Catalan, Basque, Galician, Welsh and Scots Gaelic should be made official languages of the European Union, MEPs said last week, accusing Brussels of failing to protect "the rights of millions of speakers of non-official EU languages" and calling on the EU institutions to do "much more" to promote multilingualism.
Calling on Brussels to do "much more"to promote multilingualism, which they described as EU citizens' "democratic right", MEPs from the European Free Alliance (EFA) also demanded more EU action to save endangered languages like Corsican, Breton, Scots and Occitan.
"Catalan, Basque, Galician, Gaelic and Welsh among them total approximately fourteen million speakers yet continue to be denied official status at EU level," said the EFA members, who represent stateless nations, regions and minorities in Europe.
The conference, which saw simultaneous interpretation into Catalan and Welsh provided on European Parliament premises for the first time, gathered policymakers and academics from across the continent.
Spanish politics has long been fraught by difficult relations between Madrid, which currently holds the EU's six-month rotating presidency and the regions. Separatist movements exist in Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia, where the Catalan, Basque and Galician languages are spoken.
Insisting that his government is committed to multilingualism, which he described as part of the EU's DNA, Pau Solanilla, executive advisor to the Spanish Secretary of State for EU Affairs, nevertheless warned that there is political resistance to minority languages in some member states.
Describing identity as a "thorny issue" to which politicians can be "allergic", Solanilla said "some politicians fear separatist movements" could rise up as a result of linguistic diversity.
"Linking identity to linguistic diversity can cause problems," warned Solanilla. Nevertheless, he said the Spanish government was "now ready" to co-operate on language issues and expressed hope that Spain's "co-official" languages, Catalan and Basque, would be regularly used in the European Parliament soon.
There are precedents for minority language use in the EU institutions. Last July, an agreement struck between the European Commission and the UK government paved the way for the Welsh to be able to write to the EU executive in their native language (EurActiv 09/07/09).
Moreover, in November 2008, Welsh was heard and interpreted at EU level for the first time during a meeting of culture ministers (EurActiv 24/11/08). Since then, the Welsh have been able to write to the European Council, and receive a written response, in their native tongue.
But EFA members believe these efforts are far from enough and want the EU institutions to use changes introduced by the Lisbon Treaty to protect the rights of linguistic minorities (EurActiv 01/12/09).
Catalan 'invisible at EU level'
Last week's hearing, meanwhile, heard a passionate plea for Catalan, which is spoken by around 10m people in four countries and is the official language of Andorra, to become an official EU language.
"Catalan is used by millions of people every day but it is still invisible at EU level," lamented Kolja Bienert of the organisation Horitzo.eu, which promotes the interests of Catalonia in the EU.
Regarding its use in the EU institutions, Bienert complained that Catalans must rely on the political goodwill of the Spanish government to make their language heard.
"It's easy to make a language official. A government just has to ask for it, as the Irish case proved," he said, adding: "The European Parliament shows a lot of goodwill but there is no legal enforcement, and it does not sign agreements with national governments."
Echoing Bienert, Joan Bernat, a former MEP and specialist in sociolinguists, said governments hold the key to whether a language is granted official status at EU level, not number of speakers or history.
"Number of speakers is not at all a condition. Look at Maltese or Estonian. It's not history either. We have Greek today, but not Occitan, the most important language of the Middle Ages. What matters is the language of the state. If the state applies official status to a language, it can be an official EU language too," Bernat said.
English 'a reality we can't ignore'
A representative of the European Commission responded by saying that it was up to member states to propose to the EU executive that a language become official, as was the case with the Irish government.
Speaking in a personal capacity, he said "languages are boundless and there are no frontiers. We don't want to confine languages to borders. We want them to spread naturally. A language is not the property of a state".
The Commission official concluded, however, by sounding a cautious note. "We need to be realistic, and English is a reality that we can't ignore. We have to be able to communicate with one another."
The EU executive, which recently merged the multilingualism portfolio with the education, culture and youth dossiers, is next due to review its languages policy in 2012.
Expressing delight at becoming the first MEP to speak Welsh with interpretation in the European Parliament, Plaid Cymru MEP Jill Evans, president of the European Free Alliance group, said "the discrimination against some languages has to end so that there is equality for all people in the EU".
"We are constantly talking about how Europe can develop a better relationship with its citizens. There is no better place to start than by using the languages people actually speak," Evans said.
Corsican MEP François Alfonsi, another EFA member, said "the European Union cannot be allowed to just sit back and allow ancient languages which have been fundamental to European history to simply disappear because of narrow political considerations".
"We need a clear commitment from the European Commission, and specifically from Commissioner Vassiliou that she will take action before it's too late. It's unrealistic and unacceptable to say that this is a matter for the member states," he added.
Calling for Catalan to be made an official EU language, EFA member Oriol Junqueras MEP, from the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, said the language is spoken by over ten million people in the European Union.
"This means that Catalan is the thirteenth most widely spoken EU language. There are 23 official languages in the EU, however, Catalan is not among them," Junqueras lamented.
"It is a clear symptom of a democratic deficit from the EU which has to be solved. The fact of not recognising Catalan is weakening the EU. The EU should see multilingualism as an opportunity to bring itself closer to its citizens," he concluded.
Tatjana Zdanoka MEP (PCTVL, Latvia), another EFA member, said "it is no longer credible for the European Union to ignore discrimination based on language. We are seeing this particular kind of discrimination being practiced against a variety of language groups in Europe such as Russian speakers in the Baltic, and Hungarian speakers outside Hungary".
"Getting to grips with this increasingly difficult situation will be a key test for the new EU commissioners responsible for multilingualism and for fundamental rights, and for the new Commission as a whole," Zdanoka said.
"I hope that Commissioners Vassiliou and Reding will spell out coherent policies for combating language discrimination in the near future, and take into account the best standards and practice available in this field," she concluded.
EFA MEP Frieda Brepoels (N-VA, Flanders) said "we have to be extremely vigilant in defending the position of all languages in the EU. European citizens must be able to follow the functioning of the institutions in their own language so that they feel more involved themselves and can fully take part in the European project."
Ian Hudghton MEP (SNP, Scotland), also of the EFA, commented: "Scotland's indigenous languages are an important part of daily life for many people - and are an important part of Europe's culture. Just as the use of the Gaelic and Scots languages has been promoted by the parliament and government in Scotland, so they should be encouraged by the institutions of Europe."
"We live in an age of increased globalisation which brings with it certain pressures on non-official and lesser-used languages. It also however brings with it opportunities - and the EU has an important role to play in assuring a long-term future for Europe's rich linguistic tapestry," Hudghton said.
"Nations without states should not turn their backs on Europe. They should work together to achieve their goals. The problem is not Europe; it is that we don't have enough Europe. More EU integration would boost regions and diminish the importance of member states," said Joan Bernat, a professor of sociolinguistics and former MEP.
- 2012: Commission to review success of its new multilingualism strategy.