Member states of the European Union have poured cold water over an ambitious request made by Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.
Sánchez has asked that three of the country’s regional languages – Catalan, Galician and Basque – be named as official EU languages. But during a ministerial meeting in Brussels, the appeal fell far short of the required unanimous support and it’s unclear when the issue could be put back for discussion.
The designation as EU language would imply the translation of every legal act approved by the bloc and real-time interpretation during ministerial meetings and debates in the European Parliament. Additionally, citizens would be allowed to use any of the three languages in the questions and replies they receive from the EU institutions.
The Spanish request is directly linked to Sánchez’s tortuous quest to secure the necessary votes for a successful investiture following the inconclusive results of the general elections held on 23 July.
Neither Sánchez’s socialist party nor the conservative opposition won enough seats to form a parliamentary majority on their own and now depend on the backing of smaller parties, which have made various demands in exchange for their endorsement.
Two of them are Junts and Esquerra Republicana, which advocate for the breakup from the Spanish state and the independence of Catalonia. The recognition of Catalan as an EU language is seen as a step forward in their strategies.
With the clock ticking for a potential investiture, Sánchez’s government added the request as the first item on the agenda for a meeting of the General Affairs Council on Tuesday. Spain, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, initially aimed to have the petition debated and possibly adopted on the same day.
But member states balked at the rushed timeline and asked for more time to dive deeper into the implications of elevating Catalan, Galician and Basque to the category of official EU language. As of today, the bloc has 24 official languages.
Spain has offered to pay for the additional administrative expenses out of its own pocket, even if the total bill remains unclear at this stage.
“We need to have more investigation about the proposal both when it comes to legal questions and financial questions. It’s too early to say,” said Jessika Roswall, Sweden’s minister for European affairs, who said the move might open the door for other “minority languages” to ask the same thing.
“It’s really important that we strengthen the cultural and linguistic diversity within the European languages, but we think it’s slightly early today to take a decision,” said her Finish counterpart, Anders Adlercreutz, who spoke a few words in Catalan.
Spain has a language system that is unique in Europe.
Under the Constitution, the three languages are considered co-official in the regions in which they are spoken and enjoy the same legal standing as the Spanish language.
Catalan is spoken by more than 9 million people across Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands. Galician is a distant second, with around 2.5 million speakers in Galicia, the northwest corner of Spain. The Basque language or Euskara, which does not originate from Latin, is spoken by 750,000 people in the Basque Country and Navarra, as well as in the bordering areas of southern France.
“Multilingualism is one of the objectives and values of the European Union,” said José Manuel Albares, Spain’s foreign affairs minister, who attended Tuesday’s meeting to personally make the pitch. “We’re not talking about minority languages. These are languages spoken by millions of people.”
Following a 45-minute debate that did not include a formal vote, Albares left the meeting and said that “not a single member state” had expressed a categorical opposition to the proposal. But, he added, the idea of officialising three languages all at once proved too “difficult” for some governments, which he did not name.
Albares then announced a new plan to focus first on Catalan on this path and later discuss the future of Galician and Basque. “We have taken an essential step on this path,” Albares told reporters. “Spain’s will is to advance as fast as possible.”