Philippe Van Parijs is a professor at the Universities of Louvain and Leuven. His books
include "Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World" and "Belgium.Une utopie pour notre temps".
The European Union will not be able to do what it needs to do without a stronger European people. Not in the sense of an ethnos – a population unified by a single culture closely linked to a native language – but in the sense of a demos: a population united by a flow of information and arguments, by the negotiation and deliberation that make up a common agora. This kind of flow requires a cheap, effective instrument of communication. It requires a lingua franca.
For contingent historical reasons, this language is and will remain English. Even after Brexit? Even more so after Brexit, when English will have gained a more neutral status, as it will no longer be the official language of one of the EU’s central member states. English is a continental language that was imposed on the population of Great Britain in two waves: the Germanic component in the 5th century by the Angles and the Saxons, and the French component in the 11th century by the Normans. It’s time to stop associating this language with the Union Jack – as many websites are still in the habit of doing. Let us reclaim it and speak it with our wide variety of accents, without trying to mimic those of Mr Trump or Mrs May. The Brexit campaign was partly driven by the slogan "Give us back our country!" Our cry must now be "Give us back our language!"
Will this lingua franca inevitably override our many native languages? Not at all. However, our native languages need to be cherished and practiced not only in private contexts, but in the public spheres of our respective countries. And those who settle permanently in our midst must understand that they are expected to find the courage and humility to learn our official local languages. These must remain the main medium of instruction in our schools and, in most cases, the medium of public communication.
Even when constrained in this way, the spread of a lingua franca raises various concerns. To start with, is the spread of competence in the lingua franca not likely to undermine our motivation to learn languages other than English and our own native tongues? True, early bilingualism may better equip us for learning other languages later in life. But languages are learned and maintained through practice, and the more people know English in other countries than our own, the less opportunity and incentive there will be to learn other languages.