The Fate of English in the EU After Brexit: Expected and Unexpected Twists

By Victor Ginsburgh, Professor of Economics, ECARES, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Juan Moreno-Ternero, Professor, Department of Economics, University Pablo de Olavide, Shlomo Weber, Robert H. and Nancy Dedman Trustee Professor of Economics, Southern Methodist University; Leading Scientist, Center for Study of Diversity and Social Interactions, New Economic School, Moscow. Originally published at VoxEU.

Preserving English as an official language of the EU will be problematic if Brexit takes place. English became an official language in the EU (then the EEC) when the UK joined the Union. Nowadays it is the most widely spoken language in the EU and also is the working language in its institutions (with the exception of the Court of Justice, which uses French). If the UK leaves the EU, English can no longer retain its status as one of the Union’s official or working languages. Every member is entitled to choose one official native language in the EU. Malta and Ireland are the only two countries in which English is official, but Malta chose Maltese and Ireland chose Irish[TIM1] as their official languages.

This was mentioned in 2016 at a news conference by Danuta Hübner, the chair of the European Parliament’s constitutional affairs committee, but immediately rejected as “incorrect” by the EU Commission representation in Ireland (O Caollai 2016).

In principle, there are two routes to sustain English as an official language of the EU:

  • Ireland or Malta switch their official native language in the EU to English.This may create a national problem. Although most Irish and Maltese citizens speak English, how would they react to this ‘unpatriotic’ change?
  • English is an official language in Ireland and Malta, so there may be no problem in keeping English in the EU. This argument is supported by the legal departments of the EU Commission, the EU Parliament and the EU Council. They argue that no meeting, deliberation or vote by the EU Council is needed.

The second argument contravenes the spirit and even the wording itself of Article 342 of the Lisbon Treaty (which consolidates Article 217 of the 1957 Treaty of Rome, used in the EEC Council Regulation No 1/1958 determining the languages to be used by the EEC).

Article 342 states that:

The rules governing the languages of the institutions of the Union shall, without prejudice to the provisions contained in the Statute of the Court of Justice of the European Union,1 be determined by the Council, acting unanimously by means of regulations.

This contains two important provisions: the Council has to draft a regulation, and the regulation must be adopted by all 27 EU countries after Brexit. Is there any chance that the representatives of the countries in the Council would vote unanimously to keep English not only as an official, but also as a working language? The probability is slim, even very slim. Because without 60 million native speakers of English, other languages become more ‘valuable’ or important.

To quantify this assertion, in a recent paper we evaluate the weight of each EU language (Ginsburgh et al. 2017) using three methods[TIM2] :

  • Method 1: For each language, all its speakers are counted, regardless of proficiency. All speakers, perfect or not, count as 1. Non-speakers count as 0.
  • Method 2: Only perfect speakers (essentially native speakers) are counted as 1, all others are represented by 0.
  • Method 3: All speakers are counted, but also their proficiency. A native speaker counts for 1, a speaker who claims to have a very good or good knowledge of the language counts for ½, all others count for 0.

Knowledge of languages is calculated using each method with data from a Special Barometersurvey carried out in late 2005 (European Union 2006), which surveyed 1,000 citizens in each EU country (including Bulgaria and Romania, which acceded on 1 January 2007).[2] The totals are weighted to take account of the various countries’ populations to compare the situation of speakers of all EU languages before and after Brexit. Table 1 restricts the presentation to the six most spoken languages, using each of the three assumptions. The numbers show the aggregated percentage of EU citizens who know the language that appears in the first column.

Table 1 Percentage of speakers in the EU before and after Brexit for the six most-spoken languages in EU

Source: Ginsburgh et al. (2017).

The results clearly show that English is the first language in the EU before Brexit if we count all English speakers, regardless of proficiency (method 1), or count native speakers as 1, and non-native, but good speakers as ½ (method 3). Using these calculations, English does better than either German or French, and much better than Italian, Spanish, and Polish.

This is not so if we consider only native speakers (method 2). The UK has a smaller population (60 million) than Germany and Austria combined (90 million) or France plus 40% of Belgium (70 million).

If Brexit goes ahead, English would lose ground in all cases. German and – if we used the third method of calculation – French would be dominant.

