Plaid Cymru MEP Jill Evans has once more raised the issue of Welsh and its status as a language at EU level, and this has generated some follow-up debate. So rather than look at the issue of Welsh in itself, how about some principles of how EU multi-lingualism could work?
As far as I am concerned there are 3 main ways different languages are used in Brussels. Firstly there are the languages used in the margins, outside the formal meetings, for working documents and notes – generally English and, to a lesser extent, French and German. This depends broadly on the language capabilities of individuals in Brussels, and English will continue to dominate.
Secondly there are the formal languages (official languages) – the languages that are used in the formal meetings in the EU, such as in the plenary sessions of the European Parliament, and legislation is translated into these languages by the EU. Currently there are 23 of these, including Irish and Maltese. There are a couple of criteria to bear in mind here. Can a nation’s representatives all, without doubt, speak more than one language? For example, would any Maltese or Welsh MEP have a communications problem by addressing the European Parliament in English? Verbal communication ability should be the determining factor.
The more languages you add the more you drive up the cost, and drive down efficiency. Language services are already â‚¬1.1 billion, more than 1% of the EU budget. Plus with 23 languages you already have more than 400 possible language combinations, meaning relay interpretation is often needed. I reckon you can hence make a good case to drop Irish and Maltese from the list, and not add Letzebuergesch, Welsh or any other. When Croatia or Turkey join the EU their languages would however be added.
Thirdly, what about documents of the EU? I’m quite OK for these to be translated into whatever languages member states want to translate them into (even if the official language versions are the ones that hold legal force), but the EU legislative process must not be held up by translation delays. I’ve previously worked on a piece of legislation about gas markets where the European Parliament was delayed by the lack of a Maltese translation, while Malta does not even have a gas market. We can’t allow such anomalies. But to allow a Welsh famer to read a Directive in Welsh seems quite OK to me – if the UK government is willing to foot the additional bill for that. Equally if a citizen wishes to write to or petition the institutions in Sorbian and Yiddish then they are welcome to do so. With such a number of minority languages in Europe there could be quite some work for the Member States, plus I still don’t know what to do about Russian or Arabic – mother tongue of a lot more people than Welsh.
So, for what it’s worth, that’s my system – a 3-21-40+ arrangement to accommodate practicalities, financial constraints and language diversity as best possible.
(Caveat: this entry is written on the basis of Wales still being part of the UK. Were it independent, and become an EU Member State, then Welsh would become an official (i.e. formal) language, Wales would get about 12 MEPs as opposed to the 4 it has at the moment, but it would have to negotiate an accession treaty first – not fun)
(Disclaimer: while I am writing this in English, my mother tongue, I am not a monolingual Brit – I am fluent in French and German, and can also manage a conversation in Italian or Swedish)