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EU: Preserving Cultural Identity Causes Dilemma In Era Of Globalization

As European integration deepens, opposition has grown in recent years in most European Union member states to the standardization effect that integration inevitably brings. These opposition voices say: "We don't want to lose our local habits, customs, and personality on the orders of faceless bureaucrats in Brussels." This same feeling is present among people in the candidate countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Can regional characteristics be preserved in an age of growing globalization?

Prague, 13 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A feeling of belonging is an essential part of an individual's sense of well-being. But such has been the pace of European integration that it has produced a backlash among people who fear the old certainties are disappearing. As integration in the European Union continues, more national sovereignty is pooled, and more of the power moves to the center, to Brussels, which seems remote and opaque.

In particular, many of the powers normally handled at the regional level, such as education, cultural policies, and health, became European competencies. This means regional and even municipal leaders in, say, central Finland or southern Portugal had to grapple with a stream of directives from Brussels. Competent as these local politicians may be, they rarely had much knowledge of the intricacies of the Brussels bureaucracy. This led easily to a sense of alienation.

Regional leaders became aware that they needed contact with Brussels, and Brussels became aware that it needed more support at the grassroots level. Gabriel Toggenburg, a researcher at the European Academy in Bolzano, Italy, takes up the story: "The solution, or what was then proclaimed as a solution, was then found in the Maastricht Treaty [of 1992], where the European Union [created] the so-called Committee of the Regions, which now tries to influence the legislative process of the Union. And there you have 222 members, coming from the regions and also from the municipalities."

At the secretariat of the Committee of the Regions, spokesman Patrizio Fiorilli explains the situation: "The treaty on the Union specifies that the [EU Executive] Commission, or the Council [of Ministers], or the [European] Parliament must consult the Committee of the Regions prior to taking any decision that is likely to affect regions or towns. In effect, about 75 percent of EU legislation is implemented at the regional or local level, which means they consult us on quite a few issues -- basically, everything except diplomacy, defense, and finances."

The problem is that the Committee of the Regions has a purely advisory role. It can try to influence decisions but has no power to change them. Toggenburg of the European Academy says the Committee is not always credited with having a big impact and that, because of this, the regions are still not a major player in the present system.

Toggenburg sees the creation of the Committee as an encouraging sign, saying that until the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, EU thinking was completely dominated by economic considerations. But he says that with 1992 came a new mind-set, in that cultural diversity became a sort of "constitutional value" of the European Union. Under an article (article 151/paragraph four) in the treaty, the EU is obliged to respect cultural diversity.

That's a fine thought, but how is it to be achieved, particularly in view of the standardization effect of continent-wide regulations, the single market, and the overall impact of globalization?

Toggenburg says much importance rests with the courts, in this case the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, which seeks to balance the interests of the common market with cultural diversity.

An example is a case in Ireland in which a woman applying for a public sector job went to court because she did not want to learn the Irish native language, Gaelic. Knowledge of Gaelic is an essential requirement for filling such jobs, but she asserted that the requirement was a breach of her rights under the single market.

Toggenburg says: "What the European Court did, and this is quite astonishing, was to say that the European Union has to respect national policies which aim to preserve the national identity of a small state. Of course, people then said, 'Well, this judgment refers only to small languages which, by chance, coincide with the official language of the state.'"

But then, a subsequent case, dealing with the use of the minority German language in northern Italy, confirmed the broader thinking of the European Court on cultural identity issues. Toggenburg contrasts this with a fresh legal ruling concerning a member of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA).

"There you had a judgment two weeks ago, on the question of whether one could protect the Icelandic book market, in the sense that one would give advantages to those books which are published in the Icelandic language. And there the EFTA court in Luxembourg said that this would infringe the principle of common market," Toggenburg says. "So you see, it is very important whether a political system stresses the value of cultural diversity, and the European Union more and more does so."

Despite this, there is still some anxiety both in present EU member states and among the candidate members of Central and Eastern Europe. Committee of the Regions spokesman Fiorilli says the Committee now regularly holds consultations with regional and local leaders from the candidate countries.

He says that process started as the result of a chance encounter: "Committee of the Regions members -- who are all mayors of towns or presidents of regions -- virtually bumped into their peers from the candidate countries back in 1999. And these local leaders from candidate countries told them: 'You know, nobody talks to us. We have absolutely no information on what accession to the EU will mean to our regions or towns.' And then we decided to start a dialogue with all these candidate countries."

There is also bilateral help from EU entities to candidates. For instance, the parliament and government of Scotland have been working closely with the Czech Republic. The deputy speaker of the Scottish parliament, George Reid, gives details: "Our government in Edinburgh is the main adviser to the Czech government on how to tap into European funding at sub-state level -- that is, in terms of community centers, in terms of bridges, in terms of roads, in terms of the environment and so forth. And we are sharing our very real practical experience with them in that area."

The question of identity in the European Union will continue to be a burning issue in the future, as eastward expansion almost doubles Union membership. At the center, the European Commission is now acutely aware that it must do a better job in presenting itself and its work to the people of Europe. And the minorities and regions must learn to use all the tools at their disposal to protect their heritage and interests, considering that their individuality contributes to the richness of European culture.