The EU's enlargement eastward on 1 May brought with it a doubling of the bloc's minority groups, reflecting the intricate patchwork of human settlement that has grown up across Central and Eastern Europe. There are now more than 150 ethnic and language minorities in the 25 EU member states.
In the wake of this expansion, a panel of 16 European experts on ethnic affairs is appealing to EU leaders to improve minority protections and secure cultural diversity. The primary aim of this Bolzano Initiative -- as it is being called -- is to ensure fair treatment of minorities in present and future EU states.
But as the rapporteur for the Bolzano group, Gabriel von Toggenburg, explains, it also has international ramifications: "Until the present, the protection of minorities in Europe has failed to achieve legitimacy in the sense that there has been a kind of double standard. The European Union has been very concerned when it comes to minority protection in its external affairs, but it ignored this topic in its internal affairs. And, of course, this prevented Europe from playing a plausible and convincing role which could be copied in other regions, such as the Middle East or Central Asia."
Von Toggenburg says the EU must carry out such checks on its own member states if it is to have any credibility on the international scene.
He notes that while candidates for membership have been monitored for compliance to human rights norms in the pre-accession process, no full-fledged internal monitoring system for present EU members exists.
"We want to improve, on the one hand, the monitoring vis-a-vis current candidate states like Romania and Bulgaria. And, of course, the case of Turkey is also of the highest relevance. And also we want to see introduced a kind of monitoring of the minority situation inside the member states," von Toggenburg says.
Turkey, the first Muslim state campaigning for EU membership, is making a sustained effort to meet EU norms on human rights, including improving treatment of its Kurdish minority. But as von Toggenburg puts it, "serious" monitoring of Turkish compliance will be needed over a long period if Brussels decides to open membership negotiations with Ankara.
The rapporteur says that to achieve the broader aim of minorities monitoring, the EU's Executive Commission would need extra personnel and resources, and would also need to boost its cooperation with other major actors in the field -- the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The OSCE's high commissioner on minorities, Rolf Ekeus, agrees that the EU must overcome the artificial distinction between its internal and external practices. If it does not, he says, it will raise serious doubts about its own fundamental values.
A regional expert on Ekeus's staff, Neil Melvin, says that by setting high standards in rights issues, the EU can positively influence OSCE members, such as the South Caucasian republics and the Central Asian states.
"It also means that it is a strengthening of international standards generally concerning national minority rights, which is then something which can be discussed in the context of the Central Asian states, or the South Caucasus, or other places," Melvin says.
As for Central Asia itself, Melvin says a degree of ethnic estrangement has occurred since the five nations gained independence from the Soviet Union.
"There has been a strong interest among the majority populations of the five Central Asian republics in recovering their language, history and culture, which many feel was repressed or damaged during the Soviet period. In many cases, that has been done by leaving behind national minorities -- that is, resources have been concentrated on the core population's language, history and culture, and on reviving that, and national minorities have been marginalized," Melvin says.
He says, however, that this does not mean there are bad relations between majorities and minorities, which may have coexisted for hundreds of years without having a formal structure of rights protecting their interests.
But it does mean the concept of national minorities is fairly underdeveloped, so that there is only a weak notion of the rights that individual members of a minority possess.