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The fate of English in the EU after Brexit: Expected and unexpected twists

After Brexit, English can no longer retain its status as one of the EU's official or working languages. This column uses data on languages spoken in the EU to show that post-Brexit, German and French would become dominant. Efforts to preserve English as an official language of EU institutions, which would require a unanimous vote among members, are unlikely to succeed. This may be problematic for certain European countries in which English is a more widely spoken second language than German or French.

Preserving English as an official language of the EU will be problematic if Brexit takes place. English became an official language in the EU (then the EEC) when the UK joined the Union. Nowadays it is the most widely spoken language in the EU and also is the working language in its institutions (with the exception of the Court of Justice, which uses French). If the UK leaves the EU, English can no longer retain its status as one of the Union's official or working languages. Every member is entitled to choose one official native language in the EU. Malta and Ireland are the only two countries in which English is official, but Malta chose Maltese and Ireland chose Irish as their official languages. 

This was mentioned in 2016 at a news conference by Danuta Hübner, the chair of the European Parliament’s constitutional affairs committee, but immediately rejected as “incorrect” by the EU Commission representation in Ireland (O Caollai 2016).

In principle, there are two routes to sustain English as an official language of the EU:

  • Ireland or Malta switch their official native language in the EU to English.This may create a national problem. Although most Irish and Maltese citizens speak English, how would they react to this 'unpatriotic' change? 
  • English is an official language in Ireland and Malta, so there may be no problem in keeping English in the EU. This argument is supported by the legal departments of the EU Commission, the EU Parliament and the EU Council. They argue that no meeting, deliberation or vote by the EU Council is needed. 

The second argument contravenes the spirit and even the wording itself of Article 342 of the Lisbon Treaty (which consolidates Article 217 of the 1957 Treaty of Rome, used in the EEC Council Regulation No 1/1958 determining the languages to be used by the EEC). 

Article 342 states that:

The rules governing the languages of the institutions of the Union shall, without prejudice to the provisions contained in the Statute of the Court of Justice of the European Union,1 be determined by the Council, acting unanimously by means of regulations.

This contains two important provisions: the Council has to draft a regulation, and the regulation must be adopted by all 27 EU countries after Brexit. Is there any chance that the representatives of the countries in the Council would vote unanimously to keep English not only as an official, but also as a working language? The probability is slim, even very slim. Because without 60 million native speakers of English, other languages become more ‘valuable’ or important. 

To quantify this assertion, in a recent paper we evaluate the weight of each EU language (Ginsburgh et al. 2017) using three methods: 

  • Method 1: For each language, all its speakers are counted, regardless of proficiency. All speakers, perfect or not, count as 1. Non-speakers count as 0.
  • Method 2: Only perfect speakers (essentially native speakers) are counted as 1, all others are represented by 0. 
  • Method 3: All speakers are counted, but also their proficiency. A native speaker counts for 1, a speaker who claims to have a very good or good knowledge of the language counts for ½, all others count for 0.

Knowledge of languages is calculated using each method with data from a Special Barometer survey carried out in late 2005 (European Union 2006), which surveyed 1,000 citizens in each EU country (including Bulgaria and Romania, which acceded on 1 January 2007).[2] The totals are weighted to take account of the various countries’ populations to compare the situation of speakers of all EU languages before and after Brexit. Table 1 restricts the presentation to the six most spoken languages, using each of the three assumptions. The numbers show the aggregated percentage of EU citizens who know the language that appears in the first column. 

Table 1 Percentage of speakers in the EU before and after Brexit for the six most-spoken languages in EU

Source: Ginsburgh et al. (2017).

The results clearly show that English is the first language in the EU before Brexit if we count all English speakers, regardless of proficiency (method 1), or count native speakers as 1, and non-native, but good speakers as ½ (method 3). Using these calculations, English does better than either German or French, and much better than Italian, Spanish, and Polish. 

This is not so if we consider only native speakers (method 2). The UK has a smaller population (60 million) than Germany and Austria combined (90 million) or France plus 40% of Belgium (70 million). 

If Brexit goes ahead, English would lose ground in all cases. German and – if we used the third method of calculation – French would be dominant. 

It would be surprising if Germany (and Austria) or France (and French-speaking Belgians) were to support a status quo sustaining the current prevalence of English. The EU Council, which has to vote unanimously, would have to find extremely good arguments to convince countries to vote for the introduction of English in place of Irish by Ireland (or Maltese by Malta) – or to vote for English, if English ceased to be an official language in the EU.

This may be an unfortunate situation for many countries. English is more widely spoken and certainly better understood in the rest of Europe than German or French. Without Brexit, it would probably have become the lingua franca of the EU in the future.

But, there is a but...


Ginsburgh, V, J Moreno-Ternero and S Weber (2017), "Ranking languages in the European Union: Before and after Brexit", European Economic Review93: 139-151.

O Caollai, E (2016), "European Commission rejects claim English will not be EU language", The Irish Times, 28 June.

European Union (2006), Special Eurobarometer 243: Europeans and their languages.


[1] As mentioned earlier, the language used by the Court is French.

[2] With the following exceptions: 1,500 in Germany, 1,300 in the UK, and 500 in Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta. The total number of usable interviews is 26,700.

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