BRUSSELS—The U.K.’s departure from the European Union will erode the status of the English language in EU institutions to the benefit of French and German, with the bloc’s executive arm already moving to ditch English from some of its official communications.
Even before the British government has officially lodged its intention to leave, the European Commission has made a symbolic decision to focus on French and German in statements to the press and speeches, according to two EU officials.
Although the EU has 24 official languages, only English, German and French are recognized working languages in the bloc’s executive arm. “We will use more French and German,” said one of the officials.
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In his speech to the European Parliament Tuesday, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is expected to address lawmakers in just French and German, the two officials said. That breaks with a long tradition of trilingual speeches by Mr. Juncker.
“English will remain a working language, but of course there is a symbolic move there,” said the first official.
The commission move is unlikely to push English out as the lingua franca of the EU. English will remain one of the bloc’s official languages, since it’s also spoken in Ireland and Malta, and it will remain the working language of the European Central Bank. It is also the main language used by the many non-native English speakers in Brussels, including EU officials, lawyers, lobbyists and journalists.
But some officials working in the institutions worry that the departure of the U.K., and the expected sidelining of British EU officials, will mean more meetings will be held in French or German—excluding those who have focused on English as their main foreign language. Others pointed out that focusing on French and German will further entrench the power of Berlin and Paris, excluding countries in the EU’s north, south and east that are already losing a political ally.
At the commission’s daily media briefing Monday, chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas made his opening statement in French only, rather than the usual French and English. Friday and over the weekend, Mr. Juncker also gave statements and interviews only to German media—a decision that the officials said was deliberate.
The commission and Mr. Juncker aren’t discarding the language of Shakespeare altogether. Mr. Schinas answered questions in English Monday, and Mr. Juncker is expected to continue making statements in English when it is appropriate, for instance at a planned appearance with Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico on Friday, one of the officials said.
But giving French and German more prominence in commission briefings will create problems for journalists who have the important task to explain often-complex policies in their home countries, said Pablo Rodríguez, a correspondent for Spanish daily El Mundo.
“Eighty percent of the correspondents here will have much more trouble getting into the details,” he said. Mr. Rodríguez also speaks French, but said that—like many foreign correspondents in Brussels—he feels much more comfortable in English.
Several members of the European Parliament also worried that Mr. Juncker’s decision not to speak English might send the wrong message, not only to the British people.
“It’s as provocative as some of the arguments of the Leave campaign. Now we should react with openness and generosity,” said Sorin Moisa, a center-left lawmaker from Romania.
“It’s like children in the playground,” said Cecilia Wikström, a centrist MEP from Sweden. “Brexit is to me so dramatic, so huge…that we shouldn’t react in this symbolic way.”
Ms. Wikström said that keeping English now could actually make communications in the EU a bit fairer, since most of those speaking it would be using a foreign language.
“I was always frustrated that native speakers had such a huge advantage,” she said.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."