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EU: Minority Ambitions Struggle To Break Through Nation-State Glass Ceiling

(CTK) The preliminary approval of legislation in Spain paving the way for greater home role for the country's Catalan region has rekindled the debate surrounding regional aspirations in Europe. RFE/RL looks at the political and linguistic ambitions of Europe's minorities and their chances of success.

BRUSSELS, April 7, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Spain's moves to hand greater powers to its regions are part of a Europe-wide movement toward devolution.

This week, the lower house of the Spanish parliament approved giving Catalonia wider autonomy, though the decision still has to be approved by the Senate. The Basque country and Galicia are also in the process of negotiating greater powers.

All matters relating to minorities, their languages, and autonomy remain within the near-exclusive competence of EU member states. While there was a general turn in Europe during the 1990s toward recognizing the regions' aspirations for greater autonomy, this has now subsided somewhat. So recent moves by Spain to empower its regions and promote regional languages are going against the general EU trend.

European Commission spokesman Frederic Vincent, who deals with linguistic diversity and related matters, told RFE/RL on April 6 that Spanish enthusiasm for its regions dates back to a recent change in government.

"It is true that Spanish authorities for two years now, since [Prime Minister Jose Luis] Zapatero took office, have been promoting the use of those minority languages at EU level," Vincent says. "Once again, when it comes to the member states [themselves], it's [in] the competence of the member states, but Spain asked a year and a half ago [for], and got from [other EU countries], agreement on the status for Catalan, Galician, and Basque -- they are kind of semi-official languages of the EU now."

Under the deal secured by Spain, Catalan, Galician, and Basque speakers can correspond with EU institutions in their own languages. The languages can also be used -- on prior request -- at official EU meetings.

Over the longer term, Spain's tolerance of its minorities places the country in the EU mainstream. Although it promotes its regional languages, Spain fiercely contests the regions' claims to "nationhood" -- and potential independence.

Britain, on the other hand, makes no secret that it contains three "nations" -- England, Scotland, and Wales. Both of the latter have their own legislative assemblies, as well as national soccer teams. The possibility of their independence is not something rejected out of hand. However, London has not sought EU-level privileges for either Welsh or Scottish Gaelic.

France, on the other hand, only officially admitted in 2001 that it had over the previous 200 years pursued a deliberate policy of centralization, involving the marginalization of regional languages. Its regions and languages are taking the first steps towards reclaiming what they can of their identities.
"The idea that having structural [aid] funds for regional development
from Brussels would somehow lessen the dependence on the state, that
was overplayed. There was a great deal of exaggeration there."

Professor Michael Keating, a devolution expert at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, says the EU's development has given regional aspirations a significant boost.

"Well, the causes of them have something in common," he says. "It's got a lot to do with European integration, the opening of frontiers, the questioning of the whole model of the state; it's got to do with rising demands for decentralization, it's got something to do with economic restructuring."

But, he says, the EU's attempts over the past 10 years to find a place for its regions in its architecture have not borne fruit. A Committee for the Regions was set up in the 1990s, but it has very few powers. The EU constitution, which foundered in referendums in France and the Netherlands last year also contained very little new for the regions.

Keating says that the notion that regions could use EU headquarters in Brussels to somehow leapfrog nations states, popular only a few years ago, now appears exaggerated.

"That was grossly overplayed, the idea that having an office in Brussels would somehow give you autonomy, that was overplayed," he says.

The reason appears to be the reverses suffered by the EU's integration process in the wake of enlargement. EU member states are reasserting their primacy and they had never really given up their say on regional autonomy.

Keating notes that when the Spanish devolution process started in the early 2000s, "there was a lot of talk of Europe." He says that has "almost disappeared" now.

The overall trend in the EU towards shoring up the authority of the nation-state does not bode well, among others, for those seeking recognition for the Russian language. After enlargement, and mostly owing to the Russian-speaking populations of Estonia and Latvia, Russian became the seventh-largest language in the EU -- counting both native speakers and people who speak it as a foreign language.

Commission spokesman Vincent says that to acquire any kind of official status within the EU, Russian needs sponsors in the shape of member states.

"Once again, the question of the Russian language is a topic in some member states, [that is] the Baltic states," he says. "So, if Russian was to gain a kind of status within the EU, first it would have to have certain status within those states, in the Baltic countries."

Given the current political situation in the Baltic states, this appears highly unlikely.

Vincent also notes that at the moment, the EU currently does not support minority languages or their use. However, he says this could change in 2007 when the bloc will get a new budget.