Jean Véronis

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mardi, mai 17, 2005

Languages: The end of official languages for the EU?

Unsure where to begin with this weighty tome that we’ve been given to read for the French referendum on May 29th (and with the date fast approaching!), I decided that I would be best off starting with a subject that I know a bit about already: the question of language. The French Constitution, for its part, has just this to say: “The language of the Republic is French”. You can be for or against this addition from 1992, but it certainly has the merit of being clear. What does the European Constitution have to say on the matter?

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I took advantage of the browsing tool that I wrote especially for navigating through the Treaty and recently made available for you here. The results were as follows:
Clearly, the Constitution is interested in the question of language. The subject is first mentioned here:
Article I-3. The Union's objectives
It shall respect its rich cultural and linguistic diversity, and shall ensure that Europe's cultural heritage is safeguarded and enhanced.

Congratulations! Who can complain about that?

The Treaty is quite insistent, however, and comes back to the topic further on:
Article II-82. Cultural, religious and linguistic diversity
The Union shall respect cultural, religious and linguistic diversity.

A-ha! A slight variation. Now, I’m no professor of constitutional law, but it seems a little strange to me to repeat the same thing and for it not to be exactly the same thing.

I am overcome by a certain hesitation … If this was a piece of homework handed in by a student, I’d say that it was just a bad cut-and-paste. But here we are dealing with a legal document about which hundreds of people have given their opinions (this question of religion in particular, if my memory serves me well, was the source of more than a little controversy!) and which concerns almost half a billion citizens. So it’s hard for me to believe that this is a mistake. I wasn’t privy to the inner workings of the Convention, but this positively reeks of compromise, as if certain countries had been mollified by agreeing to mention religion, as long as it didn’t appear in the first ten articles. Nonetheless, it is not religion and secularism that I wish to address here. I’m sure other blogs will do so, undoubtedly with greater authority than I could: to each his blog - and, as we say in French, “the cows sheep (both white and black) will be well looked after”.

Obviously, the above articles don’t provide much in the way of commitment, unless we specify what we mean by this “respect” for linguistic diversity. For instance, will official and administrative documents be translated into each of the official languages of the EU? The Treaty doesn’t say. You may object that it is not the role of a constitution to go into detail regarding how its institutions will operate, and you’d be right to do so. The only problem is that this document doesn’t think twice about going into minute detail in other circumstances, which is undoubtedly why it runs to more than a million characters. When discussing the common agricultural policy, for instance, it doesn’t hesitate to list the “guts, bladders and stomachs of animals (other than fish), whole and pieces thereof” or the “animal products not elsewhere specified or included; dead animals of Chapter 1 or Chapter 3, unfit for human consumption” (Yum-yum!) I have the greatest respect for farmers – indeed, some of my best friends are farmers – but I’m sure they will forgive me when I say that the language that will be spoken by my children and grandchildren seems a more serious affair than questions of guts and bladders… One line would have been enough: “Documents produced by the institutions will be translated into all the official languages of the European Union”.

We know why this line doesn’t appear: fewer and fewer European documents are being translated. Take a look at the sites run by the European Commission and you’ll find a considerable number of documents that are only available in English, or in two or three languages at most. Even legal documents (such as contracts with universities, for instance, as I’ve seen for myself) are now only written in English. I wrote on this blog (back in January and just a few days ago) about the plan to reduce the number of translations being carried out by the European Commission that was introduced just as Europe grew from 11 to 20 official languages. Perhaps they would have been better off cutting down the number of documents instead?

In terms of language, we are clearly heading towards a three-speed Europe: English is the linguistic heart, at the centre of everything; French and German are still present from time to time – they are the “big boys” and have to be accommodated; and then there are the rest. Even the Treaty itself, despite being under the spotlight of the whole of Europe, is no exception to this three-speed rule. A browsable hypertext version of the document has been made available, first in English (despite the fact that the British will be almost the last to vote), then in French and German a little later. As far as the other languages are concerned, they will have to content themselves with a copy of the Official Journal of the European Union from 16 December 2004, which consists of 50 PDF files - and, as I pointed out recently, these other languages are rather badly treated. The Latvian and Polish translations are so full of errors that Latvia has suspended its ratification process and the Polish opposition has demanded that Poland do likewise.

Did I say 20 official languages? Let’s see if the Treaty mentions official languages. It does; just once, in Part IV, Protocol 1 (which we were told was an integral part of the Treaty - see Article IV-442).
Article 4
A six-week period shall elapse between a draft European legislative act being made available to national Parliaments in the official languages of the Union and the date when it is placed on a provisional agenda for the Council for its adoption or for adoption of a position under a legislative procedure.
As I said, I’m no more of a legal expert than most of you, but I’d expect to find a definition somewhere, maybe even a list if possible, of these official languages. Well, if that’s what you expect, I’m afraid you’re in for a disappointment. There are no further mentions of official languages anywhere in the treaty! Incredible, I know; so go and see for yourself.

The Commission’s websites talk of 20 official languages

So, are there or are there not official languages in the EU? If there are, a clear statement would have been welcome: “The official languages of the European Union are ...” Instead, we have to dig around and ferret them out for ourselves as we try to guess what the authors meant with their wise circumlocutions.

