French nationals working for the European institutions or in Brussels' business and diplomatic circles widely share the view that their country’s influence in Europe has declined over the past years, a EurActiv survey revealed today (12 July).
France is celebrating its national day on 14 July, with festivities planned at the Cinquantenaire park in Brussels, near the European district.
The survey collected the views of 101 French officials working for the European institutions, France’s diplomatic representations and other influencers working for private companies or regional offices in the Belgian capital.
Three-quarters of respondents shared their belief that French influence in Europe is either average (44%) or weak (30%), reflecting a common view that the eurozone debt crisis has propelled Germany to a dominant position in Europe as the bloc’s main economic powerhouse and hegemon.
When it comes to influence, an overwhelming majority of respondents (84%) believe France is more efficient when it uses its traditional diplomatic networks to shape European policies rather than other channels.
Influence via French officials working inside the European institutions comes second in the ranking, with 38% of respondents saying they are most efficient at promoting French interests in the European Union. This is despite a commitment to impartiality among EU officials – at least in the European Commission, which is supposed to promote the general European interest over national views.
In comparison, French corporate networks score relatively poorly, with only a third (33%) of those surveyed saying the networks are effective at promoting French interests.
Pragmatic on language
But despite the widespread sense of decline, many French representatives also show a remarkable aptitude for adaptation to the Brussels international environment.
With the decline of French language in EU institutions now accepted by most as irreversible, French officials in Brussels have started pushing a more assertive approach, based on the promotion of multilingualism and influence rather than language issues only.
Some 80% of respondents said they primarily use English in their day-to-day dealings with other EU professionals in Brussels, underlining a growing sense of pragmatism towards languages.
French is still widely used, with more than 60% saying they continue using the language of Molière in their communications with European circles. But 24% also claim to use a foreign language other than English, illustrating the value of multilingualism in European affairs.
Similarly, English is the language of choice when interacting with foreign countries outside Europe (34%). But other languages are also important, with 17% saying they communicate with those countries in their own language.
One EU official, who preferred to remain anonymous, regretted that English had become “the de-facto working language” of the European Commission and suggested that the French national administration had become lenient in its language policy by accepting to receive documents in English.
"Supporting the French language at the European level requires decisive action from France”, he said, suggesting that Paris should refuse all Commission documents that are not sent in French.
Michel Soubies, a former European Commission official who responded to the survey, said the EU executive should fight its creeping tendency for monolingualism and return to what he described as “controlled multilingualism” with four or five languages.
“It is possible if the political will is there,” he said.