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 €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)


  1. Well, Ive created the Welsh language’s first Euroblog

  2. Thanks for the additional points… 🙂 Didn’t want my original entry to be too long!

    The problem here is what sort of slippery slope we might be on – from language towards other issues. If you look at regional issues for granting language rights, do you do the same for voting rights too?

  3. Interesting. Can see that MEPs as reps of their constituents would want to represent them fully by speaking the language in which they are most fluent. Potentially a more justifable expense than the Strasbourg travelling circus.
    Not clear that petitions cannot be made in a citizen’s preferred tongue, but seems reasonable that the response should be in an official language
    (Jose has a point about national languages – is Welsh an official national language of the UK or just the most subsidised minority language in Europe? If the former I could see the possibility of a government being persuaded to make the case, if not I suspect that it would fall under something that would not be considered good value for money…).
    In the Council, there are different language regimes for different subjects, thus Malta has Maltese interpretation for subjects that are of big national interest (e.g. maritime transport) but not where there’s less interest (e.g. land transport rail – they have no railways).
    Council works on a working document in one language (almost always English) so many delegates choose to make their interventions in English despite the language regime. It’s impressive (particularly if an expert from a capital is one who formally learned Russian rather than a western European language) but not always helpful as technicalities are usually better explained through the specialist interpretation that the governments are after all paying for.
    While the time taken for translation is huge (some documents can run to several hundred pages with annexes) and issues like the lack of translators into Maltese can slow the process considerably, it can actually be helpful to the negotiation process to have enforced periods of reflection such as that from translation delays. This can be used to find compromises that can conclude negotiations at an earlier stage and avoid costly and arbitrary conciliation processes.

  4. Hello Jon

    An interesting article, and I wouldn’t disagree with much of it. As I said in my response to your comment on my blog, I do think we need to be aware of the fact that Wales has a relatively high proportion of Welsh speakers. Because Wales is a small country this means the number of EU citizens who speak or use Welsh is very small indeed but within Wales the use of Welsh is relatively pervasive and well supported. For Europe to be part of that everyday existence it must behave in a similar fashion. Otherwise it will appear yet more remote.

    I don’t say that all documents, proceedings etc should be available in Welsh; merely that is important that people should be able to petition (and then be responded to) their government in their native or preferred tongue. Translation may take up a large share of the budget, but that is merely one of the many costs of seeking a closer and more meaningful union between 27 states, many of which themselves comprise earlier political unions or are in other ways multi-national or multi-cultural.

  5. Jon,

    Legislation – from proposals to finished acts – have to exist in the official languages of the European Union.

    First, it is a basic democratic condition, if we ever want to see a democratic EU.

    Second, especially with subsidiarity control in the future, but in transposing directives and in government administration at all levels, translations of documents are needed.

    If translating EU documents was to be renationalised, different standards and meanings would start to crop up, with serious repurcussions. Better do it centrally, once than to atomise the process and add to the cost.

    EU translations actually solve a lot of cross-border problems, in that you have one German version, one French version etc. even if the language has official status in more than one member state, or is used in several countries.

    Then, one per cent is fairly modest for a basic necessity reflecting the multilingual nature of Europe and touching upon each EU citizen, when still nearly half of the EU budget is used primarily to guarantee the income level of one tiny group of people through the CAP.

    The Commission as an ‘executive’ has three working languages, which looks like a reasonable compromise.

    The European Parliament is different, because of its roots in the electorate, and the Council is much the same (and would still be if it became the ‘Senate’).

    Additional minority and regional languages are already where you wish them to be, namely the ‘host nation’ foots the bill.

  6. José Almeida

    Olá John,

    Não concordo contigo. Português e o Maltês são linguas nacionais europeias. O Galês não é, lamento.

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