United Kingdom’s membership of the EU over the years
Britain’s relationship with the European Union has been a rather turbulent one from the very beginning. The Union began with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1951 which established the European Coal and Steel Community, of which the United Kingdom decided not to become a member. With changing economic and political priorities, as well as the project of a common market, the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community were established by the 1957 Treaties of Rome, which formed the basis of the EU as we have come to know it today.
With a change in attitudes towards the European Common Market, Britain first applied for membership of the Communities in 1960. However, its membership was vetoed by French President Charles de Gaulle, and it was not until 1967, with Georges Pompidou succeeding as leader that Britain would resubmit its application, finally to join the Union in 1973. Yet all was not plain sailing for Britain who, two years later, passed the Referendum Act of 1975, leading to the European Communities membership referendum. With a strong 67.2% majority vote supporting continued EEC membership, Britain would ultimately remain part of this European partnership, but would continue to be plagued by Euroscepticism for the next forty years and, in what is commonly referred to as the 2015 ‘Brexit’ referendum, has ultimately voted to leave the European Union by 51.9%.
English in the EU after Brexit
This result raises the question of the future of English following Brexit, the language which currently seems to dominate the institutions of the European Union. Though legally all the 24 official languages of the 28 member states of the EU have equal legal status, English has grown to become the most used, gradually displacing French as the European lingua franca. If Britain goes on to leave the European Union, this will create a very odd linguistic phenomenon, with a co-official language of some 5 million people (Ireland with a population of 4.6 million and Malta with 450,000), used to discuss and further the interests of 450 million European citizens.
However, following the results of the Brexit referendum, many European politicians and MEPs have questioned the status of English in the European institutions, with the mayor of Béziers, Robert Ménard claiming that it no longer has ‘any legitimacy’, and Danuta Hübner, head of the European Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee (AFCO) and Polish MEP proclaiming that ‘if we don’t have the U.K., we don’t have English’. She has cited the existence of a European regulation which declares that ‘every EU country has the right to notify one official language’, stating that Ireland has notified Gaelic and Malta Maltese, which would render the UK the only member state to have proclaimed English as their official language. However, this claim has been contested by other EU sources, who have cited disparity among the translations of this regulation, with the French not decidedly ruling out the possibility of more than one official language per country, contrary to the English version. Furthermore, the European Commission has released a statement to counter these claims:
‘The Council of Ministers, acting unanimously, decide on the rules governing the use of languages by the European institutions. In other words, any change to the EU Institutions’ language regime is subject to a unanimous vote of the Council, including Ireland.’
According to the Wall Street Journal, however, the European Commission has already started using French and German more often in its external communications as a symbolic transition towards a Britain-less EU following the results of the referendum.
Multilingualism in Europe
Will Brexit pave the way for a greater linguistic variety and increased multilingualism in Europe? Language groups across Ireland, Wales, and the rest of the UK have warned of the damaging consequences of Brexit on lesser-spoken languages, such as Welsh, Cornish or Gaelic. UKIP MEP Nathan Gill has countered these claims, pointing out that Welsh did not have full official status in the European Union, and claiming that “the Welsh language is safer…by us having the freedom to legislate ourselves in the Senedd or in Westminster”. Yet the groups argue that the EU plays an important role in the promotion of lesser-used languages, and ‘cultural wealth’, as opposed to the British governments which ‘throughout much of our shared history conducted aggressive language policies designed to eradicate our languages’. They go on to say that ‘being a part of a heterogeneous European Union with its robust congregation of minority and majority cultures allows for a better understanding and protection of our own languages’.
What about the European future of English without England? The language seems less dependent on Britain’s membership of the EU than legislation seems to suggest. In fact, a sort of Euro-English, influenced by foreign languages is already in use, particularly among members whose native language is not English. An EU report from 2013, by Jeremy Gardner, an official at the European Court of Auditors, entitled “Misused English Words and Expressions in EU Publications,” addresses dozens of incorrectly used terms, everything from “actor,” “valorize,” or ‘delay’:
“‘Delay’ is often used in the EU to mean ‘deadline’ or ‘time limit’. In English ‘delay’ always refers to something being late or taking longer than is necessary. You cannot, therefore comply with (or ‘respect’) a delay.”
Clearly the language is capable of surviving outside the zone of British influence, yet such an existence will have unparalleled consequences on the type of English spoken in the European Institutions. Euro-English is already rife with various quirks which seem to resemble the type of English spoken in India or South Africa, where a small group of native speakers is dwarfed by a far larger number of second-language speakers. While such ‘pidgin’ languages exist successfully in many parts of the world, nonetheless they are not usually used as the main legislative and communication tool for a Union of such unprecedented geographical scope and influence. They cannot be an accurate tool for political negotiations and subsequent rendition of European law. What’s more, rather than enriching the original language, placing it in the hands of non-native speakers risks the simplification of more complex linguistic features. Brexit would not be the end of English, but as Dr Ingrid Piller, Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, suggests, it would represent ‘another nail in the coffin of native speaker supremacy,’ with native speakers choosing to give up their prime role in the story of English.
The new lingua franca
If not English, then what? As Britain was not one of the founding members of the European Communities, French was initially used as the official language. In fact, certain institutions, such as the European Court of Justice, have maintained the use of French as their working language for both historical and economic reasons. However, it is unlikely that it can be restored to its former primacy. Despite the economic and political strength of Germany, German does not look to be an obvious replacement either.
Both on a continent shaped for almost half a century by the ever-growing popularity of English as the intermediary language, and in a world where English exerts, and will continue to exert, incredible business and political influence, to move away from this for the sake of regulation seems more like an unrelenting manifestation of the validity of legislative content than a convenient and constructive decision. To forcefully eject English would be to plunge the Union into a period of costly and complicated structural revisions, in every unit and at all levels.
Furthermore, for many years now, English has not been the prerogative of the British. Over time it has become almost neutral, a tool for communicating with friends, colleagues and lovers alike. In an ideal world, the Union would have an auxiliary language, a language of no state, which belongs to no one and everyone all at once. Yet, would that really celebrate the European motto of being ‘united in diversity’? To move away from English would be to go against both heart and mind. For, though we may not be linked in legislation, we remain part of the same continent, united by the same values, and in solidarity with all those who want to partake in them, regardless of the language they speak.