There are 24 official languages used in the European Union. However, it had been observed that while the members of the EU can speak in their own language, many of them prefer to speak in English during the European parliamentary debates. There are 764 members of the European Parliament, and all of them are required to attend the plenary sessions held monthly to debate on legislative problems. They are given speaking times and are free to talk in any of the official languages of the EU.
Official languages versus functioning languages
The European Parliament recognizes all the 24 languages but the Commission’s functioning languages are only German, French and English. It seems however that English is outstripping all the other official languages during the parliamentary debates. The largest group in the Parliament is the Christian Democrats, made up of 273 members. In this group there are 6 Austrians and 42 Germans. Out of the 428 total number of hours they spoke in 2012, German was spoken for 77 hours. For 130 hours out of the total, English was used.
The preference for the English language was confirmed to MEP Syed Kamall by his parliamentary adviser, Harry Cooper. Cooper said that while the members can speak in their own language, many of them still prefer English, the language that is now common in Europe, much like how Latin was in years past.
Reasons for the preference
Olga, Cosmidou, who is the director for the standard for interpretation and conferences in the parliament clarified the reason for this. She said that this is because all the EU representatives can speak English and when the legislative problems presented to the Commission are in English, the members are somehow compelled to conduct their debates in English as well.
She further added that if the papers urgently submitted are in English and are not translated or the collaborators for the paper are not of the same nationalities with English as a common language among them, then the paper will be available only in English. In this way, it makes it easy for the commissioners to speak in the language that was used in the preparation of the papers.
Other reasons for the increase in the number of hours a language is spoken during the parliamentary debates include the nationality of the incumbent president of the parliament and comfort in the use of the mother tongue.
Political scientist Michael Keating observed that Swedes, the Dutch and the Danish speak in their mother tongue when they are presenting yet they will not bother to use their headphones to listen to the interpreter when other members speak in English. Therefore it is a matter of personal and national pride to be able to speak in their mother tongue and a matter of convenience when they are listening to others speak.
Keating, who is doing a study on European politics and nationalism said that it will be difficult to have a common language in Europe and it puts non-English speakers at a disadvantage. The voices of the smaller member nations, such as Estonia, Malta and Latvia, are already barely heard during the debates. Keating also foresees that as more nations become members of the EU, the use of English will rise further. They would still insist on using their own language on formal occasions but will use English for informal networking.