Background: a shared democracy, a shared labour market, no shared language
Strengthening European identity across the EU and enabling all Europeans to participate in EU-wide political debates with their leaders are major challenges for the future of European democracy. Ensuring that all Europeans master a language that can connect people from Lapland to Andalusia is paramount to the European project. A common language strengthens the sense of belonging together, and holding discussions and public events without the aid of interpreters makes political discourse more natural and smooth.
Strengthening European citizens’ language skills is important not only for democracy but also for international labour mobility. As high-quality education everywhere in Europe guarantees that employers and employees can communicate at ease regardless of their countries of origin, one can more easily seek for jobs outside one’s home country. Therefore a genuinely common language for all Europeans would have the potential to tackle unemployment, particularly among the younger generations, and consequently generate economic growth.
A shared language can foster common identity regardless of whether it is everyone’s mother tongue in a given community. Europeans who can understand each other will be able to establish personal contacts, and regions such as Catalonia show that communities, some of the members of which have learned the emblematic language of the community as their second language, can develop strong shared identities. [Footnote 1]
The Spitzenkandidaten system employed for the first time in the 2014 European elections saw European politicians campaign not only to the citizens of their home countries but to voters in the whole EU. Assuming that this is the future of European democracy, language will take up a more significant role in the future. So that each voter can attend rallies featuring European leaders, they must have a common language with the politicians. The emergence of a segment of society excluded from European politics because it has no common language with the leading politicians of the EU would be a serious blow to European democracy.
According to Eurostat, in primary education ”a clear majority of pupils (choose to) learn English in the vast majority of EU Member States”, while in secondary education approximately 94 percent of students studied English as a foreign language in 2014. In the meantime, attempts to introduce languages not associated with particular nations or peoples as an international lingua franca have invariably been unsuccessful; only a small proportion of Europeans speak Esperanto, Interlingua, Volapük or other constructed languages.
For these reasons, English is the most logical choice as our shared language. Despite the fact that the great majority of European students have studied English at school, as per the Eurostat article cited above, the Special Eurobarometer 386 (page 21) shows that only 38 percent of EU27 citizens whose mother tongue was not English were able to hold a conversation in English in 2012. The corresponding figures for French and German, the two most widely known languages in Europe after English, were 12 percent and 11 percent.
Objective: every European fluent in English
In order to strengthen European democracy, identity and labour mobility via a genuinely common language, the European Union should introduce common standards for English education.
The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) can be utilised to assess students’ language skills across the EU. Each school in the European Union should commit itself to the goal of each student acquiring a command of English corresponding with the B2 level of the CEFR by the time he/she has completed his/her mandatory English modules.
If this objective were reached, all young Europeans would be able to interact fluently and spontaneously with each other. According to Cambridge ESOL, approximately 500 to 600 hours of guided study are needed to reach the CEFR B2 level. If students took three hours of English classes each week, this would equal approximately five to six years of study – for example, if the school year is 36 weeks long (180 days spent at school per year, with five school days a week), the goal of 600 hours of study would be reached in five years and a half.
Legislative measures: guiding schools towards the target
Since national and regional education systems vary across Europe, directives rather than regulations are the most appropriate legislative measures in this context. One must also note that there is only so much an educational institution can do to ensure that an individual student reaches the academic goals set by public administration; therefore it is questionable whether harsh penalties can be imposed on schools which fail to reach the objective stated above.
The study of English should be mandatory for each student in the European Union. A minimum target of 600 hours of guided English study should be adopted everywhere in the EU. Should this legislative measure not be taken, the following measures may, with minor modifications, also be applied to only those students who study English as required by national or regional legislation, or voluntarily.
At the end of their mandatory English study, all students should take an English test which allows the student’s competence to be assessed on the CEFR scale. Listening comprehension, reading comprehension, writing and speaking should be tested. Existing tests such as the IELTS and the TOEFL may be used as a tool for this final assessment, or a new European test may be created. The first final assessments for English proficiency should be conducted by 2027 in each school where students complete their last mandatory module of English.
Each year, schools which fail to reach the objective – that is to say schools in which no more than 75 percent of students displayed B2-level competence in the final assessment – should provide a written statement to European Commission Directorate-General for Education and Culture. The statement should explain why the target was not reached and specify the measures to be taken to improve the performance of the school.
A European guide for foreign language instruction, prepared by the European Commission, should be diffused to educational institutions to share best practice. The guide should serve as a point of reference for schools in their written statements.
One possibility is to provide earmarked funding for regions, municipalities or schools which are lacking in resources and therefore unlikely to reach the objective. Such funding should be carried out by the European Commission.
 The topics of language and national identity in a selection of plurinational European federations are discussed in further detail in Chapter 7 of Wilfried Swenden’s book “Federalism and Regionalism in Western Europe: A Comparative and Thematic Analysis” from 2006. PDF version of the book.