Brais Freire Braña
“Parlem”¹ – The European Union and the politics of linguistic diversity
Back in September 2022, the Spanish government announced that an official request would be submitted before the board of the European Parliament outlining a "financially and technically feasible" plan by which Catalan, Galician and Basque would become the 25th, 26th and 27th official languages of the European Union. Such proposal is rooted in the negotiations that have taken place within the Spanish state-Catalonia Mesa de Diálogo, a political ad hoc organism formed in 2021 whose sole purpose is reaching common grounds on the issue of Catalan independence.
The demand for an official status for Catalan within the European institutions has continued to grow in importance over the last few years. Catalonia, one of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities -which serve as Spanish sui generis federal units-, is a region with a long cultural and linguistic tradition of its own. Catalan cultural spheres, as well as the nationalist and independentist movement and organizations, have fought for decades for the recognition of their identity and language in the political and social realms.
Pere Aragonés. Current President of Catalonia and leader of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Catalonian Republican Left). Source: Generalitat de Catalunya
Yet, the quest for the official status of Catalan in the EU has been framed as a part of a broader struggle for the defense of cultural and linguistic diversity in Europe. Galician and Basque language organizations and political parties have also embraced the Catalan government led proposal, so as to include both their languages as well. Their recognition as official languages in the EU would not only have a symbolic impact but would also have significant practical implications. As Galician Nationalist Bloc leader Ana Pontón pointed out, It would allow citizens to communicate with all European institutions in their mother tongue, which would improve the accessibility and transparency of the EU for these citizens and, in turn, "it may improve our citizen's attitudes towards the Union". According to last estimates by the Spanish National Institute for Statistics (INE), there are around 10 million Catalan, 2.7 million Galician, and 1.6 million Basque speakers in Spain, accounting for almost 3 out of every 10 Spanish citizens. These numbers are sizable when compared to other official EU languages and how widely spoken these are within the community’s borders. For instance, Maltese (0.5 million speakers), Latvian (1.2 million), Estonian (1.1 million), Slovak (5 million), or even Greek and Portuguese (13 and 10 million respectively). The Catalan government has thus stressed the economic and cultural benefits that are tied to the promotion of these widely spoken languages in the international arena.
Basque and Spanish bilingual road sign. Source: Wikipedia Commons
However, this claim has not been without its obstacles. The Spanish main opposition party, the center-right Popular Party, has signaled how making Catalan official in the EU is complicated and would require a long negotiation between the European institutions and the Spanish government. Indeed, a 2004 report by the European Parliament reflected on the need to reform the treaties in order to incorporate new officially recognized languages into the institutions -something that, on the other hand, has already taken place back in 2007 due to the late inclusion of Irish as one of the EU’s oficially recognised languages. Moreover, some voices oppose the recognition of new languages to this list, arguing that this could generate an excessive administrative and financial burden to the organization. Additionally, since 2005, there is an accord based on a Resolution of the Council by which the Spanish government offers translation services to citizens that are willing to approach the EU in these co-official tongues, making their possible official recognition less impactful. In the following years, the Spanish central government has signed different bilateral administrative accords with specific institutions so as to promote their use. As of 2023, there is one with the Commission, the Council of the EU, the European Ombudsman, the Committee of the Regions, the Court of Justice and the European Economic and Social Committee. Yet, some of these miss on the inclusion of Galician and Basque, as they were promoted by the Catalan government. Galician, Basque, and Catalan MEPs also hold a long-standing tradition of circumventing the use of Spanish in the Eurochamber. As for Galician, its mutual intelligibility with Portuguese -some even argue that these are just dialects rather than languages of their own-, which holds official status, allows for its use. Catalan and Basque nationalists, on the other hand, have oftentimes used French or English as a form of political contestation.
Galician Nationalist Bloc MEP Ana Miranda (Greens/EFA). Ana Miranda uses Portuguese language in most of her interventions when speaking in the Eurochamber. Source: Twitter @anamirandapaz
But the political implications of languages are not exclusive to Spain. Oftentimes, the European Union’s linguistic diversity remains largely overlooked. According to the Commission, there are more than 60 regional or minority languages within the borders of the Union, a number that does not account for those spoken by the ever-growing migrant communities from across the globe. Some further examples include Breton and Corsican in France, Frisian in the Netherlands, Sardinian in Italy, as well as Russian in all Baltic countries. Overall, the protection and recognition of regional languages in the EU vary significantly across different member states. The use of Russian, for instance, has always been a sensitive political issue in the Baltic states, and it is now more so than ever. Russian-speaking minorities in these countries have faced discrimination and marginalization, and tensions between the Baltic governments and Moscow over the protection of the rights of these minorities have been weaponized as a geopolitical issue in the region. In France, Corsican is recognized as a regional language, and efforts are being made to promote its use and protect it from the threat of language death. However, its status remains fragile, and there are concerns about the lack of institutional support for the language.
Map of Europe’s minority and regional languages. Their legal status ranges from no legal recognition to full officiality. Source: Coppieters Foundation - Ideas for Europe
The one thing that is clear is that linguistic policy has played a crucial role in the government's agenda this legislative term in Spain, something that has had a spillover effect towards the EU and its policies. The coalition government of socialist PSOE and left-wing Unidas Podemos has needed the occasional support of the Galician, Basque and Catalan center-left and left-leaning nationalist parties, and this has been reflected in, for instance, the inclusion of a comprehensive plan under the name "New Language Economy", which aims to promote "the Spanish co-official languages" within the framework of an ongoing process of digital transformation. Thus, part of the Spanish NextGen funds are and will be dedicated to promoting their social, cultural, and economic value, both through public and private investment. Be that as it may, as of right now it is still unknown whether the Union might be in need of new translation booths for the next parliamentary term.
¹ “Let’s talk” in Catalan