The European Free Alliance – Solidarity Between Peoples, Languages and Cultures

 “The cultural wealth of Europe lies in diversity, not uniformity”

                                                                                                               – José Saramago


There is much discussion today about the European Union and Wales’ future within it. What we have not yet had is a meaningful debate about the new and different kind of Europe that we could build, and Wales’ place within that. A real Europe of the Peoples would look very different to the EU of today.

Welsh identity is strongly linked to our heritage, culture and languages. In common with other small European nations, having to defend any of those is inseparable from defending our national identity. In modern history, cultural and linguistic movements are political movements, in their own countries and perhaps even more so in the wider European context. So the intersection between culture, identity and politics, as complicated as it sometimes may be, is not unique to Wales.

As a bilingual European nation, Wales has much in common with many other stateless nations. This is why Plaid Cymru found a natural home within the European Free Alliance (EFA). By today, EFA has seven Members of the European Parliament, from Wales, Scotland, Corsica, the Basque Country, Latvia and Flanders. It is registered as a European Political Party with 33 member parties which all pursue progressive, nationalist, regionalist and autonomist policies. It works for the decentralization of decision making, for the protection of human rights, for a strong, sustainable economy and for peace and international solidarity.

The European Economic Community, as it was originally called, was established in 1957 to return Europe to a state of peace and economic prosperity by bringing states together in a political union. This historic and unique entity has evolved significantly over the years, with an avowed commitment to respect diversity: its motto is ‘United in Diversity’. One challenge for today’s European Union, with 28 Member States and enlargement never far from the agenda, is how to work efficiently and give equal status to the ever increasing number of so-called ‘official’ languages whilst respecting the cultural and linguistic diversity within the Member States. This challenge has been put into even sharper focus by the economic crisis, austerity measures and huge cuts to the EU budget. Yet I believe that it will be key to shaping a more open, effective and democratic Europe. So this is the very time that we should be ensuring that Europe is speaking to people in the languages they literally understand.

When discussions were held between political parties after the first direct European parliamentary elections in 1979, it was clear that no grouping of those working for the respect of cultural and linguistic identities existed within the European Parliament. According to the Charter of Brussels, EFA’s founding document signed in 1981, ‘Even peoples that don’t have their own state, have to be able to develop their cultural identity.’ So the four MEPs who represented nations which had not been able to fulfill their full potential on the international stage and who knew that a meaningful European Community had to recognize all peoples and cultures in Europe, proposed forming a new political alliance that would do just that.

So EFA was founded on solidarity between peoples, languages and cultures and has grown into a real political force on a European level. Nelly Maes, a former Flemish MEP and President of EFA wrote, on the 25th anniversary of EFA’s birth, that it is a collection of ‘Free peoples who can experience their own identity as a nation, a region or language community who work together to create the democratic institutions that shape the European Union politically: that is the dream of the European Free Alliance.’

Equality is central to our philosophy. That means real equality for all cultures, including minority and lesser used languages. On that score we have achieved considerable success. When I was first elected to the European Parliament in 1999, there was no prospect of Welsh becoming one of the official EU languages. It was not even allowed to speak Welsh in the chamber, let alone get interpretation of what you were saying. By working together with EFA members and others, we were able to get the parliament rules changed so we could use our languages in debates but still without translation. Given that speaking time in the European Parliament is already so limited – usually two or three minutes – having to translate yourself halved that time! But it was a significant advance.

It was the Irish government’s application to make Irish an official language in 2005, for which they had always had a right as an independent member state, that opened the door for other minority languages in the EU. The Spanish government made a subsequent application for status for the Basque, Catalan and Galician languages. What was decided was a kind of semi official status – co-official status – not only for those languages but for any others for which member states made an application. Following representations from the One Wales Government, the UK applied for co-official status for the Welsh and Scottish Gaelic languages in 2008. This was a successful campaign by EFA parties and pressure groups. However, the campaign for full official status for Welsh, Catalan and others will continue.

