Hungary has decided to bring its spat with Ukraine over the law of education at the EU level, threatening to block Kiev’s perspective for further EU integration.
The bone of contention is the new Ukrainian law on education that establishes the Ukrainian language as the main language at schools, pushing back the mother tongue classes for ethnic minorities children. The law that has been signed by president Petro Porshenko on 25 September already created discontent at several EU capitals.
It took less than 24 hours after the Hungarian foreign minister Peter Szijjarto said his government considers the new Ukrainian education law “a stab in the back of our country,” for diplomats in Brussels to request the issue with the language spat to be included in the agenda of the Foreign Affairs Council – the monthly gathering of EU foreign ministers.
The demand was made on Friday already for the Monday meeting, 16 October in Luxembourg.
The ministers will listen, without discussion, to the Hungarian arguments against the law. The so called “information point” will be included in the “Other business” topic of the agenda,, an EU source told the OPEN Media Hub.
According to Budapest 71 Hungarian education facilities, that serve the 150 000 strong Hungarian ethnic minority in Ukraine, are directly affected by the new school legislation.
The Hungarian government hopes to bring more EU allies on board to further pressure Kiev to withdraw or change the law planning a whole strategy in reaching its goal.
Budapest already has got some support from the European Commission and the EU diplomatic service, which made clear to the Ukrainian authorities the new legislation creates tensions among the EU members.
If no result is achieved at foreign ministers’ level, Hungary plans to raise the question during the highly-anticipated EU – Eastern Partnership Summit to take place in Brussels on 24 November.
Prime-minister Victor Orban’s government is looking to convince its EU partners to include a paragraph on the minorities rights in the final declaration. According to the last draft of the document actively negotiated by the diplomats from the EU member states and the European Commission in Brussels, the strategy already is bearing some fruit.
The working draft includes text in which the EU members will be ready to state that
…modernizing education and research systems, and improving their quality performance and competitiveness…, should go in hand with ensuring respect for rights already exercised of persons belonging to national minorities as enshrined in UN and Council of Europe Conventions and related protocols, non-discrimination of persons belonging to minorities and respect for diversity and fully taking into account the expertise of Council of Europe bodies when reforming these systems.”
The Hungarian initiative goes beyond the top Eastern partnership event in the EU calendar for the year. Hungary aims to have the problem included in the EU-Ukraine Association Council scheduled for 8 December. If the education law is not changed by then Budapest will pressure the Commission to call on Kiev to respect the minorities rights in the country, an EU source hinted.
So far the government secured support from several member states. On 15 September the foreign ministers of Bulgaria, Hungary, Greece and Romania signed a joint letter to their Ukrainian counterpart in which they insist that the education law should not affect the rights of minorities and the education in mother tongue.
Bulgaria and Romania have adopted a softer approach with Sofia saying Bulgarian minority rights to learn Bulgarian are not concerned, and Romania pointing out that the OSCE should be brought as a mediator. According to EU sources Budapest is well placed to get more allies sympathising to its cause. An obvious one is the Netherlands, which insists the Eastern Partnership Summit should not engage with the further European aspirations of Ukraine. An unexpected one might be the Commission, where a source said Brussels is nicely surprised by the “latest constructive attitude” of Budapest.
The EU leaders already agreed in December 2016 with a wording that may play on Hungarian note, saying the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement doesn’t confer Kiev as potential candidate for EU membership, nor constitutes commitment for its EU future. This declaration was given in order to ensure Netherlands’ parliament approval of the EU-Ukraine trade agreement, but could be used as a precedent.