Does the EU need an Official Language?

The debate has been raging ever since German President Joachim Goack’s speech in February in which he suggested making English the official language of the EU. (Kate Connolly, The Guardian)It’s important to remember that at this stage, whether English should be the official language of the EU (or whether the EU should have a single official language at all for that matter), is merely a suggestion and that there are no plans or strategies to implement such a thing at this time. With Europe’s economy still suffering from the recent recession, austerity measures and cutbacks have been preached on all sides. With extreme penny-pinching taking place all over Europe, the concept of one official language to cut back EU spending may be well received. This statement also comes at a time when Britain is trying to withdraw from the EU, and what better way to stay in its good books than by adopting the language?


Yet the heart of the debate isn’t so much that English should be the EU’s official language, but whether the EU should have an official language at all.

While the EU uses three ‘procedural’ languages within its walls; French, German and of course, English, the EU actually has twenty-three official languages. While the European Commission does not require that all documents be translated into every language (depending on the needs of the EU members), the European Parliament follows a different approach.

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The European Parliament ensures that important legislation and documents such as parliamentary documents are translated into all 23 official languages. The European Parliament makes a point to ensure the highest possible degree of multilingualism to make the European institutions more transparent and accessible. However, the EU produces an estimated 1.76 million pages of translation work a year at a cost of 300 million EUR as a result (Phillip Olterman, the Guardian) and so it’s easy to see how a single official language might be considered as a good idea.

What would having English as an official language mean for the EU?

Political aspect

√ Ideally, an official language would help in creating a more united Europe, with business and trade bringing Europe together and creating a true Union without barriers.

× Unfortunately this is the more unlikely scenario and these effects would certainly not be seen in the short-term. While some EU members may be in support of such a change, there would also be many against it. Why should one language be selected over another? The pro-democratic EU will stand very little chance in herding its members towards any form of agreement on the matter. Any attempt to force an official language will surely be met with extreme protest, and whatever language is chosen (whether it be English or another language entirely) might even come to be resented as a result.

Cultural aspect

√ In terms of selecting an official language, English may indeed be a reasonable choice considering that it has already become the ‘lingua franca’ (a common means of communication for speakers of different native languages) of Europe. English is already the most widely spoken foreign language (38%) in Europe and is already taught in many schools. With such a strong foundation already in place, there would be less difficulty making the change to one single official EU language.

× However, it is important to remember that the EU was founded upon the basis of trade and as single economic market. While relations may have improved between fellow EU members as a result of the Union, this does not mean that Europe is ready to unite under other terms. Language is a key reflection of a culture, and in all likelihood very few EU members would be likely to budge an inch if they felt that their culture and heritage would not be taken into consideration at the highest level. In fact, the majority of Europeans (81%) agree that all languages spoken within the EU should be treated equally. 

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Monetary aspect

√ When it comes down to it, there are several very practical advantages to having one official language for the EU. Presuming that an agreement was made and the official language was selected and implemented smoothly, not only would it save money for the budget, but the EU would be able to operate effectively without the need for translators or interpreters.

× Ideally this would be the case, but if English were to be selected as an official language, then English native speakers would be at an obvious advantage, both in business and for jobs within the EU. The EU would change from all official languages being represented to all being equally unrepresented apart from one.

Besides, if the EU wished to maintain its cultural diversity then guess where all that money saved on translations would probably go? In all likelihood it would likely be spent on teaching English to its own employees and representatives! Things may change but one way or another the EU will always be forced to pay for language services, whether it be translating, interpreting or teaching.

Conclusion

“All EU citizens must be able to refer to legislation directly concerning them in the language of their country. Furthermore, since every European citizen has the right to stand for election to the European Parliament, it is unreasonable to require Members to have a perfect command of one of the common languages. The right of each Member to read parliamentary documents, to follow debates and to speak in his/her own language is expressly recognised in Parliament’s Rules of Procedure. In addition, in its role as legislator the European Parliament is obliged to guarantee that the linguistic quality of all the laws which it adopts is beyond reproach in all official languages.” (European Parliament)

The system as it stands is fair and allows easy access of information to each of the EU members without discrimination.  While one language might make things easier from a business and economic perspective, it should be noted that the EU is only a monetary union and no member state should be placed at a disadvantage because its language is not the most popular. All EU members are involved and have an equal stake in its success, so as far we’re concerned, the languages used in the EU should reflect that.

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