The Intergroup discussed the benefits and challenges of regionalism yesterday with members hearing from Mr Karl-Heinz Lambertz, Minister President for the German-speaking Community of Belgium.
Mr Lambertz described the situation of the German community, numbering 75,000 people, and how their autonomy came about after the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Subsequently Belgium became a federal state, the territory was divided on linguistic lines, and today the “process of federalisation” continues. It led to the German community having “big competences for a small territory,” – a challenge in itself.
One new idea for Belgium is that it is divided into four entities with Brussels having its own autonomy, while the German community gains extra powers. Some may point to the small size of the region but Mr Lambertz underlined that they have no alternative, “either we progress of we will disappear”. Their autonomy and their language are of a high priority for the Belgian Germans, “and it is highly important that they are able to use their language on a normal everyday basis”, he said.
Despite lack of size and resources Mr Lambertz pointed to three unique selling points of the German community. First, there is an advantage in being a national minority; second, being a small region with legislative powers allowed for creativity in government; thirdly, the situation as frontier region between two German Lander, Luxembourg, Limburg, Wallonia and Flanders, and with four ‘big’ languages being spoken, led to many opportunities for cooperation.
He continued that the situation of minorities in Europe is an important test for the EU over its commitment to diversity. Actual diversity can be witnessed the most clearly in border regions, he said. It meant that they are “a laboratory to see what is best practice in both human rights and economic exchange … that its important for people to see the minority issue not as a defence against something and a problem, but for national minorities to be seen as an asset.”
He concluded by referring to a recent quote from Intergroup Co-Chair Kinga Gál MEP which, in looking to the future, describes the co-existence of traditional communities, especially majority and traditional national minorities as “an art of living together rather than just next to each other”.
Mrs Elvira Kovacs, a PACE member from Vojvodina, Serbia, was unable to attend. But her statement to the Intergroup highlighted the benefits of autonomy for the Hungarian community where they are responsible for education and minority language teaching, plus they have various economic competences. However, she outlined continuing problems with lack of funds for the territory and the need for a law on public property and property rights.
József Komlóssy, from the NGO SENCE, pointed out that a majority of national minorities live in rural areas and that by protecting their language and culture, and giving such territories autonomy, states also protect the environment by helping to keep young people in these areas. He referred to the Swiss canton of Bern where the people in the countryside voted to set up their own canton of Jura, using the example to emphasise that communities should have the right to decide the borders and demarcations of their territories.
MEPs contributed many comments on the presentations. Bernd Posselt (EPP) underlined the success of autonomies such as that of German community, how this meant that there was no need to change borders, and, importantly, how it showed other States that autonomy is a good thing. Mr Grosch (EPP) supported Mr Lambertz describing how he preferred not to be treated as minority member adding that it was important “not to change borders but to change mentalities.”
Mr Lambertz commented on a question from Edit Bauer (EPP) on how Brussels had become a symbol of Belgium’s problem and how that symbol had to disappear before the problem can be resolved.