The United Kingdom’s referendum in favor of its withdrawal from the European Union, also known as Brexit, was undoubtedly the biggest news about the European Union this summer. Its lesser-known ripple effect was the intense speculation in the immediate aftermath of the vote that English could lose its prominent position in Europe as a result of the Brexit.
Such speculations were unexpected, to say the least. Before the Brexit, discussions about English in the European Union tended to focus on the opposite: a possible take-over of other languages by English. “Should English be the only official language of Europe?”, asked the Debating Europe blog space two years before the Brexit vote, eliciting thousands of passionate comments from experts and citizens who gave this question a serious consideration. Speculations about English’s purported loss of status in Europe were also surprising in light of statistical data on language use. English is not only the most widely spoken foreign language in the Union, it is three times more likely (38%) to be selected for such purposes than French (second, with 12%) and German (close third, with 11%). If an otherwise monolingual European can hold a conversation in a language other than his/her mother tongue, that language is likely to be English in 54% of all cases (Eurobarometer, Europeans and their languages, 2012). Thus, the question is: how did we get from imminent take-over by English to imminent loss of English virtually overnight? Could the status of English in Europe be at risk after the Brexit?
To answer these questions, we first need to get our terminology straight. Exactly what function of English are we talking about? Is it English as an official language, a working language, a prominent foreign language, or a global lingua franca preferred by individuals anywhere around the world, including Europe, because they do not share the same mother tongue and still wish to communicate with each other? In the immediate aftermath of the vote, nobody seemed to care about such nuances. All of a sudden, the idea of a world turned upside down seemed possible and the wildest speculations started rippling through the media…
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Since member states notify only one official language for the purposes of communication with the EU and the Irish selected Gaelic and the Maltese chose Maltese, there might be no legal ground for the continued use of English as an official language in the Union.
Hübner’s speculations went viral overnight. Most major news outlets relayed her comments using confusing terminology. Reuters’ headline feared dropping “English as an official tongue”. For the Wall Street Journal, English would lose currency as Europe’s lingua franca. The Irish Times presented English as an “EU language”, while the same Debating Europe blog space that once wondered about the invasion of European tongues by English now asked the question whether English will “remain the de facto EU official language”. French politicians, left and right, were also quick to join in. The right-wing mayor of the southern French town of Béziers, Robert Ménard, for instance, questioned the legitimacy of “English in Bruxelles” in one of his tweets. This piece was subsequently reported in The Sun and The Daily Mail, as Ménard also declared that Irish Gaelic could become much “more relevant” in EU matters in the near future. Adding to the growing story-line, left-wing presidential hopeful Jean-Luc Mélenchon tweeted that English can no longer be “the third working language of the European Parliament”. His comment was portrayed by the Sunday Express as a future ban of English: “English should be BANNED in Brussels after Britain leaves”.
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In an official statement, qualifying the media reports “incorrect”, the Commission’s Representation in Ireland explained, evoking Article 342 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, that “any change to the EU Institutions’ language regime is subject to a unanimous vote of the Council of Ministers, including Ireland”. In other words, constitutional headache or not, English can remain a working language in EU institutions even in the event of a UK withdrawal from the Union.
The Commission was right. English still has quite a lot of staying power due to its multiple functions in the European Union. As a lingua franca, English is solidly anchored in the European linguistic landscape as both a national and a widely favored second language. Its status is further supported by its role as a global language of official and business communication. As a working language, one that is used in EU institutions, English could not be easily side-stepped either. Regimes of working languages are typically subject to strict regulations in every institution and do not – cannot – depend on changing political will, the current state of the economy, or the daily news. As far as the official status of a language in the EU is concerned, the situation can be more complicated and this might be one reason why speculations about the future status of English had generated so much attention after the Brexit vote.
In reality, what counts as an official language in the EU is not based on a single criteria. There is no explicit regulation or ruling on exactly how many languages can a member state notify as its official language(s) and whether and how that/those language(s) can be dropped or added. It has been customary to notify one, but not mandatory. Also, official languages vary in number, status, and even support given by their member states. Some states share a single official language for the purposes of official communication with the EU. This is the case of German in Austria and Germany. However, German is also used in official translations and communications with Belgium, Denmark, Italy, and Luxembourg where the language is co-official with one or several other languages. Also, member states are not required to notify their own national language as an official language in the Union. Luxemburg, for instance, chose not to declare Luxemburgish as an official language in the EU, preferring to fall back on its more widely shared co-official languages (French and German) to do the job. Irish Gaelic is much less frequently used in formal communication than English in Ireland, and yet as an important national symbol, this endangered Celtic language has been promoted to the status of an official language both in Ireland (1937) and in the EU (2007). This means that, in addition to using English, Ireland also receives treatises and official documents translated into Irish Gaelic.
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Sources (in the order of citations):
Debating Europe: http://www.debatingeurope.eu/2014/12/09/should-english-be-the-only-official-language-of-the-eu/#.V9YRp_krJmM
EUROBAROMETER: Europeans and their languages http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_386_en.pdf
Dunton-Downer, Leslie. 2011. The English is Coming!: How One Language is Sweeping the World. New York: Touchstone.
The Irish Times: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/european-commission-rejects-claims-english-will-not-be-eu-language-1.2702734
Debating Europe: http://www.debatingeurope.eu/2016/07/28/eu-keep-english-official-working-language/#.V9YezvkrJmM
Robert Menard: https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/1349335/french-want-english-language-kicked-out-of-europe-after-brexit-saying-it-has-no-legitimacy/
Melanchon Daily and Sunday Express : http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/683980/english-banned-brussels-britain-leaves-jean-luc-melenchon-brexit
EU languages: Statement on behalf of the European Commission Representation in Ireland https://ec.europa.eu/ireland/news/teangacha-aontais-eorpaigh-r%C3%A1iteas-thar-ceann-ionada%C3%ADocht-choimisi%C3%BAin-eorpaigh-%C3%A9irinn_en
European Commission rejects claims English will not be EU language http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/european-commission-rejects-claims-english-will-not-be-eu-language-1.2702734
Ostler, Nicholas. 2010. The Last Lingua Franca: English until the Return of Babel. Walker Publishing: New York.