The EU needs to put a stop to discrimination of linguistic minorities

BY MATTHEW COUCKE. The motto of the 28-state bloc is ‘United in Diversity’. With this in mind, the Union should engage more in the protection of linguistic diversity. Huge communities of EU citizens who are living in another Member State or simply speak another language than the most widespread one, suffer from discrimination and isolation. 

This article was written by Matthew Couke and based is on his master thesis. Matthew is a graduate in Linguistics and Literature and European Studies.

matthew-coucke-klSpeakers of a minority language in a European country, even if this language is native to the region, are often deprived of proper public services and education in their own town. The most striking examples are found in the judiciary, where the duration of court cases can be strikingly longer for minority language speakers due to improper policies.

The EU is the biggest economic zone on the planet and its internal boundaries have faded away throughout the past decades. Yet linguistic diversity is one of the most important factors dividing Europe, and policy-makers often struggle with it. Few Member States have a language policy that embraces linguistic diversity, and those who try to implement pro-multilingual legislation are faced with serious problems.

The Council of Europe1 has already tried to address the issue with its European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages – now it is time for the EU to act!


A labyrinth of policies…

Il n’y a pas de place pour les langues régionales dans une France destinée à marquer l’Europe de son sceau.
– President Pompidou, 14 April 1972.

Each Member State has a language policy of its own and the differences between these are enormous. Belgians often think of their language situation as problematic, especially in Brussels, but Belgium’s language policy is one of the most advanced ones in the EU. Despite small problems on the language border, Belgium is much more progressive and tolerant compared to surrounding countries. From this September onwards, for instance, Flemish schools are allowed to teach some subjects in another language than Dutch (see De Standaard on 01/09/2014). As things are today in France, a similar policy would be unthinkable.

At least one state is doing better than ours: Finland treats Finnish and Swedish almost equally and stunningly implements the support for the much lesser-spoken Swedish. Moreover, as a member of the Nordic Council2, the Scandinavian state is party to the Nordic Language Convention between Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden on the right of Nordic nationals to use their mother tongue in other Nordic countries (including in public services and schools).

This approach to linguistic diversity is in sharp contrast with the French way: French is the one and only official language and the other French languages are reduced to heritage. Would you like your language to become heritage?

In Slovenia, the linguistic rights of Hungarian and Italian speakers are constitutionally protected, but the implementation is very flawed, leading to the absence of public services in alleged bilingual regions. Nonetheless, Slovenia is still one of the better pupils in the European class!

A simple solution for a complex issue

If the EU wants to be ‘a common home for European cultures’, as it claims to be, then it should be at the side of these minorities and care for their protection. The EU should not tolerate that regional languages in France are reduced to ‘heritage’ in the constitution and thus banned from public life.

The EU is the best actor to deal with this continent-wide problem. It should harmonise language policies so as to protect linguistic minorities. Up to now, language policy is a competence of the Member States. Making language policy a shared competence between the EU and the Member States would ensure that the policy is beneficial to everyone and it could eradicate linguistic nationalism in states such as France.

The legislation is already provided by the Council of Europe’s charter – the integration of this charter into EU law would do the job. The EU Fundamental Rights Agency could monitor policy implementation together with other fundamental rights violations and report infringements to the European Court of Justice.

A little bit of political will in Brussels could lead to a better protection of Europe’s languages and improve the quality of day-to-day life of millions of citizens!


[1] Keep in mind that the Council of Europe is not an EU-institution and is not to be confused with the European Council or the Council of the European Union. The Council of Europe is a Strasbourg-based human rights organization of which brings together every European state except for Belarus. For more information on this institution, visit

[2] The Nordic Council is a regional integration organization similar to the Benelux.


  1. Please keep in mind the difference between public policy and private initiatives, as this thesis is on public policy only. For the complete analysis of the French case, consult the official (and neutral) report of the Council of Europe.

  2. I would like to comment on this section:

    “From this September onwards, for instance, Flemish schools are allowed to teach some subjects in another language than Dutch (see De Standaard on 01/09/2014). As things are today in France, a similar policy would be unthinkable.”

    Long before this system was introduced in Belgium, this already existed in France (although it was only implemented in a very limited number of schools, and intended for foreign language students instead of minority language students). In this particular school (which is a public school, not a private school), geography/history and mother language/literature courses are given in the mother language (with different sections depending on the language), while all other courses are given in French.

    Furthermore, there are some children (although it is not a large number) who follow mixed education in French/breton:

    “À la rentrée scolaire 2013, malgré une hausse constante, seulement 15 338 élèves reçoivent un enseignement en breton (Div Yezh : 6662 élèves, Dihun : 4971 élèves, Diwan : 3705 élèves, dont 27 à Paris).”

    Therefore, I would argue that dual language education is definitely not unthinkable in France, even if it is not very common.

  3. En het Russisch die gesproken wordt in Letland? Er zijn zelfs sommige inwoners in Letland die staatsloos zijn zoals de Russische soldaten die na de onafhankelijkheid in Letland gebleven zijn en getrouwd zijn met een Letse vrouw. In Letland wordt er onderscheid gemaakt tussen citizenship en nationality. Toegepast in Belgie zou dat betekenen dat een inwoner en geboren in Belgie de citizenship Belgisch is maar dat de nationality Vlaming of Waal of Marokkaan enz is.Om de Belgische citizenship te bekomen moet men een examen afleggen over de geschiedenis, leefwijze enz. Het gelijkt min of meer op het inburgeringstest.
    In Latgale spreekt +- 85% Russischsprekend maar niet allen hebben de Letse citizenship. De gemeentediensten houden daarmee rekening. Het taalonderwijs in de lagere en middelbare scholen schroeven langzaam maar zeker het onderwijs in het Russisch terug en wordt er meer en meer vakken in het Lets onderwezen..

    • Letland is inderdaad een zeer interessant geval, dat echter niet in dit onderzoek aan bod kwam. Over het algemeen hebben Russischsprekende bevolkingsgroepen buiten Rusland weinig of geen toegang tot publieke diensten of onderwijs. Letland werd door de Raad van Europa aangespoord om Russisch als minderheidstaal te erkennen, maar voorlopig is er nog niets veranderd.

      In Finland, waar sprekers van het Zweeds nochtans hoge bescherming genieten, is Russisch ook een probleem. Men heeft het daar cosmetisch opgelost door de taal als migrantentaal te bestempelen ipv als minderheidstaal te erkennen. Wellicht speelt de geschiedenis een belangrijke rol in de houding tegenover het Russisch.

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