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Diverse tongues-Ethnic minorities and languages preserve Europe's rich fabric

By Peter Josika

Opponents of the European Union argue that a multi-ethnic European state destroys diversity and endangers smaller ethnic groups. In fact, the opposite is true, if you look at history and the current state of ethnic minorities in Europe.

Take the Czech Republic as an example. Since the formation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, the historically multilingual Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia have turned into one of Europe’s most mono-ethnic nation states. The Polish population has dropped 50 percent; the number of Sudeten Germans, once the largest ethnic minority in Europe, has dropped more than 99 percent.

Mono-ethnic states destroy diversity.

By contrast, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Belgium are Europe’s only remaining officially multi-ethnic states. They have preserved their linguistic plurality better than any other nation in Europe. Even smaller ethnic communities such as the Reto-Romans and German-Belgians are flourishing today. Nowhere else in Europe have so many dialects survived as they have in Switzerland.

To go back to the Czech example, the national revival itself was a product of the conditions of former multi-ethnic Austria.

If Bohemia and Moravia had become a part of “mono-ethnic” Germany in 1871, most Czechs would be proud Germans now. Multi-ethnic states are, in fact, the guarantors of ethnic diversity.

Minorities in Europe’s mono-ethnic nation-states struggle to survive. Stateless languages such as Sorbian, Kashubian, Breton, Alsatian or Scots Gaelic are in danger of extinction, while the number of Hungarians (in Slovakia, Romania and Serbia), Germans (in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary), Slovenes (in Italy, Austria) and Poles (in the Czech Republic, Belarus, Ukraine) has decreased markedly in recent decades.

So if we remain a divided Europe of mono-ethnic nation-states we will not only destroy Europe’s position in the world and our economic prospects, but we will also maintain prejudice and ethnic tension. This eventually leads to more conflict of the kind we have experienced in the past.

A Europe of mono-ethnic nation states is also the best recipe to endanger the very existence of Czech identity and nationhood. A united Europe, on the other hand, is the only way to overcome national and ethnic conflict in Central Europe and safeguard the position of all ethnicities, including those of the Czechs.

President Václav Klaus is one of a group of influential politicians who continuously try to torpedo the European unification process. This group openly fights for a return to the Dark Ages of the interwar period.

In addition to Klaus, other politicians from Poland and the Czech Republic have sadly become the driving force of this new Euroskepticism. It is interesting to see how two countries that currently benefit the most from the EU have also become her greatest potential adversaries.

Klaus loves to preach “democracy” if it suits his political strategy. However, when it comes to the EU, as a “true democrat” he should have sided recently with those who are against the Polish government’s push to maintain the status quo (where a Polish vote has twice as much weight as a German vote). Klaus sided with the Poles.

In spite of vocal politicians like Klaus, most Czechs and Poles are not anti-European.

Public opinion polls tell us so. In both countries there is underlying support for greater European political integration and a joint foreign policy, more so than in many West European countries.

However, certain populist politicians continue to scaremonger the public by spreading divisive nationalist slogans and wrong and unsubstantiated fears about the loss of property and identity. They like to call the EU “undemocratic” and “supra-national” to discredit the difficult process of getting the identities and interests of two dozen EU countries all under one umbrella.

As we all know, Europe has gone through an unbelievable transformation over the past few decades. A continent once brainwashed and destroyed by nationalism and communism has started to turn into a united force that stands for democracy, human rights, prosperity, diversity and, most importantly, reconciliation among nations, ethnicities and religious groups.

Since the end of the Cold War, Central and East European countries have been given the opportunity to benefit from and enrich the EU project.

As many of those countries join the EU, they become the fastest-growing economies in the world. Billions of euros in investments and subsidies from countries like Germany, France, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have created this Central and East European economic miracle.

The true key to this success was having the political will to overcome nationalist sentiments after two world wars. Modern Europe was born out of the understanding that nationalism creates division and destruction.

No country has been forced into the EU. All have joined by their free will.

Modern-day Czechs have only to look at history to see their mono-ethnic behavior. Founders in 1918 included Czechs (over-represented), Slovaks and Ruthenians, or Rusyns (under-represented). Germans and Hungarians, who constituted almost 40 percent of the population at the time, were barred completely.

Those same Czechs continue to vigorously defend the equally undemocratic ethnic cleansing of the German-speaking population after World War II.

It is ludicrous of Klaus to lash out at the EU for supposedly being supra-national and undemocratic if these terms fit much better his own views of his own country.

— The author, a resident of Biel, Switzerland, is coordinator of the Network of European Bilingual Cities project and a correspondent for Eurolang, the news agency of European minorities (

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