United in (some) Diversity

Antoni Torras i Estruch's picture
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2012, probably not the end of the world outside Europe. After these doomed years of Icelandic ash, Greek tragedies, Spanish influenza and what-have-you; amid desperate efforts to save the Euro from this kulturkampf-reloaded now involving the whole subcontinent... A sensible observer would see the language regime of the European Union (EU) neither as a matter of top concern nor as the source of its biggest problems. Yet a certain degree of nuance would do our observer no harm. United in Diversity, the unborn Constitution’s unwanted motto for 'Europe'. Just how diverse, though?

Home to around 3 percent of the world's language heritage, it hosts the EU, which works with 23 languages, all state-backed. Since 1958, an incremental architecture arose at the European level that brought us to the current status. With 23 languages, one would guess it is complex enough. Indeed, the noisiest critics ask for halving them, or bluntly for working with English only. The EU Treaties, without any conferral of powers regarding language policy, are nonetheless having a robust indirect effect on the hierarchisation of European languages: the specific set of them in which the Union’s institutions legislate or communicate with citizens does have a non-negligible impact on chunks of cultural sectors and on the public space for any given language.

English (that’s the name Eurish is given in Brussels) is thus king here, especially since May 1st, 2004, thanks to Prodi’s guys’ swiftness in moving against the Warsaw Pact. The other 22 languages are struggling for survival, yet a handful of them still haven’t realised it. Take France and its grandeur –or Spain and Portugal and their colonial mindset. They do not see themselves as minority languages, although French has virtually vanished from negotiation tables in 25 years. Maybe De Gaulle was right after all.

You may wonder what’s with the other European languages, those beyond the reasonable diversity threshold. Well: shortly before Lehman Brothers became globally famous, Romania entered the EU. Leonard Orban became the first and to-date last Commissioner for Multilingualism. He launched the first phase of a strategy (followed attentively by a number of Catalan speakers, loaded with wishful thinking) that is still waiting for a second phase, but the debate around it helped clarify the importance European leaders attach to their complete language heritage: not a lot. Almost untackled, they are getting less and less, even nominal, support ever since. But that is peanuts, or as The Economist put it, an embarrassing non-portfolio.

The Community Patent is a more compelling example of why language matters. There, Italy and Spain, in their role as defenders of their two biggest languages (Italian and Castilian are to be left out of this IP scheme), blocked a piece of legislation for years that could have boosted European competitiveness out of today’s deadlock. Spain again, yet on the verge of fully-fledged intervention, continues to boycott any technical meeting at the Council of the EU where Castilian is not interpreted to and from, regardless of the language regime decided by the rotating Presidency.  It has also warned its own officials that they will not get their travel expenses refunded if they attend one such meeting. As an Alacant politician put it, 'languages unite'.


by Antoni Torras i Estruch

European policy advisor - M.Sc. in European Politics and Policies

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