Here’s the key article:
Article I-10. Citizenship of the Union
(d) the right to petition the European Parliament, to apply to the European Ombudsman, and to
address the institutions and advisory bodies of the Union in any of the Constitution's languages and to obtain a reply in the same language.

This turn of phrase comes back on several occasions, and is the only expression that even remotely touches on the notion of an official language, albeit with a greatly reduced scope, since it concerns only relations between citizens and institutions. The only other important aspect that adheres to the notion of official language would seem to me to be the writing of the Treaty itself, and it is in Article IV-448 that we find an explanation of these elusive languages of the Constitution:
Article IV-448. Authentic texts and translations
1. This Treaty, drawn up in a single original in the Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish and Swedish languages, the texts in each of these languages being equally authentic, shall be deposited in the archives of the Government of the Italian Republic, which will transmit a certified copy to each of the governments of the other signatory States.

You may have noticed that this list contains 21 languages. Yet so far, there have always been 20 official languages. So, what’s the difference? It’s quite simple, really; the Irish language (Irish Gaelic) has slipped in amongst the other twenty. This is perfectly understandable, for while it was not an official language of the EU, Irish did enjoy a special status for the writing of treaties and other official texts. The Irish have benefited from this, since their language now has identical status to the other twenty. And I’m delighted for them! Is that why we went to such lengths to avoid saying the official languages of the European Union are ...? If we’d had 20 official languages, the Irish would have been very upset, and if we’d had 21, the door would have been wide open to the claims of the Catalans and the Basques, not to mention the Bretons, the Corsicans and the Occitans.

But since I wasn’t invited to the debates, I may well be making a case based on assumptions rather than facts. In any case, this compromise, however necessary it may have been, seems to me to be leading us to a dangerous situation. I can but conclude that there are no longer any official languages in the EU; if there were, its founding text would surely define them. The quote contained in Protocol 1 seems to be a remnant of a previous dicument that has been forgotten at the bottom of an appendix (and in any case, it fails to define anything).

I am unable to find any of the other aspects we should be entitled to expect from the official languages of the EU: in which languages, for instance, will subsequent laws, directives, conventions and treaties be written, in which languages will parliamentary debates take place, and so on? I may be misreading it (it’s a weighty beast, after all, and it’s easy to get lost in its pages). It may also be true that the status quo will still apply, by default. Well, fine, but for how long? A constitution is designed to last for decades, even centuries (and, as you know, this one will be difficult to revise because of the mechanism of “double unanimity”: approval of the Heads of State and Governments followed by the unanimous ratification of the Member States). If difficulties arise, and English gradually begins to overtake all official terrain, who will be able to protest a few decades from now?

Perhaps certain legal niceties let us state that the EU official languages do still exist, that they are not under threat, and that they won’t be even in 50 years’ time. I don’t know, but on this point – which is a commitment for generations to come – it would have seemed desirable to me for the Constitution to set things in stone, as is its role, and to provide solid protection against the danger of a linguistic drift, which sadly is already underway. The omission of the notion of official language at a constitutional level seems to me to be an extremely worrying sign for the future of Europe.

4 Commentaires:

Anonymous Bart Defrancq a écrit...

Dear Jean,

1. The language question in the European Communities was settled with Regulation n°1 (yes the very first regulation that was ever adopted) from 1958, if I remember well. Every official language of every Member State at that time was declared an official language of the EC. Every discrepancy between Europena official languages and Member State official languages dates from after 1958 and is the sole responsibility of the Member States. Regulation n°1 has been amended with each accession according to the wishes of the new Member States. That's why Catalan is not represented (there was a fuss in 1984 about what to put in for Spain: "espanol" or "castillano" and the first one was chosen). So English imperialism is certainly not to blame.
It is however the easiest way to rally supporters...
2. Irish is what is called a "Treaty language" (or Constitution language); it is not an official language, since the Irish government did not deem necessary to have every legal act translated in a language no-one really used. Here again, no Anglo-saxon conspiracy.
3. In principle, every document that is not strictly a working document or a draft has to be translated in all the languages. In practice, this may not always be the case immediately. For it would need a considerable bureaucratic machinerie most of our fellow European citizens would be very critical about (recall that the European budget is not to exceed 1% of the GDI, according to the major Member States, who, themselves, do not object to taking the other 49% of our income for taxes)

23 mai, 2005 13:50  
Blogger Jean Véronis a écrit...

As I said "Perhaps certain legal niceties etc." However, I would have felt better if the term had been included in the Constitution (I thought that it was intended to be a recap of all the important concepts of the EU).

PS: I am NOT blaming any kind of English imperialism. If anybody is at fault, it's the individual countries (including France) who do not seem interested in making the right effort in the language department.

23 mai, 2005 14:00  
Anonymous Bart Defrancq a écrit...

Dear Jean,

I was wondering whether French universities are involved in research on the minority languages in France, and especially their preservation through corpus research. Ironic...

23 mai, 2005 14:03  
Blogger Jean Véronis a écrit...

France is extremely tough against its linguistic minorities (I call it the "linguistic guillotine") and is certainly not a good example to follow. The answer to your question is therefore no, alas.

Personnally, I do not share the mainstream French-intellectual position, as you may have guessed, and I am trying to do what I can in terms of corpora, with of course, no funding. See here for example :

23 mai, 2005 14:20  

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