Orban: Importance of multilingualism ‘will not diminish’

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The multilingualism portfolio is too important to be sacrificed by the next European Commission, Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard Orban said in an interview with EURACTIV Romania. As proof of this, Turkish could become the next official EU language provided that Cyprus concludes reunification talks, he indicated.

Leonard Orban is the EU commissioner for multilingualism.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.  

At the beginning of the year, a group of intellectuals, supported by the Commission and yourself, presented their proposal for personal adoptive languages for each European citizen. How do you see the concrete implementation of such idea in terms of actual steps? Do you have in mind scholarships or teacher exchanges between schools from different countries? 

First, I would like to say that they were not supported by the Commission, but the Commission asked them to draft a report. The group of intellectuals led by the French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf worked at the request of the European Commission. 

They presented a few interesting proposals, including one regarding the so-called personal adoptive language, a language that should be learned by each European citizen – I emphasise ‘by each European citizen’ – as a language close not only to mind but also close to the heart. A language that may be learned by knowing its history, its culture, its literature and any other related aspects. 

We also must keep in mind that the report issued by the group of intellectuals is an independent one. It does not express the European Commission standpoint. I considered their proposals to be representative of an entirely new and special vision of the European Union. 

On the other hand, the European Commission must also take into consideration that any field of knowledge needs the support of the other actors involved, mostly in fields of the member states’ competence. 

Therefore, it is still premature to say whether the respective idea will be included in the new Strategy for Multilingualism to be presented in September this year. 

I wish for this to happen, but whether it will be supported by the European Council, European Parliament and the other European institutions remains to be seen. 

In the event that the idea attracts the support of these institutions, the next step will be discussing the implementation actions for this proposal. And the implementation must be done by the member states. The European Commission shall provide additional support, including financial support, to any ideas to promote the linguistic diversity, as it has done so far. 

I must insist on saying that it is still premature to talk about the implementation of such an idea as we don’t know how it will be received and whether the member states will accept it, as they are the final step in enforcing this proposal. 

Is it also premature to ask about the financing of such an idea? 

I must remind you that the report presented by the group of intellectuals included concrete measures to apply this idea. For instance, they talk about things that may seem difficult to apply, such as a class where the choice of personal adoptive language differs from child to child. This implies, according to the traditional learning system, that there should be a number of language teachers equal to the number of languages to be studied. 

Well, things may change, and they give as examples what already happens in some member countries, sometimes pilot projects or large-scale projects such as distance learning. It would suffice to use some computers with modern software in order to have long-distance teachers communicate via two computers and there you have access to the language chosen or its teacher. So it wouldn’t involve great costs to require teachers’ mobility. It is an option. 

But there are other solutions – the report of the intellectuals’ group mentioned various programmes or partnerships between regions and localities. Based on these partnerships, mobility and language learning could be encouraged. 

I think that once there is a political will to accept and apply such ideas, the means to apply them will be found. It will not be simple, but they could be found, including financing provided from EU level. As I already stated, it is all about a vision, and any vision takes years to achieve. These are not things to be solved on a short term. 

What are the plans of the Commission and your office to promote multilingualism and multiculturalism during this European Year of Multicultural Dialogue?

First, the report prepared by the group of intellectuals represents precisely our contribution to the debates on intercultural dialogue. The main person responsible person for multicultural dialogue is definitely Commissioner Jan Figel. 

On the other hand, our contribution to this dialogue is multilingualism itself. During the next period, we intend to spread the conclusions of the intellectuals’ group on the contribution of multilingualism to intercultural dialogue. Conferences and debates will be held. 

The group members are also our ambassadors in our dialogue with the member states. Therefore they were and will be involved in several actions at EU level and also at the national and regional level, so that they spread the conclusions of the report, which are interesting from the perspective of integration of immigrants and their proposals on the completion of this process, to give an example. 

A very important action is, in my opinion, the conference organised by the Commission together with Norway in Oslo, scheduled for June, on multicultural dialogue and multilingualism. This is a conference with many participants, attended not only by the ministers of education from the member states but also from the candidate countries and the countries from the European economic space. 

This will be an opportunity to have a great exchange of views on the multicultural dialogue and, certainly, on the contribution of multilingualism in this context. 

One of your recent statements appears to say that the Turkish language may accede to the European Union before Turkey. Could you enlarge on this topic, providing us with a timeframe? 

I cannot provide you with a timeframe. As I said there is a possibility that the number of official languages in the EU will be increased. This possibility is related not only to the future European enlargement process, but also to certain political developments in the present member states. 

I gave the example of Cyprus, where, provided that a political solution to end the island conflict is reached, it is possible that the Cypriot government may request that the Turkish language becomes an EU official language, and based on a unanimous decision of the European Council (this is very important), in accordance with Regulation 1 from 1958, the Turkish language may become an official language of the European Union. 

We are talking about a real, serious possibility that, provided a peaceful solution to the Cypriot conflict is found, may bring into consideration the adoption of Turkish as an official language of European Union. 

How strong is French and francophony in the EU? What is the role of French language and its diminishing influence in the dispute of the nomad Parliament between Brussels and Strasbourg? 

First I would like to say that French language has a privileged position at EU level. Besides being one of the 23 official languages in the EU, French is also a working language within the European Commission, together with English and German. French is also a language used very frequently in the European Court of Justice, so we may say that French definitely has a privileged position. 

I wouldn’t relate this privileged position in any way to the matter of seats in the European Parliament. It is about a position resulting from the entire history of the European Union – the importance of French language – and I cannot miss the fact that I am delighted to have the opportunity to present the Political Strategy on Multilingualism during the French Presidency of the European Union. 

This will certainly be a period with many very important events, including the events organised by the French representatives. Thus I would like to bring to your attention the event to be organised in Paris on September 26, on the occasion of the European Languages Day. 

Do you expect an extension of your portfolio in the coming years and in the next Commission? A higher budget? Or is this portfolio one of those to be aggregated or sacrificed upon the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and the reduction of the number of commissioners? 

First, the Lisbon Treaty provides for a possible (I emphasise, possible) reduction of the number of commissioners starting from 2014. So, for the next portfolio, starting from 2009 to 2014, there will still be one commissioner per country. 

Second, I am sure that the importance of this office and all the steps done, plus those to follow in the next period, shall consolidate the continuation of this policy. I exclude any diminishing importance of this policy in the next period. 

As for the future European Commission, it is possible that it may stay as a separate portfolio. Regardless of future developments, I am convinced of the increasing importance of multilingualism policy and that the political strategy to be presented within the second semester of this year shall impel the development of this policy. In this context, as I said, I am convinced that this policy cannot be ignored within the next period. 

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