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The EU should accept Catalan as an official language

A Europe of its citizens, not its governments, should embrace regional languages

The Spanish government recently formally requested that European Union authorities admit Catalan, Basque and Galician as official languages of the EU. If this reform is accepted, it would mean that members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will be able to speak in those languages during parliamentary sessions and have their interventions translated live, just like the other 24 official EU languages, writes Juan García-Nieto.

There is a valid case to be made that the Spanish government’s request is only a consequence of incumbent Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s desire to win the support of Junts (Together), a pro-Catalan independence party which has long called for the adoption of Catalan as an official EU language. The seven MPs from Junts can tip the balance in favour of Sánchez as he seeks to revalidate his mandate to govern Spain following July’s inconclusive general elections. However, despite the likely cynical political motives, accepting Catalan as an official language in the European Parliament is a step in the right direction.

Since its foundation as the European Economic Community in 1957, the EU’s policy has been to recognise as official languages only those which are also official statewide in its member states. This excludes languages which are official only at the subnational and regional levels. For instance, Catalan is an official language in the autonomous region of Catalonia (among other regions) but is not official at the state level. This means that, despite it being spoken by some ten million Europeans, Catalan cannot be used in the European Parliament. Other regional languages like Basque, Galician, Sardinian and Frisian find themselves in the same predicament.


This is an outdated policy. It ignores the fact that millions of Europeans have regional languages as their mother tongue and are more likely to express themselves in regional than in statewide languages. A language’s status as statewide should not be the only criteria to accept it as official in the EU. This is a reductionist, simplistic approach to the otherwise rich and diverse linguistic landscape which makes up Europe.

The EU should strive to build a Europe of its citizens in which the individual is placed at the centre of the political decision-making, including when it comes to languages. Unsurprisingly, both hard-right nationalists and the Communist-friendly left are opposed to this individualist model of Europe and instead advocate for alternatives which position ill-defined collectivist constructs above the individual, namely the nation. Indeed, the leader of France’s Rassemblement National, Marine Le Pen, defends what she calls an “Europe of nations”, diluting the agency of European citizens within the collectivist, abstract idea of the nation.

While this might seem like innocently crafted rhetoric, the “Europe of nations” narrative carries an underlying danger for the European project, at least in the liberal understanding upon which it was founded. It posits that nations are the main subjects of the EU, not individuals, and hence that nations (a notoriously slippery concept) should dictate European policies. The nationalist view of Europe imagines countries as homogeneous monoliths rather than vibrant entities made up of individuals, thereby bypassing any elements which could question the view of the nation as a sacrosanct, immutable object.


This is where regional languages come in. The idea of Spain (though the same argument could apply to any country) as a monolithic nation which can only be represented in European institutions through the Spanish language is as outdated and untrue as the EU’s policy of only recognising statewide languages as official. Echoing Le Pen, hard-right political party Vox has adopted policies against the protection of regional languages such as Catalan, let alone their adoption as official EU languages.

But the fact remains that Catalan is a language used by many Europeans. If the EU claims to be an entity of its citizens and not its separate governments, it should embrace the officialisation of languages when there is a relevant segment of the population which speak them, whatever the language’s status within a country. By adopting Catalan (and Basque and Galician, too) as official languages before the 2024 European Parliament elections, EU institutions would signal that they uphold a liberal vision of Europe which places individuals, not nations, front and centre.

Juan García-Nieto is a fellow with Young Voices Europe and a research assistant at ESADEGeo in Barcelona, Spain. His articles have appeared in The National Interest, The Diplomat and, among others.

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