It would be surprising if Germany (and Austria) or France (and French-speaking Belgians) were to support a status quo sustaining the current prevalence of English. The EU Council, which has to vote unanimously, would have to find extremely good arguments to convince countries to vote for the introduction of English in place of Irish by Ireland (or Maltese by Malta) – or to vote for English, if English ceased to be an official language in the EU.

This may be an unfortunate situation for many countries. English is more widely spoken and certainly better understood in the rest of Europe than German or French. Without Brexit, it would probably have become the lingua franca of the EU in the future.

But, there is a but…


Ginsburgh, V, J Moreno-Ternero and S Weber (2017), “Ranking languages in the European Union: Before and after Brexit”, European Economic Review93: 139-151.

O Caollai, E (2016), “European Commission rejects claim English will not be EU language”, The Irish Times, 28 June.

European Union (2006), Special Eurobarometer 243: Europeans and their languages.


[1] As mentioned earlier, the language used by the Court is French.

[2] With the following exceptions: 1,500 in Germany, 1,300 in the UK, and 500 in Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta. The total number of usable interviews is 26,700.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
This entry was posted in Guest Post on by .

About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. makedoanmend

    I don’t imagine the Fine Gael, now currently the main party of government under Leo Varadkar, would have any problem changing Ireland’s official language to English. They would tout the change through their neoliberal MSM network as a liberal stand and as Ireland acting as adults.* There might be some mutterings around the edge of such a debate but Fine Gael and the establishment might see it at least as a two-fer. If the majority of the EU elite would prefer to use English as a working language, Fine Gael would see providing the English language via Ireland as an easy political win for Ireland, and maybe pry loose a few more Euros from Brussels for infrastructure building. Plus it would be sold as a poke in the eye for Sinn Féin who is coming up in the rear view mirror. The Fine Gael core constituency would love it.

    The only stick in the ointment is Fine Gael’s political buddy for government is their historical arch rivals Fianna Fáil who are currently making noises about joining with the SDLP in the North of Ireland to challenge Sinn Féin in the six counties. Fianna Fáil hopes to burnish their nationalist credentials by hooking up with the moderate but failing SDLP (Social Democratic Labour Party). Backing the language proposal might raise a few eyebrows, but again it will be sold as making a sacrifice for economic Ireland and as a dig against Sinn Féin who support the Irish language more than most other political formations.

    It did strike me as I was writing the Irish party names, which all happen to be in Irish, that Irish establishment likes to deal with such things superficially whilst taking a more “pragmatic” stance. It’s a bit like the Irish government’s stance on ecological issues. They like attending the big meetings, getting the free dinners and press, and then do sweet fanny adams about ecological issues if they can avoid it.

    *The adult framing has become a common meme used by the Irish elites to suggest to the public at large that they are being infants if they do not do what they are told. sarc/

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Thats a good point about FG seeing political merit in pushing English as ‘the’ official language, although given the history of referendums, I’d not put it past the electorate to use it to give a srón fuilteach to the government on that topic, just for the lols.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    Irish language activists will love this – they can argue Irish is almost as important as English in the EU.

    The closely related issue to language usage is law. Its already been discussed in the EU that as the Common Law jurisdictions are now reduced to just Ireland and Malta, then there is no justification for continuing the very complicated process of ensuring EU law is consistent with both Civil Law Codes and Common Law. I suspect there would be little resistance to this in Ireland as the lawyers will love all the work involved in managing a complete switch in code.

    1. makedoanmend

      Hey PK,

      Forget about all these trivial political issues which shape our lives and will profoundly affect those who come after us.

      I believe you’re from Baile Átha Cliath – the big smoke. Regarding next Sunday, how about giving me 8:1 and 7 points and I’ll take Tír Eoghain? :-0

    1. Dave Chapman

      Quebec tried that (French in the Control Tower).
      They got a complete refusal to land in Montreal from the ALPA.
      They backed down in a hurry.

      Even Air France recognizes the need for _Only_One_Language_ in the cockpit.

    2. christoo

      No they wont. Its International not EU. Decision made with the Warsaw convention and very unlikely to change now.Decision was made on the most used ,widespread language.

