For most of its life, the European Union had three main languages. German was its leading mother tongue. French was the preferred register of Brussels diplomacy. English was a widely used second language. But in recent years the rise of the internet and the accession of central and eastern European states have made English dominant. Today over 80% of the European Commission’s documents are written first in that language, then translated into the eu’s remaining 23 official tongues.
That has raised some hackles. “English is not the only official language of the European Union,” huffed Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, last September. Some have hailed Brexit as a chance to re-establish French as the eu’s leading language, or at least remove English as an official language. “By what miracle will 450m citizens have to be governed in this future minority language?” fumed one French journalist at the eu’s failure to ditch the tongue of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.On the contrary, there has never been a better time for the eu to embrace English as its single official language. Britain’s exit makes the politics simpler.
Philippe Van Parijs, a Belgian philosopher, argues that it will make English a neutral language within the eu (Ireland and Malta also speak it, but make up 1% of the remaining population) and thus ideal for exchange between Europeans of rival mother tongues. Given its Latinate and Germanic roots, he adds, embracing it would be an act of linguistic repatriation; returning the language to the European mainland. “We want our language back,” he jokes.
Second, Europe is growing together politically. From anti-migrant protests to the “Fridays for Future” environmental demonstrations by school pupils, causes are crossing borders more than before. Turnout rose to a 25-year high in the European elections last month after a campaign in which leaders, from Matteo Salvini of Italy’s populist right to Emmanuel Macron of France’s liberal centre, made an impact beyond their own countries. The French president wants to introduce pan-eu lists of candidates at the next elections. In this more genuinely European political era, a universally accepted lingua franca makes all the more sense. English is the only logical candidate.