EU concerned about minority rights referendum in Croatia

20/01/2014

Members of the European Parliament have sent an open letter to the Croatian public, saying that the referendum on minority rights is "dangerous and unconstitutional."

By Kruno Kartus for Southeast European Times in Osijek -- 20/01/14

photo

Croatian protestors tear down Cyrillic signs in Vukovar. [AFP]

The leader of an initiative in Croatia to reduce minority citizens' rights to use their mother tongue said the effort will continue in spite of concerns voiced in a recent letter from the European Parliament.

Several war veterans' associations in the country collected 680,000 signatures -- one-third more than the number needed -- for a referendum that reduces the rights of minorities to bilingualism. The campaign was launched in Vukovar, where the local government last year began to install bilingual signs that included the Cyrillic alphabet on public institution buildings.

The war veterans want a referendum to change the Constitutional Law on National Minorities, which now specifies that bilingualism is introduced when the national minorities in municipalities and cities make up at least 33 percent of the population. The referendum will seek to increase the baseline to 50 percent.

Tomislav Josic, the leader of the Defence of Croatian Vukovar initiative, which is headlining the campaign, said criticism from the government and the EU will not stop the referendum.

"Even if the Constitutional Court says 'no' and the referendum is rejected, we will go further. We will not surrender and we will not stop here. We will continue on all democratic ways to reach our goal," Josic told local media.

After the war veterans hand over the signatures to the Croatian parliament, lawmakers will decide whether or not to call a referendum. The Constitutional Court, if asked, can rule on whether the referendum question is constitutional or unconstitutional, thus stopping its execution.

Members of the European Parliament warned that the campaign against the use of the Cyrillic alphabet in Croatia is "absurd and, above all, dangerous for Croatia and the EU."

"We want to send a strong message to the Croatian public, organisers and supporters of this unjust and dangerous initiative," the 74 MEPs wrote in their letter to the Croatian public last month.

Signatories included MEPs from Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Sweden, Latvia, Hungary, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, Spain, Austria, Slovakia, Greece, Bulgaria and Croatia.

Josic said the signatories make up just 10 percent of the European Parliament, while his group has collected signatures from 60 percent of the Croatian public to hold the referendum.

Activists "will be forced to collect signatures also in the European Parliament," he said.

The letter was signed by Croatian MEP Biljana Borzan, who said the EU is concerned about the events in Croatia.

"EU policy is not looking favourably on the reported threat of a possible reduction attained in the rights of national and other minorities in Croatia. All this has resulted in a very tumultuous and emotional discussions and comments of many MEPs. It's more because Croatia has many minorities whose home countries are also members of the EU," Borzan told SETimes.

The government is against the campaign as well.

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"You know my opinion. I do not think that this referendum is good or constitutional," President Ivo Josipovic told reporters.

The European Commission has refrained from acting, calling the controversy a domestic matter.

"The referendum on the use of minority language and script is entirely a national matter. Member states have full jurisdiction over decisions on national language policies," Dennis Abbott, spokesman for the commission's education, culture, multilingualism and youth ministry, told SETimes.

How do you feel about a referendum on increasing the baseline for minorities to use their mother tongue? Share your thoughts below.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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