29th Sep 2023

EU rejects fast-tracking Spain's Catalan language bid

  • Ctalan flags at a demonstration in Brussels in 2017 (Photo: EUobserver)
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To little surprise, Spain's request to make Catalan, Galician, and Basque into official EU languageswas left on stand-by following initial talks in Brussels on Tuesday (19 September).

The appeal dates back to August, when Spanish foreign affairs minister José Manuel Albares called for the three co-official languages in Spain to become the 25th, 26th, and 27th official languages of the EU, as a sign of the incumbent government's efforts to meet the demands of a Catalan pro-independence party and secure a majority in parliament.

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After inconclusive elections in July that made it impossible to form a government, socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez and his team are negotiating a deal with pro-independence forces led by Catalan MEP Carles Puigdemont to remain in power.

Since the illegal referendum in October 2017, Puigdemont has been persecuted by the Spanish judiciary and is in self-exile in Belgium.

The move to make Catalan an official EU language is a gesture that helped give the PSOE (S&D) control of the Spanish parliament, where a reform is now pending approval to allow the use of co-official languages.

The issue led the 33 deputies of the far-right party Vox to leave their seats this morning as a sign of disagreement.

However, despite the efforts of Spain, which currently holds the EU Council presidency, the language bid will have to wait — and so will the pro-independence forces.

"Some member states have asked for more time to analyse its development and implementation, and for this reason, we have agreed to continue working to respond to states' comments on this proposal," Albares said, following first talks by EU affairs ministers.

The fob off came after less than an hour of debate.

And although no member state exercised its right to veto, concerns over costs, and operational and legal implications weighed heavier than the Spanish rush to add three more EU official languages to the existing 24.

These doubts were already openly expressed by countries such as Sweden and Finland, whose foreign minister declared himself (in a mixture of Spanish and Catalan) to be a "great friend of the languages of Spain" and called for a common defence of "diversity" during the doorsteps prior to the debate, but who added it was still "slightly early" to take a decision.

The cost of adding these three new languages is not yet known, but the Spanish government has offered to cover the fianancial needs that would result from this linguistic reform.

The EU budget usually covers these costs. Last year, the EU Commission spent more than €355m on staff, outsourcing, IT and events for the 24 existing official languages.

Catalan first

In his presentation to the other 26 EU countries, Albares explained that these three languages are not "minority" languages, although the figures for Basque and Galician are far from the 10 million people who speak Catalan.

In 2016, around 750,000 people spoke Basque, according to the Institut Culturel Basque.

In fact, the Spanish minister told the media that Catalan would be given priority over Galician and Basque in order to give a gradual approach to the request, which requires unanimity among member states.

After a closed-door meeting last Friday, EU diplomats told EUobserver that no decision would "realistically" be taken on Tuesday's general affairs meeting, especially due to concerns in member states with larger minorities which could see the Spanish request triggering a 'snowball effect'.

From now on, the proposal will follow the usual council procedures, and the doubts and concerns expressed by member states will be addressed at a working group and diplomat level.

In terms of deadlines, Albares' only confirmation was that progress would be "as quickly as possible".

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