Can French become the first working language of the European institutions after Brexit ?
Since the Brexit was adopted and voted by referendum in June 2016, many questions arise. The fact that it was postponed to January 2020 does not change the outcome. Many are the repercussions of Britain’s exit from the European Union. We sometimes speak of commercial, financial or even diplomatic consequences. More broadly, these issues are related to the European Union. Among these effects, a little studied but quite important aspect is the consequences for the English language. Until then, the main language of work of the institutions, Brexit could change everything. Indeed, the country where English comes from would leave the system that is the EU. Francophiles are wondering: this could change the situation for the French language. French will become again the working language ? It is not so sure.
Back to the EU and multilingualism
The European Union has always considered multilingualism an asset. The latter is one of its founding principles. Therefore, the list of official languages of the Union which is established by a regulation, is modified with each new accession. From now on, the European Union includes 24 official languages which implies a great number of possibilities since each language can be translated into 23 other languages. But in reality, English is the working language par excellence. Most reports are written in English, and communication between members is often in English. However, during the sessions, each official language is translated.
The place of French on the international and European scene
Not so long ago, French occupied a much more important place on the diplomatic scene. Indeed, from the 18th century, French replaced Latin for the drafting of international treaties. It was the diplomatic language par excellence. French was spoken in most European countries by diplomats. This is one of the reasons why the Vienna Congress negotiations took place in French.
However, the place of French declined and it was relegated to second place from the Paris Conference in 1919. It was decided to adopt English alongside French as working language. Thus the Treaty of Versailles was written in both languages.
Nevertheless, French was still considered an important language alongside English. This is why, French remained dominant in the European institutions until 2004, when many countries joined the European Union. It seemed more appropriate to use English as a common language of communication.
Brexit will change everything?
This question has been raised several times in particular by TV5 Monde, the French public service channel, particularly in 2016 and also in 2018.
These investigations tell us that the question is difficult. English, although imposed late, has become the language of communication par excellence in relations with the outside world. It is now in second place among the languages with the largest number of speakers in the EU. However, it would be relegated to the 17th when leaving Europe. This suggests that language balance may change. With the exit of Great Britain, no country will have English as the language of accession. Thus, there will be fewer speakers who will speak English – some speak of less than 1%. All this suggests that the English language will inevitably weaken.
But will French still resume its “place”? Maybe. In any case, there is a real desire to impose French on the part of Francophones and Francophiles. In addition, keeping English without Britain being part of the European Union would be difficult. Nevertheless, the practice could impose itself because it is more convenient to keep one’s habits than to change them. As noted earlier, most official texts are written in English, which makes difficult to imagine a change.
However, the European system as it is designed at the moment leaves little choice. Only France or Germany, large countries, very pro-European, could be the alternative to English. But the German is spoken very little outside his territory, only the French who already shines internationally has a chance. The learning of the French language could then know its hour of glory.
This leaves only two possibilities, the return of French or the maintenance of English. As Brexit has not had a definitive effect, its real effects are still uncertain.