EU Enlargement and Minority Rights Policies in Central Europe: Explaining Policy Shifts in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland *

By Vermeersch, Peter | Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE, October 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

EU Enlargement and Minority Rights Policies in Central Europe: Explaining Policy Shifts in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland *


Vermeersch, Peter, Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE


Introduction

An important debate among a number of contemporary political theorists is about whether countries in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) should grant group-specific rights to their national minorities (Kymlicka and Opalski 2001). This debate focuses in particular on the question whether Western minority rights policies serve as a useful guide to policymakers in CEE. In other words - can such policies be 'exported'? The term 'minority rights policies' in this context does not refer to a specific and uniform policy programme, but to a wide range of policies which have in common that they all in one way or another recognize and accommodate the demands of communities distinguishing themselves from majority populations by religious, linguistic, cultural and other characteristics that are considered 'ethnic'. Minority rights policies offer forms of protection that go beyond the basic civil and political rights guaranteed to all individuals in a liberal democracy. Examples are the introduction of minority self-governments; the granting of territorial or cultural autonomy to minority groups; the funding of activities and organizations of national minorities; the introduction of particular forms of affirmative action, guaranteed representation, or consultation of minorities in government institutions; and the funding of bilingual education or mother-tongue instruction.

A number of controversies have come to the fore as a result of this debate. For example, there has been no agreement among political theorists on whether the adoption of minority rights in general is morally justified. Some critics have argued that liberal- democratic states should maintain their neutrality with regard to ethnocultural diversity (e.g. Barry 2001; Joppke 2003). Others have contended that although minority rights are not illiberal per se, there is nevertheless a danger that the institutionalization of ethnic boundaries will erode overarching identities, undermine potential cross-ethnic solidarities and therefore produce ethnic conflict (e.g. Phillips 1999; Gitlin 1996). In contrast, such authors as Kymlicka (2001), who believe that classical liberal theory should be open to the accommodation of claims made by minority groups, have argued that minority rights are indeed needed to help protect minorities from injustices that might arise from the fact that states are never ethnoculturally neutral. In this way, it is argued that states invariably support a particular 'societal culture' that is not necessarily the societal culture of the minorities.

Parallel to this discussion, it remains a topic of a debate whether minority rights policies - if one accepts that such policies are in principle commendable - are applicable in the specific area of CEE. In his introductory essay to Can Liberal Pluralism Be Exported? Western Political Theory and Ethnic Relations in Eastern Europe, Kymlicka (2001) contends that countries in CEE have a specific historical experience with ethnic relations that is very different from that of many countries in the 'West'. Nevertheless, he argues, the introduction of Western-style minority rights regimes in CEE is appropriate for both normative reasons (creating ethnoculturally just societies) and pragmatic considerations (achieving peaceful ethnic relations). In his view, a transfer of minority rights policies to the East should be viewed as a legitimate response to actual or perceived injustices that have arisen in the course of nationbuilding in the region. Critics on the other hand have pointed out a number of problems with regard to such a policy transfer. Some of them have argued that introducing minority rights policies in CEE, an area that has known many instances of violent ethnic mobilization, may unduly support the development of ethnically organized political communities that merely care for their 'own' ethnic-based interests. Wolff, for example, has argued in favour of the "deethnicization of everyday politics" (2002: 14) in CEE. …

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