcome the passion with which Mr Belder has delivered his report on the Roma and on the East European situation. It is the most extreme versions of racism on the edges of Europe, which we are disturbed about. When the debate about Austria - which has many elements, many complexities - was unfolding we realised that on the edges of Austria there were significant candidate countries which, while they were making progress in economic aspects, progress in social aspects, represented a real problem with regard to their treatment of minorities. In Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary there were significant problems with the treatment of the Roma. What we must realise is that, as we enlarge Europe, we have a significant responsibility for ensuring that any country that wishes to join the European Union must also reform the way it treats minorities and the way it treats the whole question of race discrimination.

Mr Gahler, on behalf of the Group of the European People's Party (Christian Democrats) and European Democrats, focused on the Baltic countries:

Mr President! I would like to concentrate primarily on certain individual aspects of the Belder report, which affords a good analysis of the current situation in the candidate countries. As far as these candidate countries are concerned - and this is something, which has already been mentioned - we ought to avoid creating the impression that we are demanding that they comply with higher standards than we comply with ourselves. We ought not to compare the real circumstances with our perfect legal texts, but ought instead to compare them with our own realities, otherwise the candidates would always come off worst.

It is certainly beyond question that the countries ready to accede and which have only recently regained their independence, such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, have a right firstly to redefine their own national identity and then also to articulate it. Given that the Communist dictatorship previously endured did not, due to its very nature, foster a culture of pluralistic debate, means that now certain forms of expression of national identity seem to us to be exaggerated or even in a roundabout way directed against minorities within the given country itself or within one or other neighbouring state.

We should not condemn these phenomena from the outset from our moral high horses, as long as what we are dealing with is a set of temporary phenomena on the road towards self-definition. We should, however, provide very specific help to these countries proceeding towards the EU, help, which is necessary in order to ensure that the necessary act of self-definition does not derive primarily from a negative drawing of boundaries with minorities or neighbouring countries.

I would like to cite the situation in Estonia and Latvia as a by no means self-evident example of positive developments between two population groups. It is not self-evident because of the historical burden of illegal occupation and deportation, of a politically motivated population transfer in these states and of the suppression of any expression of national self-determination that lasted right up to the end of the 1980s. The fact that on the Russian tanks, which withdrew in 1994, you could often read the slogan "We'll be back!" did not exactly contribute to fostering an understanding between the inhabitants of the Baltic countries and the Russians.

In spite of these historical burdens, there has not been a single instance of violent clashes between the majority and minority populations since independence was regained. For this reason, we should give voice to our explicit recognition of the Estonians and Latvians, that they kept a cool head in spite of it all, and that they are familiar with our arguments when it comes to adapting their relevant legislation to European standards.

Mr Wiersma, from the Socialist Group, returned to the problems encountered by the Roma:

The [Belder] report raises many relevant issues. There really are many issues at stake here as the question of racism and discrimination in the candidate countries requires a great deal of attention. I hope that the candidate member states in the EU will put the recommendations contained within the report to use. I hope that our future partners, the enlargement countries, will also join in with the Community Action Programme against Discrimination that will be dealt with in this Parliament in the near future.

I would like to concentrate, however, on the situation of the Roma or "Gypsies" as they are also called. Many Roma in the candidate countries live under very miserable circumstances. They are very often the victims of many different forms of discrimination. Under the Communist regime, they were subjected to a policy of assimilation and then, after 1989, they were more or less abandoned to their fate. For a long time, little attention was paid to their fate, but fortunately the Council of Europe was the first to set the alarm bells ringing. Now, in the light of enlargement, the Commission has also deemed the problem of the Roma as one of its priorities, and quite rightly so.

In the candidate countries concerned, many governments have also taken an active role on this front. The sudden influx of groups of gypsies in certain member states has also struck many of us. The Parliament would like to gain greater insight into and a clearer overall picture of all the activities and intentions of the European Union and the Commission and therefore calls upon the Commission to produce a coherent programme, based on bolstered co-ordination, with aims and timetables. What we want is for the European Union to undertake a more direct commitment to tackling the problem of the Roma. Not just the European Commission, but also this Parliament should pay far greater attention to it.

