EU's commitment to promoting multilingualism under fire

As one MEP takes to holding a 'language strike', the EU's promise of promoting language diversity has come under renewed scrutiny.

By James O'Brien

08 Apr 2015

In the late 1950s there were four official EU languages, today there are 24 but figures provided by the European commission reveal that 40 million people in the EU speak 60 indigenous regional or minority languages.

While language policy is a member state competence, the European commission "helps fund projects and partnerships designed to raise awareness of minority languages, promote their teaching and learning, and thereby help them survive".

The commitment to language and cultural diversity is enshrined in the European treaties and was further enhanced by the Lisbon treaty when respect for linguistic minorities became legally binding.

"Multilingualism in the EU will not be fully completed until languages such as Irish, Basque, Galician or Catalan can be used with normality in the parliament" - Josep-Maria Terricabas, Greens/EFA MEP

The issue of the EU's treatment has come to the fore recently following Irish GUE/NGL MEP Liadh Ní Riada's decision to begin a 'stailc teanga' (language strike) for the duration of seachtain na Gaeilge (Irish language week) to raise awareness of the status afforded to the Irish language within the EU institutions.

Ireland's central statistics office reports that 36,000 people live in designated Irish language regions and 485,000 use the language on a daily basis, albeit largely within an educational context.

Irish became an official working language of the EU in 2007 but was immediately granted renewable five-year derogations. This derogation exempts EU institutions from providing full translation and interpretation services, as is obligatory for all other working languages.

Ní Riada's attempts to speak Irish during a parliamentary committee were immediately halted, something she said left her "quite bewildered" as she had brought an assistant to translate.

She felt this "undermined" her cultural right to communicate in her mother tongue. The GUE/NGL MEP noted that, "Irish MEPs are entitled to only to speak Irish in the parliament's plenary session, which is approximately one to three minutes per month."

Ní Riada, who holds the position of Irish language officer in her national Sinn Féin party, received support from across Europe for her attempts to raise the issue.

Catalan MEP Josep-Maria Terricabas offered his full support to Ní Riada and said his language confronts similar "discrimination", despite Catalan not enjoying full 'official' status.

Estimates of the number of native Catalan speakers in Andorra, France, Spain and Italy range from between four and five million people.

Terricabas told the Parliament Magazine, "Catalans have been striving for the official recognition of our language in the European institutions for years" and is clear that Spanish representatives are to blame for a lack of progress in this regard.

The Greens/EFA MEP added that, "Multilingualism in the EU will not be fully completed until languages such as Irish, Basque, Galician or Catalan can be used with normality in the parliament."

Terricabas added that the fight for language recognition was part of the reason "we are working to have our own independent state".

"It's incredible that the EU, the self-declared project on 'unity in diversity', will not support the very reasonable call for ring-fenced direct grants for endangered language development" - Davyth Hicks, ELEN

Jill Evans, a Welsh Greens/EFA MEP is keen to emphasise that, "Many so-called 'minority' languages are actually more widely spoken than some official EU languages."

Welsh is spoken by approximately 500,000 people or 19 per cent of the population of Wales and Evans notes that this is higher than the numbers that speak Irish or Maltese.

She highlights that, "Welsh is already a co-official EU language which means it can be used in meetings of the council and other EU bodies but not in the parliament. "This is a situation the parliament president Martin Schulz pledged to examine during his re-election campaign last year.

Evans acknowledges that the fight for recognition has its detractors, who "claim the cost is too high" but she has pledged to continue her fight and will shortly publish a paper making the case to the British government for Welsh recognition at European level. Ní Riada also disagrees with the cost argument and says, "We cannot put a monetary value on something as basic as our language."

Evans believes, "It is time that the thousands of young people in Wales who are bilingual have both their languages recognised in Europe."

Unity in diversity?
Davyth Hicks, secretary general of the European language equality network (ELEN), a non-governmental organisation working for the promotion, protection and revitalisation of lesser-used languages and linguistic rights, said the situation confronting Irish speakers was "absurd".

He called for "an equitable language policy throughout the EU institutions" and asked, "What better way to communicate with EU citizens than in their own languages?"

Hicks also queried the legality of the current approach to language diversity being adopted: "How can the EU and the member states ratify the Lisbon treaty and the charter of fundamental rights, which clearly states that they must "respect" linguistic diversity and that discrimination is prohibited, when we see co-official, regional, and even official languages such as Irish, are being undermined?"

ELEN notes that in Europe, "we have many examples of best practice in language revitalisation, for example in the Basque country", but Hicks adds, "it's incredible that the EU, the self-declared project on 'unity in diversity', will not support the very reasonable call for ring-fenced direct grants for endangered language development projects despite 93 per cent of MEPs calling for this in 2013".

ELEN is calling for "substantive measures" from the EU to support linguistic diversity and notes that, "many of our languages are now defined as endangered by United Nations educational, scientific and cultural organisation (Unesco)".

Hicks believes, "we have the tools to stop language endangerment, we have the means to revitalise endangered languages, but what we don't have is the political will".

He adds that Europe could be a leader in "reversing language endangerment" in what has become "a global crisis", but it must "act meaningfully to safeguard its own linguistic diversity".

While the commission officially endorses a policy of language diversity, critics have pointed out that multilingualism has gone from a dedicated portfolio in the 2007 commission, to forming part of Androulla Vassiliou's education, culture, multilingualism and youth portfolio in 2010, to being relegated to a unit within the commission's DG for employment, social affairs and inclusion in the Juncker commission.

This is something the network to promote linguistic diversity has said "gives a utilitarian, market-oriented approach to the languages of Europe, which will only prioritise big, hegemonic languages and will leave a remarkable number of lesser-used languages".


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