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EU: Can Cultural Diversity Survive In An Expanded Union?

  • Breffni O'Rourke

If things run according to plan, the European Union will be expanding soon by as many as 10 new member countries, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe. Many are looking forward to the economic impetus the integration process is expected to provide, but an increasing number of people are worried that cultures could become subsumed in the process. Alarm bells are ringing, but what can the EU do about the problem?

Prague, 21 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The city of Bolzano is nestled in a valley in northern Italy. On one side, the fringes of the Alps lie lush and green, with castles and villages perched on their slopes. To the south are the Dolomites, with their remarkable rock formations.

The city also has a second official name, Bozen, the German form of Bolzano. That's because the majority of people in this South Tyrol region speak German. South Tyrol was part of Austria until that country and its empire were dismembered after World War I.

The region was ceded to Italy, but the hearts of many South Tyroleans still lie with the Germanic world, and over the last 70 years, there has been grudging acceptance of rule from Rome. There also has been sporadic violence from radicals opposed to the Italian presence.

So, with its background of cultural tension, the region is a fitting setting for the European Academy, a European Union-funded institution that does research on European integration, cultural diversity, and minority rights.

At the request of the South Tyrol government, the academy has just submitted proposals to the Convention on the Future of Europe aimed at improving EU laws on cultural diversity and the protection of minorities. The convention, meeting in Brussels under the chairmanship of former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, is defining the powers and institutional arrangements of the expanded EU.

The academy's proposals cover a wide range of themes. One recommendation is for the EU to set aside funding for an "action program." Such a program would, for instance, offer cofinancing for a joint newspaper involving two communities.

In its preamble, the academy document notes that EU leaders in their Laeken summit declaration of last year called Europe the continent of "liberty, solidarity and above all diversity, meaning respect for others languages, cultures and traditions."

The problem is how to translate these words into reality at a time when economic integration is proceeding relentlessly, driven by the introduction of the euro and by pan-European marketing. Can individual cultures survive and flourish amid these powerful commercializing and standardizing impulses?

In its preamble, the academy says that EU law has not yet "found a solid balance" between unity -- meaning support for the common market -- and diversity, in terms of support for cultures and languages. And, returning to the Laeken declaration, the academy says the EU is "silent" on the issue of minority protection among current EU members, while at the same time, it imposes accession criteria on this subject on Eastern candidate members.

A researcher at the Bolzano academy, Gabriel von Toggenburg, said the issue of diversity and minority rights will grow in importance with the expansion of the European Union. "This will be the challenge of the coming years, especially with the Eastern enlargement, which will bring in so much more diversity. And then we have all the migration pressure coming up only now in the next 10 years, which also brings diversity," von Toggenburg said.

There are already voices in the candidate countries doubting the wisdom of ceding so much sovereignty to Brussels, and thus allowing the EU to have so much influence over daily life, including, indirectly, culture.

But taking a historical perspective, von Toggenburg pointed out that the idea of the nation-state, which these people are now seeking to defend, has itself often been hostile to cultural diversity. "The concept of the nation-state per se is actually an enemy to diversity, because the nation-state starts from the presumption that to have a strong linkage between the citizen and the state, you have to create the idea that there is homogeneity in the people of the state," von Toggenburg said.

He said that one way to preserve diversity and also to protect minority cultures is through a more regionalized system, at least in cases where culture is based on territory. That, of course, does not apply to a dispersed minority, like the Roma, for whom the concept of territorial autonomy is not relevant.

Von Toggenburg said: "What is also interesting is that if you have a state which starts regionalizing, or which is already federalized to a certain degree, you see that the regional entity has much more sympathy to the European level than the national level has. For example, if you look at Wales, or the Scottish, or the Catalans, they are all very pro-European, because they see in the European level a new mode of identifying, apart from the classic nationhood link."

In the EU's present structure, regions have a prominent place. Most of the EU laws apply to fields that are within the competencies of the regional authorities. This should bode well for cultural diversity.

On the other hand, the EU's formal role in the field of promoting culture is limited. Von Toggenburg cited Article 151 of the 1992 Maastricht treaty, which aims to contribute to the "flowering of the cultures" of member states, while also trying to bring the common cultural heritage to the fore.

Von Toggenburg called this article "schizophrenic" because member states clearly wanted to limit the power of the European Union in this field, while also giving it some options for fostering diversity.

What the EU can do, von Toggenburg said, is to ensure that EU law avoids placing limits on diversity at the European level, meaning that the European Commission could propose legislation calling for any planned measures to be examined to ensure they did not diminish diversity in Europe.

What the EU cannot do is impose measures on member states to make them more diverse.

Another organization working for minority rights is the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages. Its job is to promote EU policy making in favor of regional or minority languages and to defend the linguistic rights of the speakers of these languages.

The acting director-general of the Brussels-based organization, Jelle Bakker, said it has been active in the last few years in setting up bureaus in the candidate countries. "We view language diversity as a wealth, as a value and, as such, to be protected and to be promoted," Bakker said.

Looking with cautious optimism to the future, Bakker said there is "a world to win" in Central and Eastern Europe.

He said that in a united Europe, borders will matter much less. He said many languages are spoken on both sides of frontiers, and that the removal of borders will result in profitable interchanges between the communities on each side.