Hubert Balaguy, founder of The PanEuropean, argues for the adoption of a common European language as a way to relaunch the European project.
In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, rumour had it in Brussels that English might lose its status as an official language within the European Union.
Although short-lived, the rumour got me thinking. What if Britain’s departure from the EU, rather than weakening the status of English, actually paved the way for its adoption as the sole official language of the European Union?
The necessity of a pan-European language
If it wants to build a real capacity to influence decisions on the world stage, Europe has no choice but to commit itself to a closer union. However, can European countries achieve this without going through, mutatis mutandis, the same process as that followed by all of the great contemporary federal states ? The USA, Russia, China and India have all built their political integration on the adoption of a single language. Now, since 2013, Europe has had no less than twenty-four official languages. The most ambitious voluntary union in history lacks the most obvious prerequisite: a common tongue. At a time when the institutional cobbling-together has reached its limits, isn’t it fanciful to dream of relaunching the European project through language, i.e. from the basics?
A single common language would allow half a billion people to communicate more easily, hence to exchange, travel, trade, work, gather information, learn, think, and create more easily. It would confer a growing sense of unity among its speakers and bring them into a shared culture. Taught to everybody, it would bridge the gap between the happy few raised in bilingual families or taught in international schools and the vast majority of the population. The truth is that the benefits of establishing a single common European language would be so diverse and far-reaching that they cannot be inventoried exhaustively.
The most ambitious voluntary union in history lacks the most obvious prerequisite: a common tongue.
Actually, nobody disputes these benefits. Indeed, a majority of Europeans have declared themselves in favour of the adoption of a European common language. According to the Special Eurobarometer 386 from 2012, “Europeans are also widely in favour of people in the EU being able to speak a common language, with around seven in ten (69%) respondents agreeing with this viewpoint”.
Let English remain in Europe
If there is no debate over the merits of a common language, the choice of such a language remains a thorny question.
Which of the twenty-four European beauties to choose? Actually, some sort of preselection has already been done. Only three languages benefit from the much envied status of working language of the European Commission. However, if we look at the use of every language as a foreign language, English unquestionably exerts an ever growing supremacy over the two others.
According to the same Eurobarometer, “two thirds of Europeans (67%) consider English is one of the two most useful languages, and less than one in five mention German (17%), French (16%) and Spanish (14%)”. What is more is that “there has been a decrease since 2005 in the proportion of Europeans thinking that French and German are important (-9 percentage points and -5 points respectively)”.
“Almost every European (98%) thinks that foreign languages are useful for children to learn for their future. Again, English is perceived to be the most useful language in this regard, with eight in ten Europeans (79%) thinking this. One in five mention French and German (20% each). […] The proportion of Europeans thinking that French and German are important for children to learn has dropped since 2005 (-13 percentage points and -8 points respectively)”.
The wish of a large majority of Europeans is clear enough. English should become Europe’s common and shared language. Even more so now that the UK is to leave the EU, and that English won’t be the language of a dominant EU power any more. In order for such a common language to produce all the benefits that can be expected, its use shouldn’t be limited to the institutional framework, but extended as broadly as possible to Union citizens.
This could be the purpose of an exciting and far-reaching European project of helping the peoples of the EU to start speaking the same language.