Within EFA, Wales is often seen as a leader in terms of progress on language policies. Whilst we still have a long way to go in terms of equality between our languages and promoting the learning of other languages, there are linguistic communities and cultural groups in Europe that are striving for the most basic rights. This can be especially true for language communities in the eastern countries which joined the EU in 2004. The Russian speakers in Latvia, for example, or the Hungarian speakers in Romania. Language communities often cross state boundaries and even  within the wider European context that may not be recognised.

This highlights very clearly that the borders of the twenty eight member states that can be seen outlined on any EU map do not reflect the cultural and linguistic communities that  inhabit Europe. That is why the recognition of true cultural diversity is so important.

The European Free Alliance does not confine itself to working within the borders of the EU. In 2002, we organized several fringe events at the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg under the title ‘Unity in Diversity’. At meetings to which hundreds came, we discussed with South African groups how cultural and linguistic differences could strengthen communities and nations. We visited schools which taught in up to ten different languages and listened in awe to the wonderful singer Miriam Makeba talk about her experiences under apartheid and as an artist promoting African music and culture.

Language is just one aspect of culture, of course. I will never forget the scene in the European Parliament in Brussels when I hosted a performance by the Ospreys Choir. The area was packed with people from many different countries and after the formal concert was over the evening spilled out into the bars of the square outside. The singing continued into the night and crowds came to join in – singing along heartily to Welsh hymns that they could not possibly have known a single word of! The appearance of Cor Ysgol Glanaethwy had a similar impact when they gave an impromptu performance in the foyer of the parliament. A large audience had soon gathered to listen, spellbound by the music though not even aware at first of which language the choir was singing. It has been a particular pleasure for me as an MEP representing Wales to be able to showcase the best talents of our nation on an international stage.

It has also been possible to explore issues of culture and identity in a more formal political way. EFA has held conferences on linguistic diversity, on independence, on how EU funding can be better used, on the way EU trade agreements can have an impact on human rights, in the cases of Palestine and Western Sahara, for example. We look at a whole spectrum of policies. A few weeks ago my fellow MEP, Iñaki Irazabalbeitia, who represents ARALAR in the Basque Country, organised a conference on minority language community radio broadcasting. Individuals engaged in local radio were brought together from the Basque Country, Ireland, Galicia, Catalonia and elsewhere to share information and experiences. It was clear that the opportunity to share best practice but also to express solidarity was very important. The participants were united in their passion for their work which is an invaluable contribution to the preservation of their own languages and cultures. Conference delegates left with an invaluable sense that their contribution was not unique to their corner of Europe but actually made up a small part of the amazing diversity and rich tapestry of cultures and languages that is Europe.

EFA brings together parties from distinct nations and regions which are travelling the same journey but at different speeds. Not all want to continue to the final destination which is independence, but all are moving in that same direction, motivated by the same values of equality and justice. Each journey is unique and will be determined by the peoples of the respective nation or region. Each will find their own way but are supported by their fellow travellers.

Many comparisons are made between the impending Scottish referendum on independence and the likely Catalan referendum on independence in 2014. In fact, their circumstances are very different. But for those of us following events with much interest, these referenda are more momentous and exciting than a possible referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. 2014 and these referenda will change the European Union itself. For the first time we could witness a new member state, the twenty ninth, coming not from outside the EU’s borders but from within.

A few months ago thousands of people joined hands to form a massive 400 kilometre chain across Catalonia, calling for independence – the Catalan Way. It was a remaking of the Baltic Way in the 1980s when the same happened across the Baltic countries and led to the independence of those nations and their joining the EU in their own right. When change happens it can be a catalyst for much wider reform.

One of the reasons that I am optimistic about change is the increasing involvement of young people in EFA. Raising awareness of identity and enabling young people to participate in activities to promote diversity are the main aims of EFA Youth. I see their optimism and energy reflected in the many young people from Wales who come to do work experience in my office in Brussels. They see, in a very short time, how Wales fits in well to this ever-growing union. It is they who will set the agenda for Europe’s future and build a new and different European Union.

Next year will remind us of the tragedy of the First World War. It will remind us too that the European Union was born out of the ashes of two bloody wars. As well as a common market it was a powerful statement that our countries will not go to war with one another again and that we will demonstrate tolerance and understanding. I believe that we will have a richer, more democratic and more effective Europe when all of our nations and regions, with our own languages and cultures, achieve real equality.