This story has been corrected.
The UK’s vote to leave the EU is threatening what is arguably the greatest achievement of the British Empire: the total ubiquity of the English language. Just days after Britain’s vote, the EU began taking measures to reduce the influence of English in the organization.
The EU has 24 official languages, English among them. The European Commission, the EU’s executive body, uses just three languages for its official business: French, German, and English.
Each EU member nation is allowed to nominate one official language. English is on the list thanks to a nomination from the UK. The other predominantly English-speaking countries in the EU left English for Britain; Ireland nominated Irish Gaelic, and Malta selected Maltese. Without the UK, English would lose its largest supporter, though it would be likely to remain an official language, as any change to the EU’s language policy requires a unanimous vote from its Council of Ministers. Being “official” allows speakers to address the EU in a given language, and gives EU citizens the right to access official documents translated into it.
Then there is the matter of the European Commission’s “working languages.” The commission already appears to be shunning English in favor of French and German. Jean-Claude Juncker, the commission’s president, is expected to drop English from a normally trilingual speech to lawmakers, reported the Wall Street Journal (paywall), citing anonymous EU officials. The commission’s chief spokesperson gave a press briefing in French rather than the usual mix of French and English.
Dropping English from the EU is of course an absurd proposition, despite a pronouncement from one French mayor that “English no longer has any legitimacy in Brussels.” English is by far the most widely spoken common language in both EU countries and among EU officials, and is unquestionably the lingua franca of multinational politics.
Whatever language high-level EU officers decide to use for press conferences, English will be the working language of the rest of the organization. A 2012 survey from Eurobarometer found that 38% of Europeans spoke English “well enough to be able to hold a conversation,” compared to just 12% and 11% for French and German, respectively.
Here’s a more anecdotal piece of evidence: A random job posting seeking a data analyst at the European Fisheries Control Agency tells applicants that they “may apply in any of the official languages of the European Union” but that it would be “helpful” to do so in English because “the Agency follows a practice of using English as working language.”
Not supporting English could make the EU’s version of the language pretty strange. More seriously, though, it could alienate both English-speaking countries like Ireland, and the many non-French, non-German-speaking member states, where English is by far the most common second language.
Correction: An earlier version of this story suggested that the UK leaving the EU could remove English’s official language status. In fact, changes to EU language policy require a unanimous vote from its Council of Ministers.