  3. The Rev Kev

    The EU has 24 official language but in effect, the ones that are mostly used as working languages are German, French and English. Ireland and Malta may be able to reclassify themselves as using English as their primary languages but that may not be necessary. The thing is, a lot of the people in the EU know and use English with other country’s citizens. It is the most common spoken foreign language in the EU, even when you take out the UK and Ireland. In fact, I am given to understand that when countries like Austria, Sweden and Finland entered the EU, there were so many that used English as a second language that it began to displace the use of French in inter-country communications. Jean-Claude Juncker may want the EU to use French but I note that in 2015, the EU commission had more than 1.6 million pages translated into English, compared with 72,662 pages in French. Imagine trying to sort which language has primacy between French and German speaking countries. You would go for English as it was seen as a neutral choice. I suppose to paraphrase an American official, the UK can say that ‘English is our language and your problem’.

    1. Alex Cox

      Perhaps the reason English is the most commonly spoken foreign language in the EU is that the English resolutely refuse to learn other languages.

      I lived in a small village in Spain for many years. I was the only English person there. The only other foreigners were a German family who had a farm outside the village. We all spoke Spanish: the only local who spoke English was the man who ran the hardware store, who had lived in New York.

      Sadly, the advent of Ryanair and EasyJet brought many English people to our area, to holiday or, worse, retire. Estate agents shops appeared in town with advertisements in English. None of the flood of limeys could speak Spanish; none of them bothered to learn. Bartenders and shopkeepers learned a smattering of English so as to sell the immigrants stuff.

      Simultaneously, many Romanians came to live in the vicinity to work in the “Costa Plastica” – the huge tents in which tomatoes and vegetables are grown, year-round. They learned Spanish, though the bartenders learned some Romanian as well.

      After the crash-out I imagine it will be a relief to the Germans and the French to ditch the English requirement. The EU is their project, after all.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        The number of Romanians able to speak English rose enormously over the past few years because the government banned the dubbing of American and English films and TV. When a language is pervasive in the culture, young people in particular rapidly pick it up.

        The ubiquity of English is really down to the popularity and ubiquity of American and (to a somewhat lesser extent) British TV and cinema. Its just so very easy for any reasonably bright person to pick up as a second language. I’ve met Chinese people from very remote rural areas who learned English just from forcing themselves to listen to the BBC World Service. And yes, they had very posh accents.

        1. Anon

          When a language is pervasive in the culture, young people in particular rapidly pick it up.’

          Learning a language (first or second) before the age of eight is the ideal situation. Learning a language later in life becomes increasingly more difficult, for various reasons (Time, verbal interaction opportunity, etc.)

          Adults learning a second language have to contend with already developed “voicing” of their native language with new “sounds” in a foreign language (English vs.Chinese or Spanish). While some languages have similar sounding words (German > English) the language structure (preposition placement, noun/verb interaction) can impede the adult learner (Spanish vs. English).

          In any case, Europeans seem better at second language transfer than Americans.

        2. A Nony Mouse

          Depends on your definition of ‘few years’ – there haven’t been dubbed foreign movies in Romania for the past … 20 years or so? well, apart for ones for children presumed too young to read. However, I disagree that it had a lot of impact – for instance, what old people remain who didn’t study English in school under the communist regime still haven’t learned the language from movies. A much larger impact on the younger generations are computer games and the need to speak English if working for multinational companies. Add to that the fact that most job trainings are usually English-only, and books and other up-to-date documentation for the most lucrative jobs that appeared about after year 2k are in English (with translations becoming available rather late if ever) and there’s a lot of competitive pressure to learn at least professional English. Conversation skills, however, are not so well developed on average, due to … lack of competitive pressure in that direction :-)

  4. David

    The de facto principal language of European institutions is English, and this won’t change. The dominance of English (Globisch as it’s often called because it’s a peculiar form of English) has been established for decades, and owes its influence to two things. One is the spread of American English everywhere, the other is the status of this slightly odd form of English (with patterns borrowed from French and elsewhere) as everybody’s second language. After all, what language are delegates from Portugal, Poland, Greece and Italy going to conduct a meeting in?

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I guess its too late to bring back Latin as a lingua franca, or even esperanto.

