The Baltic Sea is a natural border between the countries surrounding it, but over the centuries it has also been an element connecting and linking the countries to each other. The most prominent example of this is probably the Hanseatic League, the trade- and defence union established in the 13th century between the port cities along the cost of the Baltic Sea. During the centuries the peoples of the different countries have intermingled and intermixed, and the movement across the sea resulted in colonies or communities of people settling down in foreign countries. These communities make up most part of the so called national minorities in the countries in the Baltic Sea region. Of course there was movement across land borders as well, but the sea has still been an important way of connecting with each other and a main origin of the minorities of today.

The different countries have different stances on the issue of national minorities and minority languages. In Finland, for example, the Swedish-speaking minority has very far-stretched rights while language minorities in e.g. the Baltic states are less fortunate regarding the possibility to use their own language when contacting the authorities. Even if the minority policies are varying between the countries around the Baltic Sea, and even within a country depending on which minority is in question, the countries have a few things in common: First of all, all of the countries (Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Russia and Sweden) have ratified the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, and it has entered into force in all ten countries. Also, all countries but Denmark have multiple national minority groups of different sizes, ranging from 0,03 % of the population (like the Sámi-speakers in Finland) to nearly 30 % of the population (as the Russian minority in Latvia).

Some of the minorities are considered autochthonous (a people native to a region, a distinct community that has been settled in the area for many generations) while others are not, and the legislation considering both the national language(s) and the minority languages differ a great deal between the countries. It appears obvious that a collective policy for minorities for all ten countries is out of the question. That is, however, still the goal we should aim for. It is clear that it is not realistic to think the goal could be achieved any time soon, but in the long run we would all benefit from a coordination of the minority policies and the policies regarding minority languages between the Baltic Sea states. This should nevertheless be a progress of many stages. First and foremost all countries should strive to fulfil their international obligations under the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

Secondly, there needs to be a common understanding of which the national minorities considered are. Some countries have stated very clearly which minorities are considered to be national minorities or which minorities are covered by the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. An example of this is Denmark, which decided that the Framework Convention is only applicable to the German minority in South Jutland. Other countries, like Lithuania, have not drawn any guidelines, which has been interpreted in the way that the Framework Convention is applicable to all minorities.

As it becomes clear above, the level of the minority policies is different from country to country. I still believe that we could, and should, honour our common cultural history and the connection the Baltic Sea brought and still brings us. If a common policy is to be made, there needs to be a uniform understanding of at least a minimum of rights for the minority languages. This could perhaps be a task for the already existing cooperation between the Baltic Sea states. There needs to be a discussion about the signing and ratifying the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which is not in force in all Baltic Sea countries. There are very complicated historical issues behind the Baltic states’ unwillingness towards signing the Charter, and this is not the forum to go deeper into that and I am not going to take a clear stance on the issue. Nevertheless, there needs to be an enhanced dialogue on the matter. No matter how difficult a question, we should still be able to talk about it.

I do believe all countries around the Baltic Sea have something to gain from working together to defend and strengthen the multitude of languages and cultures along our shores.

Mikaela Nylander
Member of Parliament
Parliament of Finland