The French language in European institutions

Official languages and working languages

EEC Council regulation 1/1958 of 15 April 1958 determines the official and the working languages to be used by European institutions:

The European Union currently has 23 official languages: Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish and Swedish.

These 23 official languages are also considered working languages and may legitimately be used in European institutions.

As a democratic entity, the European Union has a duty to communicate in the language of the citizens of its 27 member States. These citizens, and also national governments, public administrations, businesses and other organisations, must be able to understand the legislative enactments applicable to them and to address European institutions in their native tongue.

The status of official and working language confers two major rights:

Documents drafted in one of these languages may be sent to European institutions and will receive a reply in the same language.

European Union regulations and other documents of general application and the Official Journal of the European Union must be published in all the official languages.

As the regulation provides, however, the institutions may stipulate in their rules of procedure which of the languages are to be used in specific cases. English, German and French occupy a special place in this respect. They are, for example, the working languages of the Commission and of the Permanent Representatives Committee, COREPER.

The language regime used by the working groups preparing for Council Ministerial Meetings is determined by the nature of the discussions: full interpreting for Ministerial meetings and certain preparatory meetings, three languages for COREPER meetings, English and French at meetings relating to CFSP matters. In addition, COREPER decided in December 2002 on a limited list of documents requiring systematic translation into all the working languages.

The European Parliament differs from the other EU institutions through its obligation to ensure the highest possible degree of multilingualism in order to guarantee the transparency and accessibility of Parliament’s work for all European citizens. Thus a much larger proportion of Parliament documents is published in all the official languages of the European Union and every MEP has the right to speak in the official language of his/her choice.

Under the code of conduct on controlled full multilingualism, however, a European Parliament document drafted in one of the languages will not necessarily be translated directly into all the other languages, but first into one of the most widely used relay languages (English, French or German) and from the relay language into the others.

The French language in European institutions

French is one of the 23 official languages of the European Union.

It is also one of the working languages of the Commission and of COREPER, along with German and English, and one of the languages used for the CFSP or at the Commission’s midday press briefing (along with English).

The trend in recent years has been towards a reduction in the number of documents drafted directly in French, particularly within the European Commission. While the European Union’s multilingual regime is unchallenged in law, in practice the enlargement of 1 May 2004 brought about a major change of context that has led to increased use of certain preferred working languages.

Further reading:

(Source: website of the Permanent Representation of France to the European Union)

Updated: April 2013