The cornerstone of the EU is ensuring complete economic integration of its members through the freedom of movement of goods, services and people. But there is one big issue that is seemingly ignored by European politicians: common language. Companies are forced to translate their products and services for each region and deal with a language barrier between their different offices. However the EU itself seems to be doing absolutely nothing to support a common language and instead tries to operate in 26 languages at the same time.

Have European politicians acknowledged that language is a major issue for intra-EU trade? And if so, are there any plans to mitigate this?

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    This question understates the historical reality of European multilingualism. Had you grown up 150 years ago, you'd have learned Czech proper as a matter of course, some German because it was the administrative language, and some Latin and/or French or more if you were well educated. An ethnic Hungarian born in Bratislava would have grown up bilingual, with some German, Latin, and/or French thrown in for similar reasons. Throughout its history Europeans have been multilingual and made do. The true oddity has been the past 150 years or so during which people have only learned a single language. Sep 16 '17 at 7:31
  • (cont.) And that doesn't even begin to capture the huge amounts of dialects (and local languages when there were ethnic minorities) that were spoken (or still are) before countries heavily promoted their official languages. In Bohemia under Austria-Hungary for instance local languages and dialects included Czech, but also German in Sudetenland, Moravian east of Prague, Moravian-Slovakian yet further East, etc. Sep 16 '17 at 7:38
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    Not quite clear what you expect here. I don't think anybody needs to acknowledge that different people speak different languages its pretty obvious. And do anything about it? Well we sent kids to school and teach them a foreign language. Support a common language? Which common language do you mean?
    – James K
    Sep 16 '17 at 21:31

If you frame the issue a bit more broadly, it should become clear that the EU has acknowledged and tried to address it for decades. Efforts to promote multilingualism, language teaching, monitor language competence, student exchanges between countries, etc. are all intended to mitigate the effects of limited language competence on trade and mobility.

What is more controversial is the idea of a “common language”. If we mean a common first language, i.e. every country in Europe switching to English, French or, why not, a constructed language, that would be wildly unrealistic and incredibly oppressive.

Now, if we mean a common second language, basically everybody achieving some proficiency in English, that's not without its problems but it's already what the EU is doing in practice. When you're talking about everybody having a “second language” and even with some lip service to diversity and some efforts to promote other languages, in the current cultural context that can only mean making sure everybody knows some English. That's the policy when it comes to the population in general.

Another complex issue is the working language of the EU itself. There are political reasons why it cannot explicitly proclaim English to be the sole working language but it's not so far from it in practice. Apart from some small corners of the EU bureaucracy (e.g. the court and the legal service of the Commission, which traditionally work in French), English is already used a lot.

Furthermore, to work as an EU civil servant, you need to speak at least two languages, one of them French, German, or English, and to be ready to learn a third one. Here again, English is never explicitly required and you might be able to find a few French speakers who know German and learn Spanish or Italian to satisfy all the requirements while carefully avoiding English but I would be surprised if there are many. So all civil servants already have a common language (and any given pair of civil servants will very often have two or three languages in common).

Finally, every EU citizen should be able to address the EU in one of its 24 official languages and the most important regulatory texts and some information material is also available in all these languages. The costs to make that happen are not insignificant but it's difficult to see how it could be otherwise. Even with a plan to create a common language in a few decades, it is a fact that a large part of the EU citizenry does not speak English or perhaps any other language than their mother tongue.

You cannot simply exclude them from anything EU-related just because they do not speak English. That's especially true if you consider the fact that the EU is already criticized as undemocratic, opaque and distant as it is and that making it impossible for people to reach it in their native tongue would only make that worse.

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    @JonathanReez You've got to balance trade, cost and convenience on the one hand and individual rights, diversity, and health and safety on the other. In practice, getting everybody to understand English is already a massive undertaking and the only reasonable interpretation of what a “common language” might look like in my view.
    – Relaxed
    Sep 16 '17 at 0:05
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    @JonathanReez That's pretty much what I alluded to in my answer and comments. That's also pure craziness. It's a complete political non-starter, would force countries to make their own language(s), second-class language(s), be a massive impingement on their sovereignty in a very sensitive domain and prioritize businesses over everything else (and in particular the citizens who use their products or have a dispute with them). It would also represent massive costs, certainly much bigger than translation at the EU level or a few poorly translated extra labels or manuals.
    – Relaxed
    Sep 16 '17 at 0:13
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    Does anyone else see the EU making English its de facto common language when the British are leaving? Though in a sense it would be fair, since no EU member would have its language given preference.
    – jamesqf
    Sep 16 '17 at 4:12
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    @jamesqf, there are still EU members using English, but the big one is leaving. The alternative would be French or German -- France doesn't quite have the weight to push their language in my estimation, and German has the obvious historical baggage. Still, users of those languages have gotten more assertive in EU business according to some news reports.
    – o.m.
    Sep 16 '17 at 6:11
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    @jamesqf, I had Malta and Ireland in mind. Both have English as official language.
    – o.m.
    Sep 16 '17 at 17:05

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