Brexit ≠ Engxit: The Fate of English in post-Brexit EU

Second Article in our International English Language Day Series

, by Adi Horesh

Brexit ≠ Engxit: The Fate of English in post-Brexit EU
TeroVesalainen, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

As JEF’s Europe’s only English language magazine, The New Federalist (TNF) honors the English Language this week on the occasion of International English Language Day which falls on April 23rd of each year.

"Once upon a time, there existed a language born from an island not too distant from the shores of the European continent. This island, known as Britain, was home to a majority who spoke the language of English. Today, English still echoes across the world, its influence stretching far and wide. One day, a decision that sent ripples through the geopolitical landscape, reshaping relationships, and sparking debates on the future of language, identity, and cooperation within Europe took place. It’s home country and its people decided to leave the cooperative entity and go on a solo journey throughout the world. However, within the corridors of the great collaborative entity known as the European Union, its once-official status, remained. Yes, English remained the one tongue without its people and land, to rule them all”.

The above tale recalls Brexit, or the decision by the British public to leave the European Union in 2016 in a national referendum. As such, the decision brought many implications with it, from economic ripples and political swaps. However, as we celebrate International English Language Day, it’s worth revisiting the impacts of the above decision on the English language, being an official language of the European Union. As such, the following article will explore first on the basics of multilingualism of the European Union, the effects of Brexit and whether the status of English had changed due to its motherland leaving the bloc.

One Tongue to Rule them All

Multilingualism stands as a cornerstone of the European Union, with 24 official languages among its 28 Member States prior to Brexit: Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish and Swedish. Despite Brexit reducing the number of Member States to 27, the count of official languages has yet to change. English, the language of the departing Brits, did not exit the European Union with its home country. Some believe, or attribute it to the fact, that two other Member States, Ireland and Malta, consider English as one of their official languages, along with Irish and Maltese, respectively. However, that is not to be the case, as according to the European Council’s Regulation 1/1958 each country gets to designate only one language to represent it in the different institutions; Irish chose Irish and Malta chose Maltese, leaving English the UK’s choice of tongue. Yet, despite this legal framework, English persists as an official language of the EU post-Brexit and continues as its primary working language. This begs the question: what factors enable English to maintain its status within the EU despite the legal provisions?

At the inception of the European Community, French dominated its official proceedings for two decades. However, as early 1958, with only six Member States, the European Council mandated that all official languages of Member States be used within the institutions to mitigate post-World War II (1939-1945) political tensions. The 2004 expansion however proved to be a pivotal shift towards English, as it was used as the primary, if not the only, working language within the expansion’s negotiations. Consequently, in 2007, multilingualism was formalised as an official policy area within the EU, culminating in the appointment of a Commissioner for Multilingualism. Dancing to its own motto’s rhythm, “United in Diversity”, the EU endeavoured to ensure linguistic access for every citizen, bolstering its commitment to multilingualism. Nevertheless, critics argue that true equality is yet to be achieved and remains a myth of a sort, with minority languages such as Basque, Catalan, Corsican and many more are excluded from representation within the institutions. One might ask then, “is there even equality between the 24 recognised languages of the European Union? Are Italian, Estonian, and Croatian equal to English, French or German?" The answer to that question is a quick and simple,“no”. While on paper all 24 languages are considered equal, in practice it is rather an impossible task to create an equal space in which all 24 languages are being used equally. Therefore, according to Elżbieta Kużelewska’s 2021 article “Quo Vadis English? The Post‑Brexit Position of English as a Working Language of the EU”, English acts as the lingua franca of the European Union, as for the longest time it reflected, and still does, the socio-linguistic background of most EU’s citizens, as most of them learn only English as a second language in school.

Tilting Crown

So, by this point, it might seem to any reader that the status of the English language within the European Union is quite set, or rather it managed to avoid joining its own homeland’s fate of self-induced exile. For many, maintaining English as the official language is a pragmatic solution to the dilemma, as it spares the European Union from endless bureaucratic ordeal of language reform and preserving operational efficiency. Yet, different forces are working to weaken its stature as an official language and erode its use, by utilising the European Union’s legal framework. Legally-speaking, English is bound to lose its official status as the EU’s official language due to the UK leaving. According to Manfred Herbert’s 2023 article “On the Role of English in the post-Brexit European Union”, a strong movement to strengthen French on the expanse of English gained momentum already in 2017. By 2022, the French Presidency had already established a working group tasked with the goal of strengthening the role of French within the European Union’s multilingualism mechanism. Despite findings that point to the pervasive dominance of English, the group proposed 26 recommendations to revitalise multilingualism. Nonetheless, legally, and empirically, English remains the predominant working language of the EU, defying attempts to dislodge its position even in the aftermath of Brexit.


As of April 2024, English remains the predominant language of communication within EU institutions, defying assertions that Brexit would sever its ties with the continent. It seems then that in the foreseeable future, English will stand ground as the EU’s main communication tongue, being a the most practical, global and somewhat considered to be ‘neutral’ tool, allowing cross-cultural communications. English seems to be then is an amazing, durable and unique language, thus deserves to be worldly celebrated. Its linguistic evolutionary journey is but a testament to its rich history, which allowed it to absorb countless influences from other languages that were and are engaged with it, from Latin, to French, Dutch, Greek and countless more. But its most unquestionable distinction lies in its status as the most spoken global language in human history, connecting all languages and people in modern times. It is flexible, beautiful and some might even claim, easier to learn than other languages, hence allowing more people access to it. There’s no doubt as to its current and foreseeable status as the ‘one who rules above them all’. May we celebrate our global language, that allows people from all over the world to be able to understand, collaborate and most important of all, to love each other. Happy International English Day!

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