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Hungary: Ex-Prime Minister Says EU Enlargement Will Solve The Hungarian-Minority 'Issue'

Viktor Orban, Hungarys former prime minister, says he believes EU enlargement will solve many of the problems tied to large ethnic Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries. As prime minister, Orban was responsible for the so-called Status Law granting certain privileges to ethnic Hungarians living abroad. The law has angered both Slovakia and Romania. But Orban said support for national minorities is a "European value." Orban spoke with RFE/RL earlier this week.

Brussels, 17 October 2003 (RFE/RL) Viktor Orban, the leader of Hungarys largest right-wing party, the FIDESZ-MPP, was ousted from power by a Socialist-led coalition last year.

Yet Orbans most controversial policy remains in effect. The Status Law, enacted last year, grants special privileges to ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries.

Orban spoke to RFE/RL in Brussels on 15 October. The former prime minister said he hopes EU enlargement -- which will see both Hungary and Slovakia join next year, and Romania possibly three years later -- will bring an end to what he calls the "Hungarian issue." He said the question of ethnic Hungarian minorities has long poisoned his country's relations with its neighbors.

"There is a Hungarian issue. The Hungarian issue is that after the World War I, two-thirds of Hungarian territory and millions of its people belonged to other, newly born neighboring countries. Now the territories are not an issue, but the people are still there, the people living there still feel themselves [to be] Hungarian, speak [the] Hungarian language, and have a Hungarian culture. So from a Hungarian point of view, the European Union is a possibility to unify the Hungarian nation, in a cultural sense, without the modification of state borders," Orban said.

To this end, Orban wants to see Hungary help Hungarians both inside and outside the country maintain their ethnic identity. This could be done by providing aid to Hungarian families with children and by establishing language schools and associations working to preserve Hungary's language and culture. Romania is home to the largest Hungarian community outside Hungary. Orban said he supports Romanias accession into the EU "as soon as possible.

"[The] second point is that there is a special Hungarian interest in favor of early membership for Romania. We have almost 2 million ethnic Hungarians in Romania, so we would like to belong to the same community -- I mean, 'we' the 10 million Hungarians living inside the state border and those Hungarians who are living outside the border," Orban said.

Similarly, Orban said, Hungary has always supported Slovakia's EU membership. Differences over the Status Law have largely been resolved in Romania, but Slovakia continues to object to certain provisions, arguing that they are not obliged to observe extraterritorial policies made by neighboring countries. Orban said the issue will automatically become less important after next year's expansion, when Slovakia's 600,000 ethnic Hungarians become European citizens.

Orban said protecting national minorities is a "European value" -- and one the Hungarian government is working to have enshrined in the future EU constitution. The draft constitution agreed in June by the Convention on the Future of Europe contains no such reference.

"The Hungarian intention is -- and there is no difference between government and opposition in this respect -- we would like to have an amendment saying that a basic value for the European Union [is] to defend ethnic and minority rights inside the European Union," Orban said.

Observers in Brussels think it unlikely that current and future EU member governments will oblige.