The Role of the European Commission Representation in Barcelona as connection of the Catalan language to the European Union institutions
Linguistic diversity in Europe is something we Europeans can and should be proud of. One of the aspects to maintain this diversity should be establishing legal regulations for the preservation of languages, such as promoting and supporting language learning in education and training all over the European Union (EU). We also must grant the possibility to speak them in all circumstances.
The Catalan language demonstrates a special case in this matter. In Spain, under the 1978 Constitution, Catalan has joint official status with Spanish, but only in the autonomous communities of Catalonia, the Balearic Islands and in Valencia.[i] On EU level, Catalan is recognized, but not as an EU-official language. Compared to other languages with the same number of speakers, its linguistic legislation in the EU is quite scarce.
Catalonia, as representative of all the Catalan speaking areas, for itself is already a very important region in the EU from a touristic, economic and cultural point of view. Its people and representatives have strongly argued for the inclusion of Catalan as an EU-official language in the past, but, so far, they were not successful.
The legal situation of the Catalan language is exceptional compared to other languages with the same demographic dimensions, economic weight and cultural aspects. With more than estimated 9 million speakers, it is exceeding the number of various current official languages in the EU, like Portuguese, Danish or Finnish,[ii] not to speak about most of the official languages of the Member States which joined the EU after 2014. In fact, there is no other language in the EU which has as many speakers as Catalan and is not an official EU language.
One could call this linguistic discrimination. In any case, the EU is missing out on reaching many people in their language. Consequently, there is a reasonable disappointment in the Catalan speaking communities. After all, it affects the representativeness of a 9 million people (and growing) society, including administrative and juridical aspects, promotion and protection of the language and its visibility in the EU and the world.[iii]
Seemingly, there was not enough political will on the part of the past Spanish governments to change that. In fact, the Spanish state has refused to request official status for Catalan as an EU- official language several times, despite pleas from parts of the Catalan speaking society and respective cultural organisations.[iv] Doing so, it is not complying with its own law from 2006, which says that the Spanish and the Catalan Government must do whatever is necessary to grant Catalan official status in the EU.[v]
The Catalan language, like every other language that is recognized in EU Member States, is protected by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which was adopted in 2000. Amongst others, the charter contains the prohibition of linguistic discrimination and appeals to language diversity and equality.[vi]
Many years before this Charter was adopted, the Catalan language already enjoyed a moment of closer attention in the European Parliament (EP) when the former member of the EP Viviane Reding brought forward the Resolution on languages in the Community and the situation of Catalan. It was approved on 11th December 1990 and aimed to strengthen the bidirectional communication in Catalan from the European institutions and its citizens.[vii]
At the same time, several legislative initiatives intent to protect and promote other official languages used in EU territory, which are not EU-official. Those initiatives should be negotiated with the countries concerned, which also bear the costs.
Initiatives include for example that texts can be submitted to the EP in all languages that fall under this regulation. It also urges “to take whatever steps are necessary” to translate basic texts and EU treaties into Catalan, to spread information about the European institutions in the media in Catalan, to include Catalan in European language learning programmes and to use Catalan as language of communication with the public in the autonomous communities in question.[viii]
The phrasing of those objectives leaves room for interpretation, but the European Commission (EC) did take action soon after the resolution was adopted.
In 1991, the Representation of the European Commission was established in Barcelona. It is an office that aims to decentralise the work of the European Commission (EC), acting locally and offering an approachable service as well as fostering relationships with local, regional and national media and institutions. More precisely, the Representation keeps the EC well-informed about opinions and trends of the public and the media and, on the other hand, informs citizens about EC activities and brings EU politics nearer to the public. It covers the autonomous communities Catalonia and the Balearic Islands, therefore two bilingual communities, with Spanish and Catalan as co-official languages.
Furthermore, and with the help of the EC Representation in Barcelona, Catalan was included in EC language learning programmes and a Catalan translation of the European Constitution has been published. In this aspect, some of the formalities of the resolution objectives are compiled with.
Since 2005, the Catalan language, like every other language with the status “recognized by the Constitution of a Member State on all or part of its territory”, is being given some more importance in the EU than before. The Council of the EU agreed on, amongst others, enabling every citizen with the right to address himself to several EU institutions and to receive an answer back in the same language.[ix] Those administrative arrangements, which are mainly translations, are in theory being handled and paid for by the Spanish state. In practise, most Catalan speaking citizens still reach out to the EC Representation in Barcelona directly or simply contact the institutions in an EU-official language. Thereby, long waiting times for answers and additional costs are being avoided, but on the other side the Council arrangements are somehow pointless in that sense.
Nonetheless the agreements are also reinforcing the possibility to use Catalan as language of communication in the two EU offices in Barcelona. Years after the EC opened its office in Barcelona, in 1998, the EP inaugurated an information office in the Catalan capital. For increased visibility and coherence of the EU’s presence, the two offices share the same building to work in and sometimes jointly organise activities and events for the public. While the EP Office has the competence of regional communication in Catalonia, the EC Representation additionally covers the region of the Balearic Islands and therefore both focus on Catalan as language of communication with its public as they consider it to be more direct and closer to the target group. This makes the EC Representation and European Parliament Information Office (EPIO) the closest connection from the EU institutions to the local citizens.
