Want to belong to Europe? Act like it!

In the European Union, we don’t take away the rights of children of historic minorities. Ukraine, by doing so, is taking a detour from its path into the EU and turning its back on European neighbors who stood by them in some of the most difficult times. Ukraine has brought this upon itself, and the consequences of this decision on the education law will be painful.

Despite numerous requests and warnings from many EU member states, President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko decided to sign Ukraine’s new Education Act that strips all national minorities of their fundamental right to pursue education in their mother tongue from the age of 10. Language rights are considered obligatory in the EU. That’s why it’s so odd that a country so eager for a closer relationship with the EU would put itself on the wrong side of this issue.

Briefly, a little background. National, historic minorities are groups of people that live in a well-defined area of a country as minorities. In many cases, they became minorities not necessarily because they relocated to another country, per se, but because national borders in Europe changed significantly (and several times) over the course of the last century. These historic communities of ethnic minorities have the right, in 21st century democracies, to preserve their cultural identity while remaining good citizens of the country in which they reside. Their mother tongue is a cornerstone of this identity. Tredding on the rights of historic, ethnic minorities to their cultural identity reminds Europeans of some of the darkest periods of its history – the era of Nazi and Communist dictatorships that used coercive force against (or attempted to wipe out) these ethnic minorities. Ukraine, as unstable as it is, shouldn’t awaken those ghosts.  

“Hungary will block all steps within the European Union that would represent a step forward in Ukraine’s European integration process in the spirit of the Eastern Partnership program,” said Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó in response to President Poroshenko signing the controversial act. The president’s signature came despite Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman’s promise that the country would wait for the opinion of the Venice Commission prior to passing the bill. The prime minister made his promise to a delegation of the European Parliament visiting Ukraine to find out more about this new, anti-European education law.

A prime minister breaking his promise is one thing. Violating international conventions ratified by Ukraine is another. An open letter, signed by 37 MEPs from Bulgaria, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary earlier this month, called the president’s attention to the fact that it violates several international agreements. Specifically, Ukraine’s new Education Act goes against Article 8 of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and Article 13 and 14 of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

These conventions are parts of the acquis communautaire that a EU candidate would be required to adopt before joining the EU. So how should we expect Ukraine to take on a complex set of values if its government isn’t even able to uphold such an obvious one? Should we welcome Ukraine into the EU after it has disrespected one of the basic requirements of integration: the protection of minority rights?

Frankly, Hungary can’t help but feel a little betrayed. We were among the first countries to support the initiative to grant visa-free travel of Ukrainians to the European Union. Over the last two years, Hungary took more than 1,500 Ukrainian children (whose families have been affected by the war in Eastern Ukraine) on holiday to Lake Balaton and Lake Velence. Even though it was against our economic interest, the Hungarian government always voted for the EU’s sanctions on Russia. Hungary sent more than 200 tons of aid, medicine and equipment to Ukraine’s war-torn regions. And the list goes on.

We didn’t do all this to get something in return. But barring ethnic Hungarians living in the Ukraine from their fundamental rights is the last thing Hungary would have expected. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s question still stands: “What did these Hungarian children do to deserve this? What did their parents do to deserve this?”

The Ukrainian government’s reaction to these legitimate questions has been disappointing. Hanna Hopko, chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Verkhovna Rada, posted a reaction on her Facebook page claiming that prohibiting children from learning in their mother tongue is in the interest of the ethnic minorities. She further compared the European Union to Russia, saying that not even Putin could bring Ukraine to its heels with pressure. That’s an odd and unfortunate comparison.

These actions are concerning to say the least. I hold out hope that reason and good, old common sense will soon prevail and Ukraine will change the law. Unfortunately, until it does, the consequences, as Minister Szijjártó said, will be painful.