In providing a detailed assessment of the concept of « national minorities » in Belgium and the status of the communities concerned, the report presented by Lili Nabholz-Haidegger (Switzerland) also emphasises the rights and responsibilities of regions with extensive legislative powers, when dealing with this matter.
Question : What is the background to the report, and what are its main findings ?
Lili Nabholz-Haidegger : It started from a petition presented by French speakers living in Flanders, addressed to Lord Russell-Johnston. The Legal Affairs Committee, and later the Venice Commission, did some research into the actual concept of « minorities » within Belgium. My report finds that the French speakers in Flanders and Dutch speakers in the Walloon Region are in fact national minorities, even though it is not the Belgian state but rather the regions concerned which are responsible for protecting their cultural and linguistic rights. The German-speaking community also constitutes a minority, but the situation here is rather different, as it is the State that guarantees their rights.
Question : What are the ramifications of this text for Belgium and for Europe in general ?
Lili Nabholz-Haidegger : In presenting this report, I was not looking to address the thorny issue of « communes with facilities » in the Brussels region, but rather to examine more broadly infringements of the cultural rights of the minorities thus defined, and ways of redressing them. The report says that even when states transfer wide powers to the regions, as is the case in Belgium, these regions still have to protect their minorities because this task is part of their remit. In this respect, the report is not just about Belgium. It shows that the concept of national minority is not geographical, and can apply to citizens of one and the same state even if they are scattered throughout its territory, as long as this puts them in the position of a minority. Such situations, moreover, can be seen in many other European countries.
Question : What can be done in practical terms to bolster the rights of minorities in Belgium ?
Lili Nabholz-Haidegger : We are asking Belgium to swiftly ratify the framework convention on the protection of national minorities, which will in turn allow the regions and linguistic communities to implement it. Even though the convention is a political instrument and not a legislative one, it will encourage tolerance between communities. Again with a view to promoting tolerance and dialogue, we recommend that Belgium concentrate on teaching its official languages in all the country’s communities, and move swiftly to sign a cultural co-operation agreement between the French-speaking and Dutch-speaking communities.