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disappointment that Russian-language fact-sheets produced by the EU executive's offices in Latvia were recently withdrawn.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.
Latvian MEP Tatjana Zdanoka (European Free Alliance), whose PCTVL party draws much of its support from Latvia's Russian speakers, said "there can be no justification for the European Commission's decision to withdraw Russian language material in this matter given that "Russian speakers make up 40% of the population in Latvia".
"This is particularly true since [the case] concerns an official survey on a very important issue that is of relevance to everyone regardless of language," Zdanoka said.
"I understand that Commissioner Reding's officials even went as far as to apologise to the Latvian Permanent Representation to the EU! Perhaps an apology to Latvia's Russian-speaking community would be more appropriate," she concluded.
"The language question is the most controversial issue of contemporary politics in Latvia and Estonia," Vadim Poleshchuk, a legal analyst at the Legal Information Centre for Human Rights in Estonia, told a conference earlier this month.
"All minority languages in Estonia and Latvia are considered foreign, and the Estonian and Latvian authorities don't like it when their language policies are criticised by outsiders," Poleshchuk added.
Pau Solanilla, executive advisor to the Spanish Secretary of State for EU Affairs, told the conference 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," he warned.
Speaking in a personal capacity at the same conference, a European Commission official said "I don't like the humiliating expression 'minority language', which was created by member states".
"Languages are boundless and there are no frontiers. We don't want to confine languages to borders. We want languages to spread naturally without barriers. A language is not the property of a state and must be allowed to spread of its own accord," the official continued.
"Part of the problem is the terms used to describe languages by the EU itself," said Bill Bowring, a professor at Birkbeck College at the University of London, claiming that the bloc's use of terms like 'main', 'most widespread', 'less widespread', 'less widely used', 'minority' and 'less taught' makes clear that despite the formal equality of the EU's 23 official languages, "it is clear that there is a hierarchy of languages in Europe".
Referring to the Council of Europe's Convention on Regional or Minority languages, which only 16 of the 27 EU member states have ratified, Bowring said "if the EU is serious about protecting language rights, then there must be serious moves to make sure that all its members have ratified this charter".
"The EU picture is extremely unsatisfactory. There is contradiction and confusion, and some member states are in violation of a charter that they have signed," he added.
The European Commission, while stressing its supporting role behind EU member states, says it regards respect for linguistic diversity as a core value of the European Union. It adopted a new strategy on multilingualism in September 2008.
According to estimates, around 40m people regularly speak over 60 non-recognised European languages in the EU.
It is estimated that 40% of the population of Latvia, and 30% of that of Estonia, are native speakers of Russian.
Last year, European Free Alliance MEPs urged the EU to use legal changes introduced by the Treaty of Lisbon, which came into force across the European Union on 1 December 2009, to protect the rights of linguistic minorities (EurActiv 01/12/09).