A Brexit for English as EU language? | News | DW | 28.06.2016
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A Brexit for English as EU language?

English could vanish as an official EU language if Brexit proceeds. EU Commission head Juncker has avoided using English, and a top EU parliamentary official has warned of language rules contained in EU treaties.

Danuta Hubner, a Polish politician and chair of the European Parliament's constitutional affairs committee, has come out with a warning that a British exit from the European Union could also delete English from the EU's list of 24 official languages. That possibility reverberated Tuesday far beyond the administrative levels of Article 50 - the provision allowing a member state to leave the bloc under EU treaty rules.

Addressing the European Parliament on Tuesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker spoke mainly in French and German, clearly avoiding the use of English. During past crises, on the euro zone, for example, he had used English prominently as well.

"We have a regulation … where every EU country has the right to notify one official language," Hübner had told a press conference late on Monday.

"If we don't have the UK, we don't have English (as an official language)," she warned, adding that keeping it would require assent by all remaining member states.

Brüssel Danuta Hübner Europa-Abgeordnete

If Britain leaves, English is at risk, warns Hübner.

The chairman of the European Parliament's Constitutional Affairs Committee (AFCO) was referring to the Treaty on European Union in its consolidated version published in early June that incorporates wordings of the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties of 1992 and 2007 respectively.

Her remarks prompted the Wall Street Journal to observe that the European Commission had begun using French and German more often in its external communications since Britain voted to leave the EU last Thursday.

Main working language

English is the main working language of EU institutions and officials in Brussels and Strasbourg, and - to avoid misunderstandings - at the European Central Bank. It's also one of three languages used for EU patent applications.

English-speaking Malta on EU entry in 2004 picked Maltese. Ireland chose Irish Gaelic in 1973. French was the EU's dominant official language until the arrival from the 1990s of Sweden, Finland and Austria, and then eastern European nations.

Article 50 of the consolidated Treaty on European Union allows "any member state" to withdraw from the bloc.

Translations required

Article 55 of the Treaty on European Union - dating back to Maastricht - stipulates that the treaty must be "equally authentic" in each of the EU's 24 official languages, with English currently included.

That article also states that member states may determine that the treaty "also be translated into any other languages" - one of the many tasks for the European Commission with its permanent staff of 1,750 linguists and 600 assistants.

Article 20 under the headline "Non-Discrimination" says citizens of the Union have the right via the treaty to petition and address the European Parliament, EU institutions and the European Ombudsman "in any of the Treaty languages and to obtain a reply in the same language."

An add-on treaty protocol states in its Article 4 that any draft legislation originating from a member state or EU council president must be translated into the other "official languages of the Union" within eight weeks.

Another treaty protocol (number 3) on the European Court of Justice states that its "language arrangements shall be laid down" by European Council "acting unanimously," after consulting the European Parliament and Commission.

Post-Brexit: do-it-yourself translations?

Hübner on Monday said that if Britain quit the EU, Article 55 listing the EU's treaty languages would have to be expanded unanimously by the remaining member states to retain English as one of the bloc's official languages.

Otherwise, postulated the news agency Reuters, Britons - and by implication English-speakers outside the EU - "would have to do translations themselves."

French and German officials have long lobbied for their mother tongues to be more widely used in Brussels. English has been hard to dislodge as Europe's lingua franca.

ipj/kl (Reuters, AP)