Does the EU have a language policy? Mercator Legislation conference, Tarragona
by Davyth Hicks
Mercator Legislation held a successful, ground-breaking conference at the weekend in Tarragona, Catalonia, bringing experts in language legislation from across Europe to discuss ‘a new framework for all languages’. However, there was strong criticism of the EU institutions from some of the speakers over the lack of language policies designed to help minoritised languages.
Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, a well known academic and language activist, launched the conference with a stinging indictment of States and the lack of rights for mother tongue medium education, in what she described as the 'hot potato' of human rights. She strongly criticised the EU Draft Constitution where "market values are being used to judge language usage" and said that: "The Convention ... does even less than the Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities, which so far was thought to be a low point, about which Patrick Thornberry [a UK law expert] uttered the following memorable words: "there is just enough substance in the formulation to prevent it becoming completely worthless"."
Legal academic, Niamh nic Shuibhne, in an incisive talk asked the question: "Is there a language policy in the draft constitution?" Her answer was a blunt and resounding "No". She found five main problems: the lack of any guiding principle to underpin policy; concerning linguistic diversity, which languages are included and does this include language rights; nothing legally binding for action against language discrimination; no legal basis as the EU can only act if a treaty gives it the power to; and that only bigger languages will benefit. She described the Draft as an "utterly missed opportunity" and that while it has "principled statements it does not create any substantive duties or obligations."
Begona Antxustegi and Amaia Agirre from the Basque Government Department for Language Policy also criticised the European Commission's Action Plan for Linguistic Diversity questioning its usefulness when minoritised language agencies will have to compete with those of the dominant languages. They also discussed the lack of accurate information about minoritised languages in Europe and the need for a legal framework which would make language rights enforceable.
On a different note European Bureau of Lesser Used Language's (EBLUL) President, Bojan Brezigar, outlined the slow but steady progress being made with language rights at the European level. While describing the de facto situation for European linguistic diversity as 'still awful' he concentrated on the Draft Constitution and outlined EBLUL's recommendations on the wording of the Draft.
Mr Brezigar went on to discuss three recommendations for the Draft made by EBLUL. These are to support qualified majority voting on Council of Minister's votes relating to culture rather than unanimity. This would mark a significant breakthrough as rogue states that continuously block minoritised language development could be overruled. EBLUL also propose to keep the Italian Presidency's amendment including minority rights at Article 1(2), and to ensure the inclusion of a language clause in Articles II (21), III (3) and III (8).
The conference also hosted the Linguapax Awards given for services to languages and linguistic diversity. The winners were Tove Skutnabb-Kangas and Catalan academic and writer, Aina Moll.