by Benjamin Fox
England may be out of the EU, but English has not gone anywhere. If anything, its position as the first language in Brussels is more entrenched than ever. This has long been a sore point for some French officials.
Now, President Emmanuel Macron’s government has decided to take the language war to court over the European Commission’s recent move to hire new officials using a selection process involving some tests that are only given in English.
The French government has filed two complaints to the European Court of Justice, one of which was published on Monday.
France argues that English-only tests violate the EU treaties because they discriminate against non-English speakers. It may well be right in this case, but the Court in Luxembourg is not going to be able to turn back the tide.
The big shift in favour of l’anglophonie was the result of the EU’s expansion in 2004 and 2007 to central and eastern Europe.
With the possible exception of Romania, which is a member of the Francophone community, English is the second language for most of these states. The French language – at least in the EU institutions – has been in decline ever since.
This reporter spent close to six years working in the European Parliament. Back then, some French MEPs were known for refusing to speak English in meetings to negotiate amendments to legislation or the text of resolutions.
It was a very effective political tactic since other MEPs and staff would respond in French in varying degrees of quality. Any complaints about the French-only rule were met with the retort that ‘why should we all speak English’?
That response was fair. The only difference was that the Brits – including this reporter – were typically such poor linguists that their failure to speak French, or other EU languages for that matter, was the result of incompetence rather than chauvinism.
That microcosm perhaps explains the dismal quality of so many Parliament reports. It also explains why Euro-English, which is a very different beast to the language of Shakespeare, has emerged as the EU’s lingua franca.
In 2022, the French EU presidency adopted similar tactics when it made a point of ensuring that all preparatory meetings and notes would be in French.
The anglophone trend has not been affected significantly by Brexit. While the EU institutions will not hire any more British staff, most of the British EU civil servants have stayed in Brussels, taking on Belgian or other EU citizenship.
Beyond packing the top echelons of the EU institutions with French officials, it is hard to see how France can win the battle for linguistic supremacy. English, it seems, is not just for the English.
*first published in: Euractiv.com