The European Commission should continue to provide information in non-official EU languages, MEPs urged this week (15 March), expressing disappointment that Russian-language fact-sheets produced by the EU executive's offices in Latvia were recently withdrawn.

Plaid Cymru MEP and European Free Alliance (EFA) group President Jill Evans wrote to EU Justice and Fundamental Rights Commissioner Viviane Reding to complain that Russian-language documents detailing the results of an official EU survey on gender equality were no longer available. 

According to estimates, 1% of the EU population speak Russian as their mother tongue and 7% speak it as their second language. Native Russian speakers account for 40% of the population of Latvia and 30% of that of Estonia, but state laws define their language as foreign.

Explaining her decision to write to Commissioner Reding, Evans said "it's disappointing to hear that the EU is bowing to pressure to exclude Russian speakers in the Baltic in this way," a state of affairs which she believes is "all the more surprising" given the large proportion of Russian speakers in both countries.

"We hear often enough about how the EU wants to be closer and more accessible to its citizens. It will not achieve that aim by deliberately excluding entire language communities," Evans said.

The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, adopted under the auspices of the Council of Europe in 1992, protects the language rights of EU citizens. But only 16 of the 27 EU member states have ratified the treaty, and Latvia has not even signed it.   

'It's easy to make a language official'

Indeed, Kolja Bienert of the organisation Horitzo.eu, which promotes the interests of Catalonia in the EU, believes the only obstacle standing in the way of tongues like Russian and Catalan becoming official EU languages is the attitude of the member states themselves.

"It's easy to make a language official. A government just has to ask for it, as the Irish case proved," Bienert told a conference earlier this month, explaining that the European Commission itself could only act at the request of 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 rather than number of speakers or history.

"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.

Suspicions of Russian meddling

The Latvian case is complicated by suspicions that the campaign for recognition of the Russian language is being run by the Russian secret service, which makes it "a highly politicised issue," according to Vadim Poleshchuk, a legal analyst at the Legal Information Centre for Human Rights in Estonia.

The European Commission, which recently merged the multilingualism portfolio with the education, culture and youth dossiers, is next due to review its languages policy in 2012.