When the EC Representation was founded in 1991, it was meant to “fill the gap”, both geographically and linguistically. The office started to organise press conferences, at that time there was no website or social media yet. From the beginning on, Catalan was the internal working language and the language in which most external communication was made. It was and still is usually used for information campaigns and material, publications, press releases and at particular events.
In their way of working, the two offices depend on what has been decided on in EU treaties and agreements and on other punctual appearances of Catalan in EU affairs. One clear peak in the evolution of the Catalan language in the EU was in 2006 with the launch of the EC initiative “Debate Europe”. It was an online forum for discussion about current topics of European interest available in the, at that time, 23 official languages plus Catalan. With defined topics such as the climate change and topics proposed by the forum users like the recognition of Catalan in the EU, the initiative aimed at promoting public debate and gave a voice to the citizens. The Catalan version of the forum was being moderated by the EC Representation in Barcelona. Catalan, in fact, was the second most used language in the first edition, being accessible, but hidden behind the Spanish version. Thanks to this great response, two years later, in the second edition, Catalan had the same direct access as all the official EU languages and, again, counted with a high participation of its speakers.[x] Its addition to the official languages in the forum represented an important step in the normalisation of the use of Catalan in the EU institutions and demonstrated the willingness of the EC to connect with its citizens in their own language.
Another decisive moment was the launch of the website of the EC Representation being published in Catalan in October 2007, additionally to Spanish. The 2008 edition of the “Debate Europe” platform was then the second official website of a European institution in Catalan. Shortly thereafter, the EPIO Barcelona website was created, being available both in Spanish and Catalan. And, since the start of using social media, Catalan is normally being used in the communication there. However, it must be highlighted that the EC Representation tries to give as much bilingual information as possible, both in Spanish and Catalan. Whatever is not covered in Spanish by the Representation in Barcelona is probably being covered by the EC Representation office in Madrid. Therefore, the bilingual communication in Barcelona is clearly an added value complementing the communication in Madrid.
The Barcelona office also makes clear that everybody working there is at least bilingual and can therefore flexibly answer requests on the phone, via mail, social media or personally, in whatever language the request is received, be it Spanish or Catalan. They estimate that 75% of the requests are in Catalan.
The instructions from the EC headquarter in Brussels are that the EC Representation should try to cover everything that is of interest and proximity for the different target groups. Currently, there are 8 EU officials working in the EC office in Barcelona. The respective heads of departments decide what exactly is translated from English or Spanish into Catalan, but that again depends on financial and human resources and the time needed.
In general, their communication is targeted to several groups. One part of it aims at the general public, for example with special sections on the website for young people or companies. But they also have priority groups such as journalists from different media, public administration and institutions stakeholders as well as entrepreneurs or trade unionists.
The EC Representation also organises trainings for Catalan journalists in Brussels and consequently achieves a multiplier effect for high quality EU affairs information in the Catalan media.
With the increase of new technologies, such as social media and interactive websites, it gets easier and cheaper to provide multilingual information. For instance, from a financial point of view, it is not that relevant providing Spanish and, additionally, Catalan subtitles for an English information video from the EC. The only advantage is, thus, that it potentially reaches more people.
In an interview for this article, the EC Representation stated that regarding feedback from the citizens, some years ago, they got more—positive and negative—comments on their linguistic approach than nowadays. Nevertheless, the Representation has little margin in what they can do. They work according to EU regulations and apply respective agreements.
A general complaint by the public in the whole EU is that “it is all done in Brussels” and “Brussels is too far away”. That is why the EC Representations in their cities try to offer a bidirectional, multiplatform, decentralized communication. How does the EC work and what does it decide on? What benefits do the EU citizens have? How does the EU impact the local community? All those and many more questions must be better designed on an EU-wide big picture and then culturally and linguistically adapted to each territory.
Many people are not even aware of the existence of the EC Representation and the EPIO in Barcelona (and probably many of their other locations). Therefore, citizens don’t even know about this source of information in Catalan and the possibility of dialogue with someone that is near.
There is still a lot to do to bring the EU closer to its people, admits the EC Representation in Barcelona, but emphasizes at the same time that citizens should also inform themselves actively, go to vote in the European Elections and interact with both, the EU Representations and their national governments. After all, the Member States and “Brussels” are not two different things. Each Member State is “Brussels”, Spain is the European Union.
Despite all the difficulties, the EC Representation does what is in its power to promote the Catalan language and the interest of Catalan and Balearic Island citizens in the EU. Hopefully, over time, the Representation will get more visibility and therefore spread more awareness about EU affairs in its region. And maybe, one day Catalan will finally become an EU-official language.
Find EC-related news, publications and upcoming local events on the EC Representation website.
Katharina Jiménez Weese
Facultat de Filologia i Comunicació, Universitat de Barcelona
[i] Article 3 of the Spanish Constitution.
[iii] Què implica que el català no sigui llengua oficial de la Unió Europea? Les conseqüències de la no-oficialitat del català a la UE (Plataforma per la Llengua, 2014).
[vii] A3-169/90 – Resolution on languages in the Community and the situation of Catalan.
[viii] A3-169/90 – Resolution on languages in the Community and the situation of Catalan.
[ix] 667th Council Meeting of the Council of the European Union in Luxembourg on 13 June 2005.
[x] El català és la segona llengua més utilitzada en el nou fòrum de debat de la UE (El Punt Avui, 31 de gener de 2008).