Since last September, relations between fellow EU-members (and NATO allies; but also with a very troubled historical relationship) Slovakia and Hungary have been rather bad, due to a Language Law that took effect then in Slovakia mandating the use of Slovak in all communications with any government organizations – the only exception being within those localities where people speaking other languages constitute 20% or more of the population. In Slovakia, that can really only be Hungarians, and it’s true that in some places they do reach that 20% threshold, but not many. And if you try to communicate with a language other than Slovak in those many other places where you’re not allowed to, you can get hit with a fine – up to €5,000!
One excellent window onto this controversy is the main Czech business newspaper, Hospodářské noviny, which now has an article on the latest development: Bratislava is in a rage: Budapest to contribute to countrymen in Slovakia towards fines for Hungarian. Put simply: the Hungarian government is raising a fund of money – mainly from its own resources, although private contributions are also encouraged – to pay the fines and legal costs for Hungarian-nationals in Slovakia that run afoul of that Language Law. Even though those that do so will by definition be Slovak citizens, although of Hungarian ethnic nationality. The Slovak Minister of Culture Jozef Bednár has issued a statement condemning Hungary for “intervening in the internal affairs of the Slovak Republic.” That does seem to be an accurate accusation, as far as it goes, although on the other hand it was also the standard line trotted out by the Soviet Union and its satellites whenever the West chose to complain about human rights violations and the like in those countries while the Cold War was still raging
Indeed, you could think that a bit of “interference in internal affairs” is quite in order here to stifle this childish and embarrassing brouhaha – intervention not from Hungary, but the European Union. Yet it seems that neither the doctrine concerning relations between EU institutions and member-states nor the sheer willingness of EU top officials to actually do anything has evolved sufficiently for that to happen.
Things really get interesting towards the end of the HN article when the author (the piece is attributed only to the Czech press agency CTK) introduces secondary information – like only entities registered as organizations or businesses are liable to the fine, not physical persons. Or the fact that no entity has actually been fined yet! If that’s really true, you can safely guess that the Language Law was really intended to be little more than a Slovak political gesture. Unfortunately, that gesture is kicking up more than a bit of trouble with the neighbors.