Calls for English to be Removed as Official EU Language

In the wake of the historic Vote Leave Brexit referendum win, there has been no shortage of questions as yet unanswered about where the UK and the European Union will go from here. The headline questions focus on financial, economic, trade, migration and defence issues.

One other topic, though, has made its way to the top of the agenda of some onlookers here in France. Two public figures on polar opposite ends of the political spectrum have released statements calling to question the use of English as an official language by the EU apparatus.

Hard left leader of the Front de Gauche party, candidate in the upcoming 2017 presidential election and frequent jouster with the far-right National Front Jean-Luc Mélenchon has said that English should no longer be the third working language of the European Parliament since the UK is pulling out of the group. Meanwhile, a few hours before Mélenchon, the journalist-cum-reactionary far-right culture warrior Robert Ménard was more emphatic when he declared that “English no longer has any legitimacy in Brussels”. See their tweets side by side below.

ENGLEU

The general mood now is that the British people (or 51.9% of the 71% of the 72% of the population that turned out to cast a vote) have expressed their general will as per Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and that this must be respected. At the same time, the remaining EU countries are keen on being respected themselves and it appears that – although German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that there was “no need to be nasty” in hashing out the finer points of the UK-EU separation – some political actors intend to erase all traces of anything that remotely reminds them of the traitor that they now view the United Kingdom to be.

Both men ignore the fact that the UK being gone still leaves 2 EU member countries with English as an official language – those being Ireland and Malta – and that there is also Cyprus which, though not a majority English-speaking country by any measure, is a Commonwealth country that uses English to a non-negligible degree.

It could be conceded that the fact that these countries use English as their official language warrants English being one of the official languages of the European Parliament just like any other country’s official language, no matter how large or small that country may be, but that English is no longer representative enough of the EU’s language makeup to be a working language of the Commission. Given that the 2 people calling for the removal of English in EU institutions are French, such an argument automatically brings up the analogous issue of why French is one of the 2 working languages of the United Nations, along with English, when although French-speaking countries account for one-sixth of the organisation’s membership, French-speakers only make up some 4% of the world’s population. They would no doubt answer that, beyond the countries and territories where French is spoken as a native or second language, it serves as a lingua franca in many other places, is one of the most important languages of commerce after the likes of English and Chinese and is one of the most widely learned languages in the world. All of this taken together is what has led to French being ranked as the 9th most important language in the world.

If this is the reasoning they use, then they’d be answering their own doubts as to why English need be retained in the EU: English is the most widely learned language in the world, has the most native or second language speakers of any European language and is the undisputed language of international business.

It is worth noting at any rate that, even if Mélenchon is keen on reforming many aspects of the functioning of the European Union, and Ménard is somewhat close to the Front National, which fancies itself a serious contender in next year’s election, neither of the 2 politicians quoted above have any chance of being in power in France so their opinions won’t conceivably go much further than their respective tweetospheres.

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2 Comments

  1. “English is no longer representative enough of the EU’s language makeup to be a working language of the Commission”. Really? Leaving aside the Irish and the Maltese, how many Central, Eastern and Northern Europeans can work effectively in French? And isn’t it useful to have a lingua franca that is also the predominant language of politics and business around the world? It would be folly to try to suppress English as a working language of the Commission. I wish everybody spoke good French, and German as well. But they don’t.

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    1. The argument the critics make is not that people don’t literally speak English, but that there aren’t any more officially English-speaking countries left, as Irish and Malta have declared languages other than English. In any case, there’s a BBC article making the same point you just made.

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