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Can Basque, Catalan and Galician really become EU languages?

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, left, and Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in Madrid, Spain, July 3, 2023.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, left, and Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez in Madrid, Spain, July 3, 2023. Copyright AP Photo/Bernat Armangue
Copyright AP Photo/Bernat Armangue
By Callum Tennant
Published on Updated
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Having an additional official EU language can result in a hefty price tag for the union's institutions.

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Pedro Sánchez, Spain's acting Prime Minister, is trying to secure the backing of separatist parties to stay in power by having the EU recognise some regional languages but cost, possible lack of qualified personnel and wariness by other countries could scupper his plans.

Madrid wrote to the EU last week asking that Basque, Catalan, and Galician be added to the EU’s list of 24 official languages, placing the ball squarely in the EU’s court. Any decision on the adoption or refusal of the languages will likely be made by the General Affairs Council when it meets in September.

Relying on the support of smaller regional parties is nothing new forSánchez who came to power in 2018 following the first-ever successful vote of no-confidence against the then PM. He followed that up two years later by formingSpain’s first coalition since the country’s return to democracy which only passed due to deals cut with Catalan separatist parties, causing outrage amongst right-wing politicians.

The controversial Catalonian independence referendum and Madrid's subsequent imposition of direct rule over Catalonia had happened just months before the 2020 coalition vote. Tension and distrust between Madrid and the autonomous region were at levels not seen in decades.

In the five years since then, tensions have decreased and independence is not the critical topic it once was. However, the reliance of Pedro Sánchez and his socialists on regional parties, especially EH Bildu, became a central plank of the opposition conservative People Party’s election campaign.

Why are regional languages on the tip of Sánchez’s tongue?

The July 2023 general election resulted in a hung parliament with neither the left nor right-wing blocs winning enough seats to form a coalition government on their own. If Sánchez wants to be voted in as PM, he will have to convince even more ardently separatist parties to vote for him. 

This explains the PM’s sudden interest in the promotion of Spain’s regional languages.

Since it unveiled its language plans last week, Sánchez’s government has moved quickly to widen the acceptance of regional languages. After winning the support of separatist parties, close Sánchez ally and Catalan speaker Francina Armengol was voted in as the new speaker of the lower house.

Armengol has announced that Basque, Catalan and Galician will now be allowed within Spain’s congress. She said using these three languages in congress "is a fact of democratic normalcy" as the "congress must represent the real Spain and one of the great strengths of our country is its linguistic diversity and richness."

But she asked for patience and "the space to meet with the parliamentary groups, seek agreements and start working so that the use [of the three co-official languages] becomes a reality in the Congress of Deputies".

Although technically never banned, each speaker has had the discretion over whether they permit the speaking of regional languages in Congress. Historically, a few phrases in regional languages have been permitted, but entire speeches in them were not allowed.

Xavier Coller, a professor at UNED, predicts that after “a while, it will become quite normal to speak in Castilian Spanish. Those who want to make a statement, they will speak in Catalonia in Basque at the risk that not many people will understand and that not many people will want to use the translation system”.

Allowing the speaking of regional languages within Spain will be much easier than getting the EU to adopt three new languages though.

EU wary of expensive Pandora’s box proposal

Although multilingualism is enshrined in the organisation's Charter of Fundamental Rights, the adoption of any new languages has to be unanimously agreed by the 27 countries of the Council of the EU. Member states will have two main concerns, one will be fear of a domino effect and the second, and probably the decisive one, will be cost.

There are many co-official national and regional languages in different EU member states, for example, Frisian, which has 500,000 speakers spread out over parts of the Netherlands. When deciding whether to vote in favour of adopting Basque, Catalan and Galician as official EU languages, the Netherlands will be aware that domestic pressure may grow to have Frisian put forward as an official language if other regional languages are successfully adopted.

Then there’s also the all-important cost aspect of this debate. 

A spokesman for the Commission told reporters this week that the institution spent about €300 million on translation last year but that they "don't have a breakdown by languages."

Asked how much the addition of these three regional languages could cost, he added that "it all depends on individual circumstances, it all depends on the language you speak and at the moment it's a hypothetical question so I'm not in a position to share an estimate in that respect."

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From Irish to Turkish

Although the latest language to be adopted by the EU was Croatian in 2013, the most useful case study to look at is probably the adoption of the Irish language.

Despite Irish being granted working language status in 2007, it wasn’t until 15 years later that this took effect. That delay was due to a shortage of translation staff; there are only just under 2 million Irish speakers in Ireland, though a lack of technological resources also hindered the language’s full adoption.

Partly because of this, in 2017, Irish was the EU’s most expensive language, costing up to €42 (£39) a page for translations. The European Parliament overspent its budget by over €3 million in the same year.

While Catalan is spoken by around 10 million people, Basque and Galician may suffer from Irish-style cost overruns and translator shortages. Basque in particular, a language isolate and thought to be Europe’s oldest surviving language, is only spoken by around a million people.

However, the EU has experience in managing to conveniently tongue-tie itself when it comes to questions about adopting new official languages. In early 2016, Cyprus asked the EU to recognise Turkish as an official language, in an attempt to boost its reunification process. Seven years later and there’s been hardly a peep from any EU institution on the question of adopting Turkish.

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Yet this situation might suit Sánchez quite well. He has shown regional parties his support by sending the letter but whether they're adopted as EU languages are now a Madrid problem, that’s a Brussels problem now.

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