It must do this first and foremost as part of a more broadly based approach. There is more to this than simply fighting discrimination and changing people's mindsets. The causes of discrimination must also be tackled. Regional developments and good social policy are indispensable for this reason. Roma often live in areas where everyone suffers hardships. What we want is an approach from a local perspective.

The key role in solving the Roma's problems is to be played by local communities and representatives of local authorities. It is at that level that improvement programmes must be created covering the fields of education, housing and employment and they must be organised in such a way that the population as a whole benefits. Local co-operation is therefore a good weapon against prejudices and discrimination. Only at local level can the negative chain of discrimination be broken.

The input of the Roma themselves is also important. In my opinion, it is also a keyword. The Roma have to be able to stand up for themselves more. They must be directly involved in and made jointly responsible for the improvement of their circumstances. Official recognition of the Roma as a minority can make a contribution towards greater political autonomy as far in my view.

A need for more special actions aimed at changing people's mentalities also exists. The propensity for discrimination is often a deep-rooted one and this is also true of the authorities. Special attention must be paid to this. I would also make a case for firm co-operation between the European Union and the Council of Europe. We must make better use of the expertise developed there.

Finally, I would like to emphasise that there is a major need for above all rapid and visible results. Many actions are launched with a great deal of goodwill and the European Union is also particularly active... At the same time, however, I would like to ask the Commission to strive towards rapid and visible results targeting the first wave of enlargement countries so that we can let our own citizens see that we have done something about this. Some investments require a long time and it takes a long time before they have any effect, but others, such as housing and getting to grips with problems of employment can deliver discernible results more quickly.

The problems of the Roma have to be dealt with at the moment in the candidate countries themselves, because that is where the people live. And they must be dealt with as swiftly as possible in order to prevent them from becoming our problem in five or six years' time.

Commissioner Patten wound up the debate on the Malmström and Belder reports:

I now turn to the issues raised in the Belder report which responds to the Commission's communication on countering racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism in the candidate countries. I am responding to this on my own behalf and that of my colleague, Commissioner Verheugen. I would like to congratulate the authors of the comprehensive report. Of course it criticises the lack of specific proposals in the Commission's communication but I should note that the adoption of that communication came after the resignation of the college in March 1999 when the Commission, and I put this gently, was not best placed to elaborate new proposals. I hope this response will set a few pointers for the future.

The fight against racism is an essential element of the Union's human rights policies and of the pre-accession strategy. This has two elements: adoption and implementation of the acquis by the candidate countries including the 1996 Joint Action concerning racism and xenophobia and the 1951 Geneva Convention and the 1967 New York Protocol on Asylum Seekers and Refugees and effective use of our co-operation programmes.

The compatibility of legislation concerning minorities is raised during the screening process and during bilateral discussions and in association committees. For example, we have looked at language laws in Lithuania, Estonia and Slovakia, a subject that was raised during the debates, and legislation regarding the Roma in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. These discussions have produced concrete results.

The second element of our co-operation programmes, include the PHARE national programmes, PHARE Democracy and the MEDA Programme. Under PHARE, reform of the police, criminal justice and asylum systems has been accorded a high priority in line with the rapporteurs' proposals. This reform helps to bring about the necessary changes in attitudes within institutions.

The goal of raising police awareness of racism and xenophobia was also incorporated in the framework of the European curriculum for the training of police in Central and Eastern Europe.

We will persevere with such measures. We are also open to opportunities for strengthening them. One central aim common to the Malmström and Belder reports is the need to build on our relationship with NGOs in candidate countries. The new Access Programme, which replaces the LIEN and Partnership Programmes, aims to strengthen civil society.

Finally, on the Roma, whose condition was mentioned by several speakers, the Commission is seeking to bring more coherence to its support for Roma communities. We intend to be associated with the meeting to be organised by the European Monitoring Centre to which European Parliament representatives are being invited - a meeting called in order to stimulate ideas for improving European Union assistance to Roma communities.

The agenda had clearly been set: candidate countries are to be judged on their records of cleaning up their act with respect to their minorities. The problems that have been encountered can no longer be ignored without running the risk of delay in the enlargement process. Hopefully, the message will get across to recalcitrants, and fundamental rights be recognised as essential to us all.

Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 19 March 2000

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