Linguistic diversity in Europe: the Catalan case

Mònica Sabata's picture
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Europe is very diverse. This diversity in Europe is obvious, and it becomes even more obvious when we look at it from a linguistic perspective. There are some sixty different languages spoken in Europe, not counting all the languages that have arrived with recent migrations, yet this diversity has never received the degree of recognition and protection that it deserves. Thus, the growing awareness of the importance, the recognition, and the relevance of this linguistic diversity – and the philosophy on diversity in general – is a relatively new phenomenon. The protection of this diversity is even more recent: the first European resolutions that took linguistic diversity into account didn’t appear until the 1980s. Today, despite seeing the European Union use the famous motto “United in Diversity” during the process of the reform of its Constitutional Treaty, there is still not enough protection or legislation that defends all the languages of the Union as equals.

I believe that today the main challenge facing the Union is to reconcile the philosophy of respect for linguistic diversity with the daily use and functioning of the institutions. To apply this to the subject at hand means that we must take into account all of the languages, the expectations of the citizens who speak them (like the Catalans), as well as the political interests of the states. Without a doubt, this is an enormous undertaking and one that is still waiting to be resolved, but it is urgent precisely because the Treaty of Lisbon recognises that the EU is not just made up of states, but also citizens.

For a large part of the Catalan population it is unacceptable that Catalan is still not an official language in Europe. After countless grassroots campaigns that have called for its official language status, and numerous petitions submitted by the Catalan MEPs to the European Parliament, Spain neither facilitates nor accepts that Catalan (or the other co-official languages of Spain) could be officially present in the EU, with all the rights and duties that go along with this status. Even though Catalan occupies position number 13 in the ranking of the most spoken languages in the EU, it can only be official the day that Spain wants it to be. Despite its seven million speakers, Catalan can only be used in the Council of Europe and a few other official bodies, and its presence in Europe is hardly normalised at all. This is quite the opposite from Gaelic, which has some 1.7 million speakers but is official thanks to the acceptance of Ireland.

Over the last few days we have seen two more examples of the Spanish government’s belligerence towards the Catalan language. The first was their reaction to the Catalan MEPs’ proposal that Spain request Catalan be made official, taking advantage of Croatia’s adhesion to the EU and the subsequent obligatory change to the Treaty of Lisbon to include Croatian as an official language. The second was the recent vote on the EU labeling rule, which now requires people to label their products in at least one official language of the EU. This means that it will now be impossible to exclusively label products in Catalan.

Lately the odds of seeing Catalan become an official language in Europe have not been good, and what is certain is that these odds will only improve the day that the Spanish government understands that diversity is important. The presence of this pluralism in European institutions is a sign of democratic normality. It is also a symbol of what the European objectives and values represent: a union in diversity. Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to wait too much longer to see this!


Mònica Sabata

President of the FOCIR (Federation of Internationally Recognized Catalan Organizations) and member of InTransit’s Editorial Board

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 I agree with your diagnosis of the problem, but what solutions would you suggest? How can people who want to promote linguistic diversity in Europe best promote their cause? How can people who speak 'official' European languages be brought in to the campaign for diversity?