With 92%, EU lawmakers gave their overwhelming backing on Wednesday (11 September) to a report, prepared by the Green group, aimed at protecting endangered and minority languages across Europe.
Drafted by Corsican MEP François Alfonsi (Greens/EFA), the resolution called on EU member states to set up action plans to promote endangered languages and for countries such as France and Greece which had not ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages to implement it immediately.
MEPs also demanded more financing and concrete policy measures to help preserve the EU's linguistic diversity.
"Today's vote is an acknowledgement that much more needs to be done to protect endangered languages. This means learning from countries that have succeeded in saving their languages. It also means making funding available at EU level where necessary,” Alfonsi said after the vote.
Even though the European Commission has no legal competency in terms of language and minority rights – which remain in the hands of the national authorities - Alfonsi argued in a May interview with EurActiv that the Commission had “an ethical responsibility to promote cultural diversity”.
“Just as the EU legislates to protect endangered birds and wildlife, it should also protect cultural biodiversity," he said.
The report also highlights the fact then endangered and minority languages are often spoken by very small groups of people and calls on the Commission to adapt its financial aid criteria for groups that do not represent large communities or territories.
Report contradicts French Republic, say Conservatives
The majority of MEPs even from countries which had not or had no intention of the ratifying the Council of Europe's Charter for Regional and Minority Languages backed the report, which is not legally binding.
But the strongest opponents were MEPs from the French centre-right UMP party, with 14 of them abstaining and 8 voting against the resolution. Among them were some prominent politicians such as former Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, a close ally of former President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Centre-right MEPs Constance Le Grip and Françoise Grossetête told EurActiv the report contradicted the French Constitution.
“Article 2 of the French Constitution says that the French language and flag constitute the unity of the Republic, which is in contradiction with the European Charter for regional and minority languages," said Grossetête.
Therefore, Mrs Le Grip said she was being “coherent” in voting against the report. “In my country, regional languages are not threatened. All means available are used to protect them. Voting in favour of this report could open sensitive doors”, she said.
Not all French conservatives rejected the report however. Alain Cadec, also a centre-right MEP from the UMP party urged France to ratify the European Charter on Regional and Minority languages. "French shall remain the language of the Republic. Recognising regional languages does not question this unity, to which I am deeply attached," Cadec said in a statement.
At the beginning of his mandate, President François Hollande announced he would ratify the charter, but backed down in the first half of 2013. In France, minority languages often belong to regions with a separatist history, such as Corsica or the Basque Country, making it a sensitive subject among the public.
However, MEPs in EU countries with separatist regions did not reject Mr Alfonsi’s report, as it is non-binding. In France, only those French Conservatives and far-right politicians like Marine Le Pen and far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon said no to the report.
128 languages in danger in Europe
Out of 255 languages currently spoken across Europe, 128 are listed as endangered languages and 90 are “severely endangered” according to Unesco's Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger.
In France, langauges native to Burgundy, Picard and Lorrain are considered “severely endangered, while the Spanish dialect Gascon is “definitely endangered” and Dalmatian in Croatia is considered “extinct”. The UN predicts that half of the world's 6,000 languages will become extinct by the end of the century.
The process, however, is neither inevitable nor irreversible, Unesco said, as policies can support the efforts of speaker communities to maintain or revitalise their native tongues.
Cultivating endangered languages requires financial backing and strategies to help and fund training, education, media and research programmes throughout Europe, say the supporters of the report.
The internet presents a glimmer of hope for students of unusual languages, where despite the dominance of English, mandarin, Spanish, French and Japanese, rarer languages can remain in use and gain prominence, says Daniel Prado, a renowned linguist of Franco-Argentine origin.
However, he warned: “If the internet can constitute an opportunity for languages, the first step is to ensure that everyone gets access to it, which is still far from being the case.”