The idea of dropping English as an official language of the EU is tempting many in Brussels. French politicians sense an opportunity to gain some much-needed credibility. EURACTIV France reports.
The future of the English language in the EU is up in the air. “It is something we have to think about,” said Alain Lamassoure the head of the French Republican party delegation (EPP group), giving a boost to a long-running debate among French politicians.
The diminishing importance of the French language in the European institutions is a constant source of indignation, particularly among members of the more extreme parties. Robert Ménard, the National Front mayor of Béziers, said the English language had lost its legitimacy in Brussels. And Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a Left Front MEP and candidate for the 2017 presidential election, also said that English should no longer be the EU’s third working language.
In theory, the three official working languages of the EU are French, English and German. But English has gradually taken over from the other two languages, particularly within the European agencies based all over the bloc.
English is the only working language at both the European Central Bank, based in Germany, and the European Space Agency, based in France.
And this trend will be difficult to reverse. As the British Conservative MEP Charles Tannock wrote in an email to his colleagues (in French), most Europeans speak English as a second language. “English will remain the ‘lingua franca’, or rather the ‘lingua anglica’ of the EU, even post-Brexit and without the citizens of the United Kingdom,” he said, adding that some 97% of European school children learn English.
But once the United Kingdom leaves the bloc, no EU member state will have English as its official language. As Jean Quatremer wrote in his blog on 24 June, Ireland’s official language is Gaelic, and Malta’s is Maltese.
The Commission president also broke new ground at the European Parliament on Tuesday (28 June), speaking exclusively in French and German. But whether or not this trend will take off remains to be seen.
Belgian Socialist MEP Marc Tarabella is unconvinced. “Whether we like it or not, English is the language through which people best understand and communicate with each other,” he told his colleagues.
Restoring economic credibility
Behind the potential gains for the French language, French credibility in Brussels also stands to benefit from the changing situation.
Since the departure of Alain Le Roy as secretary general of the European External Action Service (EEAS), France has been left almost completely bereft of top jobs of the Juncker Commission.
Le Roy had succeeded Pierre Vimont, keeping the reins of EU foreign policy in French hands. At least in theory.
In practice, the diplomat clashed with the Italian Commissioner Federica Mogherini, who has successively stacked the EU’s top diplomatic jobs with Italians. Before deciding to replace Vimont with a German, Helga Schmidt, the previous assistant secretary general of the EEAS.
Schmidt was in turn due to be replaced by a Brit, but this now looks unlikely. While this job now has a greater chance of going to a French civil servant, the same is not necessarily true of future opportunities opened up by the departure of the United Kingdom.
France is suffering from a deficit of credibility, which undermines its influence in Brussels. “Paris wants a third extension to the deadline to bring its budget back within acceptable limits. And the El Khomri labour law is being endlessly contested, giving a toxic image of the country. This is not a model for others to follow,” said Charles de Marcilly, the director of the Schuman Foundation in Brussels.
France’s diminishing influence is nothing new. French MPs Christophe Caresche and Alain Lequiller stressed that the EU’s eastern enlargement had had a negative effect on France’s political clout, but that the country had reached its current low point because of poor economic and budgetary performance.
Finally, the presence of 23 National Front members in the European Parliament, which the MPs said “effectively amputates one third of the French delegation”, only makes the situation worse.
France unable to influence the “European parl-allemand”
The two MPs said they believe France’s minister for European affairs would be better placed to do his job if he took a step away from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They also highlighted the lack of French heads of cabinet in the European Commission: there are currently only two, one of which is a dual national, while the other works under the French Commissioner.
According to the two MPs, this should raise concerns about the future, as these jobs are “important career accelerators, highly recommended for moving on to a director’s post in the European Commission”.
Yet with French political influence at such a low point, the Commissioners prefer to recruit Germans, who can help them in their relations with the European Parliament, nicknamed the “European parl-allemand” by some French civil servants in Brussels.
Along with the British, who are likely to become less sought after in future, Germans currently occupy a large proportion of the high cabinet positions. Here again, the French may find an opportunity to boost their credibility by filling the vacancies left by their British colleagues. Particularly if they speak German.