Wednesday

8th Feb 2023

Opinion

EU: 28 countries, one common language

  • For the first time since the Roman Empire, Europe now has a language a large chunk of its people can use to talk to each other (Photo: Biblioteca Nacional de Espana)

I am a big fan of Jean Quatremer, the Libération reporter who has covered the European Union for almost a quarter of a century, writes the best blog about EU affairs – Les Coulisses de Bruxelles – and has more Twitter followers than any other correspondent in the Belgian capital.

Jean is a passionate provocateur and incorrigible trouble-maker who is incapable of writing the sort of leaden stenography that typifies much EU reporting.

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However, there is one issue where Quatremer allows his national chauvinism and personal prejudices to cloud his usually clear judgment – the demise of French in the EU institutions.

Under a finger-wagging picture of Uncle Sam demanding “I Want You To Speak English,” Quatremer’s latest blog post accuses Germany, the EU institutions, English-speaking countries and even French officials of committing “linguistic cleansing” by allowing the language of Moliere to be crushed by that of Shakespeare. Railing against the arrogance of English native speakers, he likens being governed in a language you don’t understand to colonial rule.

You can almost picture members of the Académie Française choking on their croissants reading the article. The problem is that wallowing in nostalgia for a French-dominated Europe that existed 25 years ago is about as useful as pretending the fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t take place.

Enforced monolingualism

At the start of the 1990’s French was clearly the most important language in Brussels.

It was the only language allowed in the Commission pressroom – strangely enough, not too many French journalists objected to this enforced monolingualism then – most legislation was drafted in French and it was impossible to do business in the city without it.

The enlargement of the EU to 16 countries where English is usually the most important second language, has toppled French from its perch.

In the space of one generation, English has become the continent’s undisputed lingua franca.

According to a Eurobarometer poll in 2012, it is spoken by 38% of Europeans, compared to 12% for French and 11% for German. A quarter can read a newspaper, understand TV news or communicate online in English. About 5% can do so in French. Over two-thirds of respondents said English was one of the two most useful languages, compared to 17% for German and 16% for French.

So for the first time since the Roman Empire Europe now has a language a large chunk of its people can converse with each other in. That is something to be celebrated, not scorned. It makes travel smoother, communication quicker and doing business easier. But most of all, it allows Europeans to connect with each other.

Language of the past

I will never forget standing on Charles Bridge a few months before the 1989 Velvet Revolution and trying to talk to a group of disgruntled young Czechs.

As I couldn’t speak their language and they couldn’t speak mine we were, quite simply, unable to communicate. When I visit Prague these days, almost everybody speaks English – and quite a few German. That is progress. And that is one of the reasons why 69% of Europeans think we should be able to speak a common language, according to the 2012 poll.

In European terms, the harsh truth is that French is the language of the past and English the language of the present and future. Four out of five Europeans believe it is important for their children to learn English, compared to 20% for French – down 13% in the last decade.

Most young French people get this, which is why the journalism students I recently taught in Lille – in English – understood the need to speak the language fluently to make it as a reporter.

This is not Anglo-Saxon triumphalism, which would be difficult for a proud Welshman. Neither is it schadenfreude – French is, after all, the mother tongue of my children. It is simply the reality of Europe in 2015.

So what does this imply for the European Union?

One official working language

At present, the EU institutions have three working languages – French, German and English - with the interpretation or translation of most meetings and documents into all 24 official languages.

The cost of this is over €1 billion a year and will increase as the EU takes in new members. At a time when all European governments are having to make painful budget cuts, EU institutions should do likewise.

As a first step, English should become the only official language for internal EU business.

This means doing away with interpretation at press conferences, working groups and commissioners’ meetings. Few would miss it and, anyway, it’s hard to see how you can be an effective commissioner, correspondent or diplomat in Brussels without speaking the language most people communicate in.

The Commission could also save money - and trees - by reducing the 2.3 million pages it translates every year. Draft proposals and EU legislation should continue to be translated into all official languages, of course. But does every discussion paper, video on Europarl TV, crummy kids’ comic book and Eurobarometer report?

Most Europeans think not, with over half agreeing that EU institutions should adopt a common language when communicating with citizens.

Unfair advantage

Quatremer believes using English gives native speakers an unfair advantage.

If it did, there would be more British than French officials in the EU institutions and the most popular blogger about EU affairs would have a name like John Fourseas. Neither is bad English the root cause of the tortured texts coming out of the Commission.

Native English speakers are quite capable of producing bureaucratic gobbledygook in their own tongue.

Finally, there is no evidence that the French language – or any other one - is being destroyed because French people can increasingly speak English. As the German President Joachim Gauck said two years ago, it is perfectly possible to be in favour of multilingualism and English as the EU’s common language. If the German head of state can entertain these thoughts, why can’t a free-thinking French journalist?

Gareth Harding is Managing Director of Clear Europe, a communications company. He also runs the Missouri School of Journalism's Brussels Programme. Follow him on Twitter @garethharding.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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