      I’ve no doubt whatever happens English will remain a fall back language for all European business – but if its not an official language it does have implications for formal translations, especially for official documents.

  5. Sheila

    Why does any of this bother us? The UK will very shortly be out of the EU. We will have our own little country with a prospering economy, loads of trade with our former colonies, less migration from Europe and it will be akin to Utopia.
    Of course we will speak English! It matters little to us if they speak Latin, or French or German or for that matter Tolkien’s Quenya or Sindarin or Star Trek’s Klingon or Avatar’s Na’vi language in the EU!

  6. EMSBoys

    As I expected, the NC commentariat are a welcome counterweight to the avalanche of McCain hagiography this morning. When I heard the news last night, I couldn’t help wondering whether he timed his end of treatment and departure to ensure he dominated the Sunday mornings shows one last time.

  7. Pinhead

    This is nonsense! Almost all EU business will continue to be conducted in English because fewer than 10% of the officials and bureaucrats speak German fluently and the percentage fluent in French is only marginally higher. Summit meetings can work, however awkwardly, with interpreters. Day-to-day business cannot function that way.

    Few Germans and fewer Austrians speak French well. Hardly any French speak Germany well, even in Alsace today. Young Europeans today much prefer improving their English than making the effort to learn German or French well.

    Moreover, Brexit may be cancelled. Even if not, Britain will work with the EU at many levels. Next-door NATO works almost exclusively in English, So does the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, all international scientific projects, etc.

    1. Marlin

      If really fewer than 10% of the EU bureaucrats speak German, that would actually be a reason for making German the working language. As per the table in the article, even with the UK part of the EU, 18% of the EU population are native speakers of German and a further 7% know it. Obviously, German speakers are enormously underrepresented in the EU institutions, if instead of the expected 25%, as in the EU population (before Brexit), less than 10% of the bureaucrats speak it.

      Using a different language than the IMF and World Bank would be an active plus.

    2. mpower69

      Please consider the likelihood that the EU, NATO, IMF, WB, etc. will wane/devolve/cease to exist within the next decade… two decades at most.

      We act like the EU, NATO, etc. have a function or future… they don’t.

      English will gain in unofficial dominance, while all the ‘official language’ deltas will be nationalistic/polarizing as the globe spins through this overdue populist/nationalist age that we are just now entering…

  8. Kurt Sperry

    There must be a default language to conduct EU business in, translation at every level of meeting or communication would be impossible. The only sensible choice, given what is spoken where, is English, regardless whether it is an official language of any of the member countries. I’ve studied German, French, Italian, and Spanish, none work across Europe half as well as English. Additionally, attempting German as a universal EU language would not only make the EU more explicitly Greater Germany but cause widespread mouth and psychological damage to Southern Europeans. Using French would rekindle old and insufferable French linguistic conceits and be a face slap to Germany.. Spanish or Italian make better sense, both are more logically consistent and easily phonetic than either French or German, Italian slightly more so than Spanish in my opinion, whereas Spanish has more speakers. English is really the only sensible choice.

  9. Tomonthebeach

    Doubtless, changing the official language of a despised organization is of slight concern to the Brits. It is at best a bit more salt in the widening self-inflicted wound of Brexit.

    Two reasons to stay English are

    1) everybody in EU is already speaking English, as do citizens in Australia, Canada, Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand, and much of India. Oops! The United States too. The cost of switching would not be trivial.

    2) English has long ago eclipsed French as the international language, thus:
    a) hotels, restaurants, and transportation can easily be navigated in English wherever you may be.
    b) English is the #1 language of movies and pop music.
    c) English is the main language of the Internet.
    d) English is the main language of international commerce.
    e) English is the main language in science journals

    Great idea! Why doesn’t the EU rename English as a political expedient to Globalish.

  10. Felix_47

    As a German speaker I would welcome German as the primary language of the EU. The first version of the constitution of the US was in German. Up to World War 1 and the Wilsonian intervention German was the language of medicine and science. During and after WW 1 a concerted effort was made in the US to discourage the use of German and its use in the US and worldwide since this population now was the enemy. As the US overtook Germany in the social and hard sciences German lost its primacy for good. Think Thomas Mann or Marlene Dietrich in Princeton and Los Angeles or Hanna Arendt in New York. Amazingly, the first edition of “Origins of Totalitarianism” was written by Ms. Arendt in English. The EU abandoning English is less likely than Spanish becoming the primary language in the US in a generation. One can always be surprised.

