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Tuesday, 19 June, 2001, 17:38 GMT 18:38 UK
Hungary 'Status Law' irks neighbours
Map of Hungary and neighbours
The Hungarian parliament has voted overwhelmingly in favour of a new law aimed at helping more than three million ethnic Hungarians who live in neighbouring countries to work and study in Hungary.

Hungarians abroad
Croatia - 25,000
Romania - 1.7m
Slovakia - 600,000
Slovenia - 10,000
Ukraine - 125,000
Yugoslavia - 340,000
The conservative government, which sponsored the bill, said the legislation will help to protect the cultural identity of Hungarian minorities in the lands where they have lived for centuries.

But the law has been sharply criticised both by part of the domestic opposition and by foreign governments who say it meddles in their affairs, and differentiates among their citizens on the basis of ethnic background.

Under the so-called Status Law, Hungarians living in Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Serbia and Slovenia will be entitled to a special identity document proving that they are Hungarian and allowing them to work in Hungary for three months each year.

Higher wages

The Romanian Government issued a statement on Tuesday describing the law as "discriminatory" and "contrary to the European spirit".

A bell of mourning for territory Hungary lost in 1920
A bell of mourning for territory Hungary lost in 1920
The Slovak Government said "intensive further consultations" were needed before the law was implemented.

Ethnic Hungarians issued with the identity card will have to pay tax and make national insurance contributions on any income earned in Hungary but will qualify for free health care and improved rights to study.

The BBC's Central Europe correspondent, Nick Thorpe, says the law has gained widespread support among ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring countries.

He says tens of thousands of them already work illegally in Hungary, attracted by higher wages than they can usually earn at home.

Austria dropped

The law applies to ethnic Hungarians in six neighbouring countries, but Austria was dropped from the list after the EU objected.

The plaque says: Sweet Homeland Hungary
The plaque says: Sweet Homeland Hungary

A spokesman for the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, Gabor Horvath, said the EU apparently had no further objections to the law once references to Austria had been dropped.

However, the Romanian Foreign Ministry said Austria's exclusion indicated that the law was not compatible with "the European spirit".

The opposition Socialist Party supported the bill in its final form but the Alliance of Free Democrats opposed it.

A deputy for the Alliance of Free Democrats, Matyah Oershi, said the law would encourage ethnic Hungarians living abroad to leave their homelands and emigrate to Hungary.

However, the Hungarian Government - which estimates that 25% of ethnic Hungarians would like to emigrate to Hungary - says the law should have the opposite effect.

The large overseas diaspora came about when Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory in the Treaty of Trianon after World War I.

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See also:

06 Apr 01 | Europe
Ethnic tension a pan-European ill
01 Jan 00 | Europe
Hungary hails national symbol
10 Sep 99 | Europe
Hungary's role remembered
04 Jun 01 | Media reports
Hungary revives painful past, former glory
15 Jan 01 | Europe
Timeline: Hungary
19 Jun 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Hungary
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