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11/12/2016

Next EU Commission President will be a polyglot

Languages & Culture

Next EU Commission President will be a polyglot

According to the French foreign ministry, the lingua franca of the EU is English. [Shutterstock]

Being able to speak many languages is an important skillset for any high-ranking European politician. When it comes to language skills, some candidates for the presidency of the European Commission have a clear linguistic advantage. EurActiv France reports.

With 28 EU member states and 24 official EU languages, mastery in a few of them will be an important factor in choosing the next President of the European Commission.

The Treaty of Lisbon will be put into effect for the first time after the European elections in May. Although the treaty came into force in December 2009, this year will mark the first time that the new election process for President of the European Commission will be applied. According to the treaty, EU leaders now have to “take into account” the results of the EU elections before nominating a new Commission President, “after appropriate consultations” with the newly-elected Parliament.

All English speakers

Although no candidate has the same linguistic ability, they all have a good command of English.

Martin Schulz, the socialist candidate and current President of the European Parliament, speaks perfect English, French and German (his mother tongue). A good level of Italian, and a basic knowledge of both Spanish and Dutch make him the candidate with the most languages.

His main opposition, Jean-Claude Juncker, candidate for the European Peoples Party (EPP), speaks fluent English, French, German and Luxembourgish (his mother tongue). He also speaks Latin, which will probably not give him a competitive advantage.

Guy Verhofstadt, the candidate for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), is also a multilingual. He speaks Dutch, English and French. The former Belgian Prime Minister also speaks some Italian and German.

Can linguistic skills be a defining factor in choosing the next President of the Commission? Jean-Claude Juncker thinks so, and claims that he has the advantage of speaking many languages, but also a better understanding of the Franco-German relationship, the driving force of the EU.

“We Luxembourgish know them [French and German] better than they know themselves” he told the French newspaper Libération.

The two candidates from the European Green Party, the German Ska Keller and the Frenchman José Bové, also have good English. Ska Keller’s six languages gives her a competitive advantage over his fellow Green. She speaks Turkish, Finnish, German, some Spanish and English, as well as basic Italian.

The Greek far-left candidate is at a clear disadvantage. Indeed, Alexis Tsipras’s lack of linguistic skills will be a stumbling block in his campaign. “It is a sensitive issue that the Greek media refers to often,” said an administrative member of the French Communist Party. The candidate does not lack charisma, but struggles to express himself in English.

Which working language?

As a translation cost-cutting measure, the official working languages of the European Commission are German, French and English. The future president will likely have to speak all three. This is not the case at the European Parliament, where all the 24 official languages of the EU are considered “official”, creating major headaches for translation and interpretation services.

According to the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs, although the Commission maintains that French, German and English are the official working languages, English has gradually become the lingua franca of the EU.

“The trend over the past few years has seen a reduction of texts written directly into French, especially in the Commission. Although the multilingualism of the European Union has not been challenged, the 2004 enlargement caused an important change in the use of certain privileged working languages.”

Candidates for the Commission presidency speak many languages, because they use them in their everyday lives. Jean-Claude Juncker told EurActiv.fr that he watched German and French films, whilst the socialist candidate, Martin Schulz, reads in French, German and English.

Background

Next May’s European elections are the first to be held under the Lisbon Treaty, which grants the European Parliament the power to vote on the president of the EU executive, the European Commission.

Up until December 2009, when the Lisbon Treaty came into force, EU leaders in the European Council selected the Commission president behind closed doors and in a package deal with other EU top jobs.

The EU has 24 official languages, whilst French, German and English are the working languages of the European institutions.

Timeline

  • 22-25 May: European elections in 28 EU member states 

Further Reading

Ministère des affaires étrangères