After the United Kingdom has left the European Union, it could very well be that English will cease to be an official language for the European Union, or so Danuta Hübner, head of the European Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee, warned in a press conference. She explained that, “every EU country has the right to notify one official language. The Irish have Gaelic and the Maltese have notified Maltese, so you only have the UK notifying English.” This would mean that, “if we don’t have the UK, we don’t have English.” Although this might at first seem like a rather extreme measure, when you think about it, it really isn’t.
In 2015, the British Office for National Statistics estimated that the British population consisted of about 65 million people. According to the Eurobarometer of 2012, 88% of these people have English as their native tongue. This means that, after Brexit, the Union will have lost over 57 million speakers, whose mother tongue is English – 11% of the European Union’s population. In turn, after Brexit, only 2% of the remaining population of the EU will be native English speakers. As a result, native speakers of German and French will have far overtaken those of English, numbering 16% and 12% of the Union’s population respectively. Would it be sensible to maintain a language as an official working language when its native population has dwindled to a mere 2%? The European Commission seems to think not, as they have reportedly started using more German and French in their external communication.
In addition to the issue of representation of native speakers, there is also the intricate link between language and culture to consider. Any linguist worth their salt can tell you that a language and its culture are not only deeply intertwined, they also have, at the very least, a mutual influence on one another. Maintaining the English language in its current position as one of the three main working languages of the EU would amount to granting permission for not only the English language, but also the English culture, to remain present in the European Union, long after Brexit has revoked its political presence.
But how would the EU cope with cutting English out of its linguistic repertoire? Proponents of the continued use of the English language would argue that replacing English, the lingua franca of, not only the Union, but the world as well would not only be preposterous, but impossible as well. And which language would replace it? German? French? Why, yes. When one considers the numbers, it becomes clear that both German and French are already spoken by a rather sizeable part of the European Union’s population; when one combines both native speakers and speakers, who speak it as an additional language, the number of speakers overall becomes 32% and 26% respectively. Although neither language reaches the 40% overall speakers that English can claim, they both come rather close. Furthermore, even with the United Kingdom still a part of the Union, it is German which has most native speakers in the EU, with its 16% to the 13% native English speakers. Both French and German are still working languages in the European Union, and French is not only still considered by many to be the language of diplomacy, it is also virtually impossible to function as a Brussels-politician without it.
That being said, cutting English out of the European Union entirely might be counterproductive, as it is not only a major language in Europe, it is also a global lingua franca, which would be foolish to ignore. Still, it would not be wholly proper to allow Britain to maintain its influence over Union affairs in any official capacity, as would be the case when the English language is allowed to remain. It therefore seems but logical to scrap it as an official language of the European Union. After all, why continue granting a prestigious position to a language when most of its native speakers have decided to abandon the European Project?
Ian Snel is a first semester student of the Erasmus Mundus Euroculture MA at the University of Groningen. His academic background in literature and linguistics.