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‘Abduction of Europa’ (Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Amsterdam - 1632 - fragment)

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Conflicting Language Policies in the European Union and its Member States

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder - c. 1563


When looking at the map of Europe, one cannot fail to notice that the denomination of a country stands in most cases for a language. The emergence of multicultural and multilingual societies has as such not radically changed the fact that public authorities and citizens essentially communicate in one (official) language in the vast majority of EU Member States. What is more, authorities are increasingly active to defend and promote their own language so as to enhance social cohesion and integration of newcomers. EU language law is unavoidably altering the basic monolingual settings of national language policy, as the latter may indeed be an obstacle to enhance mobility, cooperation and market integration in the EU. This inevitably leads to friction.

Against this background, the purpose of my dissertation on Conflicting Language Policies in the European Union and its Member States (2015) was to identify these friction zones and to submit recommendations on how the language policies of the EU and its Member States may be better reconciled.

First and foremost, the concept of language law in the EU Member States was analysed. As a general rule, language regulation is solidly built around three key concepts:

  • in the public framework, the territoriality principle (cuius regio, eius lingua) is predominant. International law leaves State sovereignty in this field largely unaffected: a State establishes freely the language(s) used in legislation and by its administration, courts and educational system. One readily understands the reason for such a territoriality system: it is simply not feasible for authorities to deal with every resident in his language.
  • the private domain is governed by a different principle, namely the freedom of language. The State may by no means preclude the private use of any language on its territory. This fundamental freedom follows from the general prohibition of discrimination on linguistic grounds read in conjunction with, for instance, the freedom of expression or association. The concept of private language use must be understood broadly, encompassing the right to freely use any language, not only at home but also in public, such as in commercial publicity, electoral campaigns or in privately funded schools and associations. To some extent, however, the State may impose the use of at least its official language(s). The French Toubon Law is a case in point, providing for the obligatory use of French in, for instance, public information, labelling of goods, seminars, labour contracts and company rules, without, however, precluding the use of other languages. 
  • under international law, historical (linguistic) minorities are protected against assimilation policies. 

My research shows that EU law affects the delicate traditional balance between these three key concepts (territoriality, private freedom of language and minority protection). In actual fact, EU law enhances the private freedom of language. In the internal market, EU Member States must, for instance, accept that economic operators submit certain information and documents relating to their goods in “languages easily understood” to the competent national authorities. Likewise, in the area of freedom, security and justice, cooperation and mutual recognition of documents require linguistic abilities of those concerned, such as police officers and judges. EU law also puts limits on the assessment of linguistic proficiency of service providers from other EU Member States. 

A clear friction zone also exists with regard to national social cohesion and integration policies. EU citizens are, for instance, exempt from language integration courses or exams. Additionally, language testing with regard to long term residents from third countries and family members with regard to family reunification must remain proportionate. 

The EU has, as such, not addressed these issues in a general way. Rather, solutions have been provided on a case-by-case basis by the Court of Justice. The latter has, using its traditional reasoning scheme of restriction, justification and proportionality, done a remarkable and delicate job of finding equilibrium. However, a number of conflict areas between the language policies of the EU and its Member States remain.  

The following recommendations (inter alia) were submitted to increase coherence in EU language policy whilst at the same time preserving the language jurisdiction of the EU Member States: 

  • a new EU Language Regulation should reflect reality. It should be made clear on which basis Treaty languages, official languages and working languages for the EU are chosen; a single legislative reference language should be established, so as to increase legal certainty with regard to EU law;
  • a clearer demarcation of language jurisdiction between the EU and its Member States should be established. The concept of respect for linguistic diversity should form the legal basis of the national jurisdiction in linguistic matters. This means that, for instance for the sake of consumer protection, EU Member States should be allowed to always require at least the use of the local language. Furthermore, EU policy documents should give more attention to the need for national social cohesion policies. The importance of learning the local language for the purposes of integration in society should be stressed. The European Commission could set a benchmark regarding the availability of affordable or even free local language courses in the EU Member States;
  • it must be conceded that there are limits to EU integration without a single common EU language. Targets set in the internal market and in the area of freedom, security and justice do, in fact, require a common tongue. The EU and the Member States should launch a debate on this issue.

The author works as an official in the Directorate Communication of the European Court of Justice and is affiliated to the Centre for European Law of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB). 

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