Brexit Babel: Will The EU Bid Adieu To The English Language?
French was once the international language of diplomacy. In Europe, at least, it may have to resume that role now that English risks losing its status as an official EU language.
PARIS — The candidates have been announced. Their teams are ready and rearing to go. It's officially election season in the EU, and the race is on.
Some say they are here to oppose others. Others want to close borders, force member states to meet minimum social-spending requirements, promote a European customs tariff, restructure European governance or even initiate an ecological transition. Candidates talk about closing doors and opening windows. Some call for a full refurbishing, and still others say we ought to rebuild the foundation from the ground up.
But there is one simple and yet inescapable issue that no one is addressing: What will the EU's working language be after Brexit?
European texts require that the working language be an official language of one of the member states. Currently, EU exchanges are done in English. Final documents then translated into the language of each member state. But Britain is set to leave the EU. And since Ireland chose Gaelic and Malta chose Maltese, English will no longer be an official language.
That means that either the rules will have to be changed so that the EU can operate in non-official language — and thus stick with English — or the working language will have to be changed, and the EU will have to choose one or several new languages.
An overwhelming majority of European civil servants can work only in English.
It is clear that the most widely used working language internationally is English. In fact, an overwhelming majority of European civil servants can work only in English. That having been said, only about a third of Europeans can properly read, write or express themselves in English — although many more have some basic notions about the language.
By abandoning English, the European administration risks being slowed down by the need for translations and thus being less responsive. But by that same token, the EU might also be forced to translate projects before they are adopted, and not afterwards as is currently the case. This could be a unique opportunity for Europe to legislate less and be better understood by citizens, as Jean-Claude Juncker, the current president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has long advocated.
The EU's hemicycle (debating chamber) in Strasbourg — Photo: Wikipedia
In terms of raw numbers, the most widely spoken language in Europe after English is German. French comes next, and has the advantage of also being spoken in Belgium and Luxembourg. More importantly, many schools in various European countries continue to teach it.
French is all the more tempting given that more than a third of European elected representatives can debate and work in French. It's a language, furthermore, with legal concepts that are very close to the ones known and understood in almost all member states. This is what the English mock when they describe continental European law as "Napoleonic" law.
A paradigm shift
So what do the legal experts themselves think? Rather than advocate for their own language, French lawyers, for their part, say it all comes down to communication. For rules to be accepted they first need to be understood. Internationally, the important thing isn't to force your allies, but to share.
The best thing, therefore, would be for the EU to change take advantage of Brexit to adopt a new approach, one that embraces a multicultural and multilingual society. This is an opportunity to translate before rather than after, to take time and to adopt a writing style compatible with all the languages of the Union. It is truly a paradigm shift, since each language has its own way of thinking, its own way of reasoning and therefore its own way of conceiving society.
This is an issue that goes far beyond the simple convenience of elected officials or civil servants. It is of interest to all citizens. So far, no candidate has yet to address this very concrete issue. But the time to do so is now, because clearly, this is something we should all really decide.
*Frédéric Sicard, former President of the Paris Bar, is a partner at La Garanderie Avocats