Sunday

20th Aug 2017

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.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now and get 40% off for an annual subscription. Sale ends soon.

  1. €90 per year. Use discount code EUOBS40%
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

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.

Europeople

Rootless cosmopolitans in the Brussels bubble are not representative of the people they are writing about, legislating for and supposedly lobbying on behalf of.

EU needs lasting solution to refugee crisis

If we continue with the failed approach of the last two years then this could become a systemic crisis that threatens the EU itself, writes Gianni Pittella.

Young Poles can halt Kaczynski’s illiberal march

Debates are ongoing on whether president Duda vetoing two out of three bills on judicial reform should be seen as the opposition's success. But the protests brought about another, much less disputed success.

Setting course for strong and focused EU

From strengthening the internal market to completing the energy union, the prime ministers of Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland set out their vision for the EU.

Column / Brexit Briefing

The return of the chlorinated chicken

Britain has only just started on the path towards a post-Brexit trade deal with the US, but you can already see the same all-too-familiar disagreements.

Stop blaming Trump for Poland’s democratic crisis

If you were to judge events purely on the US media's headlines, you would be forgiven for wondering if the Polish government had anything to do with its recent controversial judicial reforms.

News in Brief

  1. Macedonia sacks top prosecutor over wiretap scandal
  2. ECB concerned stronger euro could derail economic recovery
  3. Mixed Irish reactions to post-Brexit border proposal
  4. European Union returns to 2 percent growth
  5. Russian power most feared in Europe
  6. Ireland continues to refuse €13 billion in back taxes from Apple
  7. UK unemployment lowest since 1975
  8. Europe facing 'explosive cocktail' in its backyard, report warns

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceDoes Genetics Explain Why So Few of Us Have an Ideal Cardiovascular Health?
  2. EU2017EEFuture-Themed Digital Painting Competition Welcomes Artists - Deadline 31 Aug
  3. ACCABusinesses Must Grip Ethics and Trust in the Digital Age
  4. European Jewish CongressEJC Welcomes European Court of Justice's Decision to Keep Hamas on Terror List
  5. UNICEFReport: Children on the Move From Africa Do Not First Aim to Go to Europe
  6. Centre Maurits CoppietersWe Need Democratic and Transparent Free Trade Agreements Says MEP Jordi Solé
  7. Counter BalanceOut for Summer, Ep. 2: EIB Promoting Development in Egypt - At What Cost?
  8. EU2017EELocal Leaders Push for Local and Regional Targets to Address Climate Change
  9. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceMore Women Than Men Have Died From Heart Disease in Past 30 Years
  10. European Jewish CongressJean-Marie Le Pen Faces Trial for Oven Comments About Jewish Singer
  11. ACCAAnnounces Belt & Road Research at Shanghai Conference
  12. ECPAFood Waste in the Field Can Double Without Crop Protection. #WithOrWithout #Pesticides

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EU2017EEEstonia Allocates €1 Million to Alleviate Migratory Pressure From Libya in Italy
  2. Dialogue PlatformFethullah Gulen's Message on the Anniversary of the Coup Attempt in Turkey
  3. Martens CentreWeeding Out Fake News: An Approach to Social Media Regulation
  4. European Jewish CongressEJC Concerned by Normalisation of Antisemitic Tropes in Hungary
  5. Counter BalanceOut for Summer Ep. 1: How the EIB Sweeps a Development Fiasco Under the Rug
  6. CESICESI to Participate in Sectoral Social Dialogue Committee on Postal Services
  7. ILGA-EuropeMalta Keeps on Rocking: Marriage Equality on Its Way
  8. European Friends of ArmeniaEuFoA Director and MEPs Comment on the Recent Conflict Escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh
  9. EU2017EEEstonian Presidency Kicks off Youth Programme With Coding Summer School
  10. EPSUEP Support for Corporate Tax Transparency Principle Unlikely to Pass Reality Check
  11. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament Improves the External Investment Plan but Significant Challenges Ahead
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersCloser Energy Co-Operation Keeps Nordic Region on Top in Green Energy