Interview with Attila Dabis, Foreign Affairs Commissioner of the Szekler National Council: “We want the EU to actively contribute in maintaining the cultural and linguistic diversity of Europe”.
While European politics and economies are stagnating in the midst of the Coronavirus crisis, it’s been difficult to get the attention of public opinion on other issues. Nevertheless, in Hungary and among the Hungarian communities of the Carpathian Basin (in Romania and Slovakia, both members of the EU), a European Citizens’ Initiative is having significant success in collecting signatures for the defence of the cultural and linguistic diversity of Europe. As it is not possible to collect physical signatures, the campaign has been mainly focused on collecting online signatures on an EU platform.
In order to have a chance of successfully collecting the one million signatures needed, the initiative leaders have asked the European Commission for additional time due to the Coronavirus outbreak. The Visegrád Post interviewed one of its spokespersons, the Hungarian Attila Dabis.
Visegrád Post: Can you introduce yourself and the initiative? What are your expectations if you succeed?
Attila Dabis: I’m 33, I am a political scientist, and public figure based in Budapest, Hungary. I am the Foreign Affairs Commissioner of the Szekler National Council, an organisation that advocates for the rights of the Hungarian-speaking Szekler community of Transylvania in Romania. Additionally, I am the deputy-head of the Citizens’ Committee that submitted the citizens’ initiative for national regions to the European Commission.
The aim of our initiative is quite simple. We want the European Union to actively contribute to maintain the cultural and linguistic diversity of the EU by means of providing proper financial support for national regions to preserve their own specific language, culture and identity within their respective homelands. Under this newly established term (“national region”) we refer to regions with national, ethnic, cultural, or linguistic characteristics that are different from those of the surrounding regions (e.g. Szeklerland, the Basque country, Catalonia, South-Tyrol, Silesia, Brittany, Alsace, Bavaria, Corsica…etc). We think that the EU should grant special attention to these areas, and the best possible way to achieve that would be the establishment of a separate funding scheme within the regional development policy of the EU, that would be directly and exclusively accessible to national regions. Such a new funding mechanism would be beneficial for all national regions of the Union, which is why we invite citizens of these areas who want to preserve the special regional culture, and language they inherited from their forefathers, to sign this initiative and motivate their fellow compatriots to do likewise.
Visegrád Post: It was a long period between the time you presented the petition to the European Commission (2013) and the time when you were finally allowed to start collecting signatures. Can you explain the legal process you’ve been through?
Attila Dabis: We started drafting the content of the initiative, and building up the network of supporters way back in 2011-2012. Then, in September 2013, the European Commission rejected the registration of the initiative, on grounds that it fell outside their competencies. This decision was approved by the General Court of the EU in May 2016. The second instance judgement, however, concluded the appeal procedure on 7 March 2019 in favour of the plaintiffs, by setting aside the judgement of the Court at first instance, and annulling the Decision of the Commission that rejected the registration of the initiative. Consequently, the ECI was registered on 7 May 2019. The campaign period to collect at least 1 million signatures from at least 7 different member states of the EU expires on 7 May 2020. We fought hard to have this twelve-month long signature collection period at our disposal, and we intend to make the best of it in the remaining time!
Visegrád Post: During this 6-year legal odyssey, some EU countries officially stood against the initiative: Romania, Slovakia, Greece. What were their motivations?
Attila Dabis: Some countries tend to treat members of traditional national communities residing on their territories as a threat. Central governments in these states suppress such aspirations rather than nurture them. Many EU member states adopt public policy decisions that are shaped by resentments towards national minorities, even if it results in decisions that go against common sense. From the outset, we have consistently communicated that our initiative provides a win-win situation for all parties concerned. Traditional national communities could have a framework within the legal system of the EU that assists them in upholding their identities; while on the other hand, states, on whose territories national regions are located, could gain additional funding from the EU. Those state officials who opposed our initiative before the Court of the EU could hardly justify why they were adamantly opposing to obtain more financial support flowing from the EU to their countries.
Visegrád Post: On the other hand, your initiative received the support of Hungary. Are you supported in Hungary only by the governmental parties, or is the support wider amongst the Hungarian political class?
Attila Dabis: We have cross-party support for this cause in Hungary. As a matter of fact, the Hungarian Parliament voted in favour of supporting this initiative in an historical vote on 25 February. Our cause received 158 votes in favour, and non against (the one Party , that disagreed did not show up for the vote). Furthermore, we managed to get not just politicians, but renowned sportsmen, musicians, actors, religious leaders to stand with us. The moral legitimacy of this initiative is unquestionable now.
Visegrád Post: The official website of the petition shows that you have collected more than 470.000 signatures, which seems still quite far from the needed million by May 7th. Are the signatures collected on paper forms included in these 470.000? Do you expect to receive a time extension due to the Coronavirus crisis?
Attila Dabis: The online signature collection platform only shows the signatures we have gathered via the internet. On top of that we have around 200.000 signatures on paper forms, so we have surpassed half of the required signatures. Much to our dismay, the collection of signatures has been met with serious challenges in multiple ways due the Coronavirus outbreak. Most importantly, the COVID-19 pandemic introduced a grave, imminent, unforeseeable, and unavoidable circumstance which rendered signature collection on paper forms impossible. Authorities across EU member states were forced to adopt extraordinary measures restricting the free movement of people, the organization of public assemblies, as well as other forms of social interactions. Moreover, cross-border cooperation that is essential to ECI campaigns has been fundamentally impaired. Finally, the overarching omnipresence of the COVID-19 crisis in public discourse is substantially overshadowing attention for our concerns and demands.
Due to this force majeure circumstance, introduced by the pandemic, we asked the European Commission to grant us an additional 6 months’ time to collect signatures. This would not be unprecedented as it happened in four other cases back in 2012 that such extension was granted to organisers. Nearly a month has passed and we are yet to receive the response of the Commission. Knowing, however, the way this institution handles direct democracy in general, we are not giving up our campaign activity, and continue to raise awareness, and mobilise people across the EU to sign this initiative via: www.iamsigning.com. It only takes one minute of your time, but it could substantially change the way the EU handles its traditional national communities.