Even while there are 22 official languages in the European Union, English has become the lingua franca there by default. This is true even though English was not among the languages of the founding of the European Union, which dates back to trade agreements enacted after the Second World War by Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, that were later joined by France and Germany. Since the EU headquarters is located in Belgium, the French language enjoyed some early preeminence since it is the majority language in Brussels, the Belgian capital.
The power of the French tradition of governance and administration, coupled with fact that EU located in the Franco-phone region of Belgium at the beginning of the EU, determined that official meetings were conducted in French. Even while officials came from non-Francophone countries, it was taken for granted that French was the working language.
The linguistic character of the EU began to change with the admission of the United Kingdom and Ireland to the club. Even while they were newcomers to the erstwhile French-speaking club, the two countries gradually introduced further use of the English language in the workings of the EU. The next big step for the EU came on January 1, 2004 when its next big expansion came about. Then entering the club were mostly Slavic nations of Eastern Europe, and also Hungary - which speaks a language of Uralic origin that is akin to Finnish.
The new members of the EU, formerly controlled by the Soviet Union, had used Russian as a lingua franca, but the pull of English as an internationally understood language was irresistible. This also led to the relative demise of French as the language of EU business since the Slavic countries were eager to embrace the West and leave behind the trappings of Soviet domination as well as the Russian language. Few of the officials coming to Brussels from the Slavic lands spoke French, making the case for English again. In other member states, such as Spain, Romania, and Hungary, where there are the lowest number of those speaking a second language, there is a preference for learning English too. Again, this is due to predominance of English as a working language not only in Europe but in the wider world as well.
Officials coming to the European Commission do not hazard having their words translated by an interpreter. The two German-speaking countries, Germany and Austria, use English in official meetings for this reason despite the fact that Germany was one of the founding members of the EU.
France has engaged in a counter-attack over the last decade to encourage the use of French. After all, according to the International Francophone Organisation, there are 220 million French-speakers in the world, and French is the official language of a number of countries in addition to continental France. But not even French language lessons offered free of charge at historic chateaux in the Loire Valley could alter the inevitable. When French-speaking officials insist on speaking in their native tongue at official EU meetings, the rest of those present put on their earphones to hear their words translated into English. Another sign of the defeat of ‘la Francophonie’ is the emergence of France24: the official television news service of the French government that broadcasts not only in French, but also English and Arabic.
What this means for the future of the EU is hard to say. Nationalist sentiments are growing in places such as Spain, where the Basques and Catalonians are becoming more insistent on obtaining further independence from the central government, and even France, where there remains a simmering nationalist conflict on the island of Corsica. English, for the time being, may be one of the few institutions that holds together the EU as it wrestles with debt and social welfare policies. Twenty years ago, when the Iron Curtain had fallen and the fervor of European unification was at its peak, there was much talk on the Continent that there would soon emerge a 'United States of Europe.' This hope was certainly a misunderstanding not only of the United States of America, but it also evidenced a misunderstanding of the diversity of language and culture of Europe as well.
The U.S., so far, has been a collective of mostly English-speaking peoples in a huge continental common market that pre-dates the North American Free Trade Agreement and where regional differences have been largely ironed out, unlike Europe. Back in the 1980s, there was hope in Europe that it would become a near-Paradise where the cooks are French, the bankers are Swiss, the police are English, the lovers are Italian, and the automakers are German. This never did come about. And it is now that fractures are evident along an east-west axis where the countries of the Mediterranean - Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Greece - are seen as lackadaisical and corrupt debtors that are beholden to their northern big sisters, especially Germany.
As the situation becomes more dire for Europe, a dark corollary to the earlier paradisiacal formulation for the Continent seems possible. Since Germany holds the purse strings, a French woman heads the IMF, and France is a willing accomplice of its Teutonic neighbor, whether or not EU meetings are held in English seems inconsequential. An American diplomat in the 1980s once quipped to a German counterpart, who gave assurances of a bright future for an expanded European Community, that one could not be certain that the future of Europe would be as rosy as foreseen by self-assured Europeans who were certain that their very best would come to the fore in a united Europe. Said the American, "Is it not possible that what will happen ultimately in Europe is that the cooks will be English, the bankers will be French, the lovers will be Swiss, and the police will be German?"
Europe may not have come yet that far, but it is apparent that while the lingua franca of Europe may indeed be English, it is spoken with a German accent. Jawohl!
Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.