The British are quitting the European Union, but they’ll leave behind an enduring legacy: the English language.
The European Commission confirmed as much in their proposed budget for 2021-27, which notes that despite Britain’s decision to leave the EU, there’s currently no plan to reduce the use of English in the bloc. “The withdrawal of the United Kingdom will result in a limited reorientation of some functions within the administration but the scope of activities will not change,” the commission notes (pdf). “Translation and interpretation services in the English language will also remain unaffected.”
English is one of the EU’s 24 official languages. Though the EU provides important information on policies in all its official languages, the Commission only has three working languages: English, French, and German. Once Britain leaves the EU in 2019, there will only be two member states—Ireland and Malta—where English is the official language. (That’s just 1% of the total EU population.)
Although English is widely used within EU institutions, this wasn’t always the case. The French language used to be essential to getting any diplomacy done, but that changed once Sweden, Finland, and Austria, where English is widely spoken as a foreign language, joined the EU in 1995. The addition of several central and eastern European countries in 2004 also bolstered the number of people who speak English as a foreign language. By 2014, a Guardian analysis showed that though native-English speakers were vastly outnumbered in the European parliament, English was used during debates. In 2015, the EU commission had more than 1.6 million pages translated into English, compared with 72,662 pages in French.
The dominance of English has ruffled many French feathers. Just this week, French diplomats walked out of the European Council after it decided a new working group focused on the EU’s long-term budget would only use English in its meetings.
The influence of English could wane after Brexit, but data on the foreign languages young Europeans learn suggest that’s unlikely. According to Eurostat, on average, just over 85% of students in higher secondary education (the equivalent of high school) in the EU in 2015 studied English as a foreign language. In comparison, under 20% of students were studying either French or German. In Sweden, Liechtenstein, and Romania, nearly every student learns English as a foreign language.
While English will likely remain the EU’s lingua franca for the foreseeable future, the language could undergo some unusual changes once it’s no longer under the watchful eye of the British. Language experts note a slightly different variation of English—known as “Euro-English”—is already spoken within the EU. Without the British, Euro-English could finally be free to flourish.