Languages would not disappear without a deliberate policy to marginalise them, argues Alfonsi, who has tabled a draft report on endangered languages that will be voted in June by the full Parliament in a plenary session.
“It’s always the case,” Alfonsi replied when asked whether the loss of a language was the result of intentional state policy.
“Languages would not experience such a recession if they were not marginalised in the education and media system and society in general,” said Alfonsi, who is the European Parliament's only Corsican-speaking MEP.
In France, the country he knows best, Alfonsi mentioned Corsican, Franco-Provençal, Breton and Occitan as being threatened with extinction. Of those, some may be in better shape than others, but “all are going in the same direction,” he told EurActiv in an interview.
In Europe, about 120 languages are considered to be threatened with extinction, according to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, which estimates that one language dies every two weeks worldwide.
Naming and shaming
While some European countries like Finland receive praise for protecting minority languages, others have a poor record and should be named and shamed, Alfonsi says. Without support they will struggle to survive in a globalised world.
“If we compare the resources allocated by the Finnish state to promote Saami and the resources allocated by the French state to promote Corsican, it is like a bicycle and a Ferrari!” he exclaims, saying France had a specific responsibility to protect regional languages and minorities.
For Alfonsi, the issue extends to basic European values like human rights and the protection of minorities.
But while the EU is usually very capable at defending the rights of minorities in other countries - like the Kurds in Turkey - it is powerless when it comes to putting the 27 EU member states to task. The European Commission indeed cannot interfere with language rights or the protection of regional minorities, which remain an area of national competency.
Still, Alfonsi says the EU has an “ethical duty” to protect what he describes as “a European heritage”. Just as the EU legislates to protect endangered birds and wildlife, it should also protect “cultural biodiversity”, he argues, stressing that the Lisbon Treaty gives the European Commission an “ethical responsibility to promote cultural diversity”.
It is not easy however to hold countries accountable for failing to protect regional languages or dialects.
At European level, many countries have signed up to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, endorsed by the Council of Europe, a Strasbourg-based organisation. But the obligation to ratify the charter only applies to new member countries, Alfonsi says, not to existing members like France and Greece, which have refused to sign it.
“Why? Because if they ratified, they would be held to account before the Council of Europe by such or such linguistic association, or political community, and they would be condemned.”
EU funding on the wane
Perhaps more worrying for Alfonsi, EU funding for minority languages "has been cut drastically" over the years, his report states, with regional languages receiving more aid two decades ago than they do now.
Part of the problem, he says, is that EU-funded programmes in support of languages or culture are geared mainly towards large events, like the Avignon theatre festival in France.
What Alfonsi recommends doing is to lower the entry barrier so that smaller regional events also receive EU funds for the 2014-2020 period, including regional and social development funds.
“Regional languages should be fully eligible for such funding. This is the first message.”
The Corsican MEP brushed aside suggestions that Europe should refrain from promoting minority cultures in countries like Spain or Belgium where linguistic issues are heavily politicised and linked with nationalist or separatist movements.
His political party, the European Free Alliance (EFA), which sits with the Greens party in the European Parliament, pushes the cause of Europe's stateless nations, regions and disadvantaged minorities. Its president is Eric Defoort, a Belgian politician from the New Flemish Alliance party (N-VA), a nationalist party which wants the partition of Belgium. Other EFA members include separatist Basque parties and similar organisations in Spain, Italy and elsewhere.
Kay Swinburne, a Welsh MEP for the European Conservatives and Reformist (ECR) group in Parliament, said she supports actions in favour of minority languages. But she warned that any EU funds used for that purpose should not be geared "towards promoting a separatist agenda" or for "any alternative political purposes".
But for Alfonsi, if separatism becomes more and more politicised, it is a problem for central governments, not the EU. "It is the failure of member states, not of Catalonia. It is the crisis of Spain, which is not able to grant the Catalan language [its rights].”
He warns the issue goes beyond little-known regional or local dialects. It is also relevant for state languages, which also face challenges.
“Take Irish Gaelic as an example – being the state language of Ireland and an official EU language isn't enough by itself for the language to thrive. And if that can be said for Irish, then which will be next? Estonian perhaps, or Maltese?”
"We will be culturally impoverished, and I believe economically impoverished, if we see a decline in language diversity in Europe. We must set out a clear picture of the status quo, and identify the political, financial and administrative support that will be needed by Europe's languages in future."
Alfonsi is due to present his draft report before the European Parliament's Culture Committee on Tuesday (23 April). It will be put to full Parliamentary vote in June.
>> Click here to read the full interview with François Alfonsi (in French)