Joachim Fritz-Vannahme
15. August 2019

EU English – our best answer to Brexit!

What will Brussels actually say when Great Britain leaves the EU on Halloween? Fare well and good luck. What you say in English at such moments.

Which brings us to the point: English is the working language of the Union. French and German, the other two working languages in the EU’s internal business, are on an equal footing with English. Yet everyday life in Brussels and in the community of 28 minus one members in general has changed since the 2004 enlargement at the latest. Most documents of the EU Commission are first written in English and then translated into the 23 other languages. In the press room there is hardly any unrest if the press release is available in English a tick faster than in French or German.


Brussels speaks English, such is life


English will remain an official language of Brussels policy even after the British withdrawal. This is initially due to the 4.7 million Irish, for whom English is the national language alongside Irish, and to almost half a million Maltese, who also speak English alongside Maltese. Together, this results in only around 5 million native speakers – German is spoken by over 90 million people in the EU, in Austria, Belgium, Denmark and, of course, in Germany. However, this is what Article 55 of the EU Treaty stipulates: in contractual terms, all languages are the same.

Yet there is still the matter of reality. English has become an integral part of the work of the European institutions, and equally so in the daily lives of its citizens. Especially in the age of the Internet and smartphones, Eurovision, Netflix or Spotify.


“Make English the EU’s common language”

“Brexit is the ideal moment to make English the EU’s common language,” The Economist recommended this summer. Of course, this was almost to be expected from a London world newspaper. However, the Economist referred to the Belgian economist and social ethicist Philippe Van Parijs.

Years ago, Philippe had called for us to speed up the development of English into a European lingua franca for it would allow more citizens to participate in European politics, “Let’s get rid of our reservations towards the spreading of the English language. A European demos needs a shared language.”


“A European demos needs a language”


Philippe is also one of the authors of the essay collection “Twelve Stars – Philosophers Chart a Course for Europe,” which we at the Bertelsmann Stiftung have recently published together with the Twelve Stars Initaitive. Philippe, one of the pioneers of the basic income, called for such a basic income for every EU citizen.

In the same volume, the Belgian social philosopher Helder De Schutter proposes how the EU should promote English as its lingua franca in practice, “The EU should erect a language academy for European English …Language academies could work out such non-native standards”.


We want an Academy for EU English


This is the decisive word: non-native standards. Here, the language of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage is not for all time forced upon 450 million Europeans, whose mother tongue is another. Instead, a European English is finally being polished that is open to the creative use of other languages with the dominant English.

That reminds me: it has happened before… In Great Britain!


Plain English, please! Once again!


“In 1948, HM Treasury asked Sir Ernest Gowers to provide a guide to officials on avoiding pompous and over-elaborate writing.

Moreover, the Plain English Campaign has been campaigning since 1979 against gobbledygook, jargon and misleading public information. The campaign has helped many government departments and other official organisations with their documents, reports and publications.”

You can read everything in detail under the keyword Plain English at Wikipedia.

Plain English with non-native standards, that would be a task for the new EU Commission, the new EU Parliament (where in the corridors, in the working groups, a colourful mixture of English, in plural, please, is babbled).

“The language of Europe is translation,” once said the great Umberto Eco. That may be the case in writing. Orally, it has long since changed, and this not only in EU Europe.


The English are gone. English stays!


With the departure of the English – bet that the Scots and the Irish will somehow stay in the EU? – the EU must simply seize the opportunity. A Language Academy for European English would be the wisest answer to the Brexit.

And language purists should be told, since the arrival of the Angles and Saxons on the islands, the English language has absorbed every Germanic, Latin or French influence and thus enriched itself.

The Europeanisation of English could be the next push for this language. Spaniards and Swedes, Germans and Poles and everyone else would have their creative part in it.


And Philippe’s vision of a shared language for a European demos would become reality.



Photos by Joachim Fritz-Vannahme

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