BRUSSELS – English as a common language has in recent years scaled the heights of the European Union’s 24-floor Tower of Babel, but will Brexit loosen its grip?
London’s political influence in Brussels may be slipping, but the language of Shakespeare is still in constant use.
It was not always so.
Thirty years ago, when Alison Graves, head of the European Parliament’s translators, arrived in the European capital she knew to say a cautious “bonjour” when getting into the elevator.
“French was the default language,” she said.
Over time, other languages — principally English in its globalized form — took hold, and now staff greet each other in a torrent of different vernaculars.
The promise of the European Parliament is that it is a house for all the peoples of Europe, whatever their mother tongue, and the situation is evolving.
Historically, French has been the language of diplomacy, and it remains the main one in use in Brussels, host of the EU institutions and capital of bilingual Belgium.
But as eastern and central European countries joined the bloc, they brought with them minority languages and a hunger to learn English, the language of globalism.
In EU Parliament sessions, a few of the better known and older members still alternate comfortably between the EU’s official working languages: French, English and German.
But others either stick to their native languages — relying on Graves’ huge translation service to be heard — or slip into English, to improve the reach of the rhetoric.
The team that makes debate possible bills itself as the biggest in the world, translating 24 official EU languages into the three working languages — 552 possible combinations.
Printed out, the 2.7 million pages of the translation services annual output would represent a Tower of Babel as tall as the Eiffel Tower.
But amid all this diversity, one language remains dominant.
In addition to the U.K., English is also widely used in member states Ireland, Malta and Cyprus and is the most common second-language on the continent.
According to a study compiled in France in 2017, 82 percent of documents compiled by the European Commission and 90 percent by the European Council begin life in English.
French politicians deplored the “quasi-disappearance” of French as a drafting language since the mid-1990s when, the report said, 40 percent of reports were in the language first.
Nevertheless, the EU Commission insists that 80 percent of its bureaucrats speak French as a “first, second or third” working language.
Among EU institutions, only the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice resisted the Anglo-Saxon invaders, still retaining French for daily official use.
French commentators are aghast, but they insist they are not being parochial.
The English spoken in Brussels, they argue, is not the rich tongue of the upper echelons of the British civil service, but a basic lowest common denominator.
In the European Parliament, while 70 percent of texts are first penned in English, in most cases the drafter is not a native speaker, Graves said.
A smaller number of experts then refine the first version before it is translated more widely.
So will the departure of Britain and British officials from the EU institutions diminish the usefulness — or the quality — of the de facto common language?
At the Court of Justice, spokesman Thierry Lefevre admits there are concerns about hiring quality translators, and others predict a boom time for Irish translators.
“It has led to a sort of realization that, in using a certain language, we are in reality importing a value system, a culture, a way of seeing the world,” he said.
“Why reinforce this vision at a moment when America is turning its back on us and the United Kingdom is leaving us?” he pondered.
Graves, herself British, doesn’t see the future in the same way. “I’ve a sneaky suspicion that English could be used even more,” she said.
“What might happen paradoxically is that more people here might start speaking English, as a neutral language.
“We’ll see how that language develops,” she said, joking that the resulting creole or pidgin might end up being called “Euro-English” or “Desperanto.”