    1. Plenue

      “The first version of the constitution of the US was in German.”

      This literally isn’t true. I’ve also never heard this bizarre claim before. It seems like some weird variation on the claim that German came within one vote of becoming the official language of the US, which is a myth: There were a massive number of German immigrants to the US, and for a time the language was extensively spoken locally throughout the midwest, in some places exclusively. But it never had a significant presence in schools; there was never any question of it becoming dominant. The United States doesn’t even have an official language. English is so completely ubiquitous, and always has been, that it’s never been an issue that needed to be legislated on.

      And the vast majority of that German immigration came after the country was founded. The Greco-Roman weebs ( who founded this country would have much more likely to write the Constitution in Latin than German.

      “Up to World War 1 and the Wilsonian intervention German was the language of medicine and science. ”

      Also not true. It depended on the field. Science was roughly split between English, French, and German. There was a extensive anti-German campaign started in the US upon entry into WWI, but it was the Central Powers losing the war that started the rapid decline of German on the international scene.

  11. Jack Parsons

    Hm- the widespread use of English in the EU is a huge chunk of “soft power” for the Brits- and the US. Brexit is a hit for yankees too.

  12. Plenue

    Somehow I doubt English is going anywhere in the EU for the simple reason that it isn’t going anywhere globally. Chinese aren’t learning French or German in large numbers (and no one seems eager to turn Mandarin into a new lingua franca. Probably not even the Chinese themselves; Hanzi are ludicrous and cumbersome even just for Chinese, they’re magnificently inefficient for rendering foreign languages). If you want to do business with India, you’re going to be doing it in English. When I go onto YouTube and watch Dutch or Scandiwegian content creators, it’s English they’re speaking flawlessly with no accent. And the American Empire may be falling apart rapidly, but we’re still a nation of 325 million people who buy lots of crap. As a market to be catered to we’re not going anywhere for a while.

    Some EU nations may change their official domestic languages, but what exactly would be the point of conducting inter-EU state business in a language other than the already well established dominant one that you’re also using for business outside the EU?

  13. Ook

    Why not declare a new language, call it “Standard European”, and define the vocabulary and grammar to be the same as the vocabulary and grammar of English?
    And as a secondary effect, declare French, German, Spanish, Italian, etc. to be dialects of Standard European?
    Yes, that would go down very well, I’m sure.

  14. Schofield

    The EU is a toxic brew of globalised Neoliberal money-bullying further embittered by ethno-centrism which has refused to unify through the obvious adoption of a single official EU language – English.

  15. ScottS

    Pass the popcorn. I’d love to see the bun fight that erupts between Francophones and Deutschephones. I bet my money on Polish rising from the ashes of that debate, as Poles seem to be working hard in every corner of Europe.

    1. Mark Pontin

      Polish-fluent fans of Joseph Conrad and Stanislaw Lem, maintain that Polish is a superior language to English.

      Here in fact is Joseph Conrad, on the matter. He would have known —

      In 1897 Conrad was visited by a fellow Pole, Wincenty Lutosławski, intent on imploring Conrad to write in Polish and “[on] win[ning] Conrad for Polish literature”. Lutosławski recalls that Conrad explained why he did not write in Polish: “I value too much our beautiful Polish literature to introduce into it my worthless twaddle. But for Englishmen my capacities are just sufficient: they enable me to earn my living”. Conrad later wrote Lutosławski to keep his visit a secret.

  16. Larry Y

    English is the language of commerce, science, and technology. At any major multinational company, the Nords, Germans, Poles, French, etc. will be all speaking English. It’s the only language everyone is supposed to be learning, and the only one required when being hired.

    Maybe the EU can tweak the Brits by “reforming Globalish” with more Americanisms. Globally, in my experience, more people understand American accents anyway (including heavy NY or Boston, but excluding Southern).

    1. ScottS

      American accents are rapidly vanishing. Brits seem to cling to theirs tenaciously. You might have something.

Comments are closed.