With today’s formal triggering of Article 50 by UK Prime Minister Theresa May, attention turns towards the next two years of negotiations over the conditions of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union. However, as the EU is a multinational and multilingual organisation, it poses the question of which language(s) will be used for those delicate negotiations.
The Language of Negotiation
In October 2016, a report by Reuters claimed that the European Union’s lead Brexit negotiator would like British and EU officials to use French rather than English during the negotiations. The negotiator in question, Michel Barnier, is a Frenchman, and the claim that he would prefer his mother tongue was attributed to an unnamed EU official “familiar with Brussels’ Brexit task force.”
This, in turn, led to Theresa May telling journalists that “we will conduct the negotiations in the way that is going to make sure we get the right deal for the United Kingdom.”
Barnier himself, was quick to dismiss the report however, stating on twitter that he had made no such comments. Barnier is also fluent in English, and pointed out that the “linguistic regime” of the negotiations was yet to be decided.
Never expressed myself on negotiation language. Work as often in EN as FR. Linguistic regime to be set at start-to be agreed btw negotiators
— Michel Barnier (@MichelBarnier) October 21, 2016
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also seemed surprised when asked about the proposition of Brexit negotiations being carried out solely in French, responding: “If I am correctly informed, we are all entitled to speak in our native tongue.”
English – the European Lingua Franca
As discussed in a previous TalkEU article, English is the main language used within the European Commission and European Parliament thanks to the accession of many Northern and Eastern European states since the mid-1990s.
The rumoured use of the French language to carry out the negotiations would mark a considerable shift away from normal practice within multinational, Brussels teams where English is the EU’s main working language. During usual talks and discussions within the EU, even officials from the founding countries, Germany and France, communicate with each other primarily in English.
Some news outlets portrayed the original report by Reuters as Barnier demanding that French be used in the negotiations, and indicative of a confrontational approach the EU would take with the United Kingdom in the Brexit negotiations. The subsequent comments by Barnier and Merkel, however, cast significant doubt on that view.
It is only once Article 50 has been triggered by the UK, that the language to be used for the Brexit negotiations will be discussed and agreed upon by the negotiators, whether this will be English or French remains to be seen. Moreover, all parties may ultimately wish to revert to their native languages and use interpreters instead.