The Continuing Role of English in the EU after Brexit
A total of 24 official languages are in use in the EU, which means that each official language can theoretically be translated in combinations with up to 23 others. Naturally, this is not a workable method for efficient communication between MEPs attempting to work in a cohesive manner, not to mention the paperwork involved! For that reason, amongst many others, just three working languages are in use within the European Parliament itself; English, French and German.
The dominance of English, however, has long been seen in all aspects of life throughout Europe. It’s standing as the most widely spoken language within the EU isn’t due to having a higher number of native speakers, as both French and German outrank English in this respect. In fact, as the UK was not a founding member of the EU, French was the language of diplomacy within the EU for a significant period.
English as a Lingua Franca
The prominence of English is due to its status as a Lingua Franca (a common language used to facilitate communication between people with differing mother tongues). This has entrenched its use across the world, making it now the most widely spoken language. It is considered to be both the language of business and the language of the technological industry, thus making it invaluable to the modern global economy.
The use of English in official EU debates and publications increased dramatically after 1995 when Sweden, Finland, and Austria joined the EU. All three use English as their most commonly spoken second language. This surge in English use was accelerated once more in the 2000s with the accession of Eastern European countries.
English Versus French
Of course, there has been talk of English lessening in importance within the EU after Brexit, specifically in terms of population distribution. Once the UK leaves the bloc, only 1% of EU citizens will retain English as a national language (Ireland and Malta; both also having Irish and Maltese alongside English). While this may seem an ideal time for French to make a long-awaited comeback as the language of choice for most EU affairs, in reality, this seems unlikely to happen. As French President Emmanuel Macron himself recently lamented in regard to French writer Victor Hugo, “[Who] believed that French would be the language of Europe, would today perhaps be a little disappointed.”
This ongoing trend towards the uptake of English hasn’t passed unnoticed. When the French Ambassador to the EU Philippe Léglise-Costa requested that the European Council make arrangements for other languages at a budget meeting, he actually walked out in response to the decision to only use English language translations.
Could English live on after the UK leaves?
Even within the proposed budget for 2021-27 issued by the European Commission, reference is made to the ongoing importance of English in the EU after Brexit, with no signs of lowering prominence going forward.
“The withdrawal of the United Kingdom will result in a limited reorientation of some functions within the administration, but the scope of activities will not change,” the section on EU administration states. “Translation and interpretation services in the English language will also remain unaffected.”
While emotions continue to run high across Europe in the wake of the Brexit decision, it’s understandable that the question of the English language would be raised. However, some are even suggesting that, due to its (almost) universal use, English should take on an even more commanding role in the future running of the European Union post-Brexit. At that time, it could become a linguistic neutral ground for the main states within the EU. It could thus even be considered a good candidate for the primary official language of the EU and be of benefit to those choosing to remain in the bloc.