It must be made clear that the little recognition of the Catalan language by the European Union’s institutions does not contribute to its regularised use, nor does it correspond to the treatment that a co-official language of a Member State should have with regard to the protection of linguistic diversity that the European Union preaches.
The European Union is not just any international body. It is a body to which the Member States have conveyed powers in matters that directly affect the lives of the citizens. Among other things, it creates general legal rules that apply directly throughout the territory of the Union, it issues aid that any person, entity or company in the Union may apply for, and it has mechanisms for the protection of rights that any person affected by a breach may call upon. In other words, we should have a relationship with the European Union that is very similar to that which we have with the administrations of the Spanish State, the Catalan Generalitat or our city councils. As such, we should ask ourselves if we can communicate with the EU in our own language as we do with any of these administrations. The answer is clear: no.
Although Catalan is a co-official language in one of the Member States and is spoken by more people than many of the official languages of the European Union, it is not considered an official language. Its legal status is defined by a set of agreements of an administrative nature signed by the Spanish government with various EU institutions and bodies—the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, the Court of Justice of the European Union, the Committee of the Regions, the Economic and Social Committee and the European Ombudsman—and an agreement by the Bureau of the European Parliament. In general, these agreements allow a limited use of Catalan in and with certain EU institutions and bodies. The legal regime established in each case has its own particularities and this makes regular use difficult since it is often unclear as to when and how we can address the European Union in Catalan. As a result of such doubts, other official languages are used.
Furthermore, the agreements do not provide for the Catalan version of the Official Journal of the European Union. It may seem like a minor issue, but it is not since that is where we find official announcements and communications, as well as EU legal rules and regulations that establish our rights and duties and rule our daily lives. If the law that applies to us is not in a certain language, that language loses a degree of utility and therefore becomes less relevant to us.
Thus, we cannot say that the European Union is insensitive to Catalan, but the truth is that the solutions adopted in relation to the use of Catalan in the EU by no means strengthen and protect the language. The only way to achieve full protection is through recognition as an official language of the European Union, as with Gaelic or Maltese, co-official languages in two Member States but with far fewer speakers.
On several occasions, the official status of Catalan in the European Union has been requested and denied by contending legal impediments, a truly sorry excuse. Laws are meant to solve people’s problems and can never be used as an excuse for not overcoming the challenges on the path to a better society. It is quite clear that for Catalan to become an official language of the European Union, it must be requested by a Member State, and that the rules that currently regulate this at the European level need to be changed. Furthermore, the EU will have to be endowed with the necessary human resources and materials needed to make it possible, as has recently occurred with Gaelic. All that is ultimately required is the clear political goodwill from the Spanish government in order to advance recognition. Without Spain’s stake in the issue, Catalan will never become official in the European Union. As simple, or as burdensome, as that.
Alfonso González Bondia
Full Professor of European Union Law at Rovira i Virgili University–URV