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European Union leaders have adopted the final draft of the new EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which includes provisions on linguistic minorities. However, at their weekend summit meeting in Biarritz, in the French Basque Country, the leaders failed to resolve their differences over the precise legal nature of the document.
The text of the Charter was finalised earlier this month by a drafting convention, a special group of representatives of national parliaments and the European Parliament, the European Commission, the Council of Europe and over 100 non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
In Biarritz, the leaders agreed to send the text to their December summit in Nice for approval as a political declaration. According to various reports, much of the debate about the Charter centred on the thorny issue of its legal status. According to The Irish Times, six of the leaders urged that the Charter either be referred to in Article 6 of the existing Treaty, or incorporated in full into it.
Among them was the Austrian Chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel, who 'criticised the Charter for its weakness on minorities and language rights', The Irish Times reported. It was also reported that both the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder and the Italian Prime Minister, Giuliano Amato, said that the text could form the basis for a future European Constitution. However, among those most vehemently opposed to granting the Charter binding legal effect was the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern. He warned that even mentioning the Charter in the EU Treaty could have the same legal effect as incorporation in the Treaty. Opposition to strengthening the Charter's force also came from the British.
The British newspaper The Independent reports that the Blair government regards 'a new round of human rights legislation as unnecessary, having only just made the non-EU Convention on Human Rights enforceable in domestic law.' A leading member of the convention which drafted the Charter, France's Professor Guy Braibant, told journalists in Biarritz that the document would have an effect on the law, regardless of whether or not it was binding. 'If such a text exists, even if it is not legally binding, courts tend to refer to it. Magistrates will refer to it and it will inform their jurisprudence,' The Irish Times quoted Braibant as saying.
The Charter contains two sections of relevance to minorities. Article 21 prohibits discrimination on a number of grounds, including language or membership of a national minority, while Article 22 states that the European Union 'shall respect cultural, religious and linguistic diversity'. When the draft text was finalised in Brussels early in October, drafters of the Charter defended as 'positive' its minority provisions. 'It is important that for the first time ever, national minorities are mentioned at the Union level,' Gunnar Jansson, president of the representatives of national parliaments on the drafting convention told Eurolang.