The Catalan speaking world

Nestled away in the Pyrenees, the micronation of Andorra recognises Catalan as the state’s only official language.

The Catalan language plays an integral role in the Catalan identity, it is a big part of what unites the Catalan areas and differentiates them from others in their countries who do not speak it. Catalan is a language spoken by more than 10 million people, across four countries in Europe. The majority of the Catalan speaking population is found in Spain, however communities can be found in Andorra and in regions of France and Italy. 

Nestled away in the Pyrenees, the micronation of Andorra recognises Catalan as the state’s only official language. In Spain, Catalan is recognised as a parliamentary language and the co-official language of the autonomous region of Catalonia. Here, people have the right to access education, media and public administration in Catalan. In France, Catalan is spoken in the Pyrénées-Orientales region, close to the border with Spain. Previously, this was part of the Principality of Catalonia, until it was ceded to France. In Italy, Catalan is spoken in the town of Alghero, located in north-western Sardinia with a population of 43,000. This is the only Catalan speaking area of Italy, both presently and historically. 

A Dying Language? 

In France and Italy, the fate of the Catalan language differs from the status it enjoys in Spain and Andorra. France only recognises French as its official language. The French constitution states ‘the language of the Republic shall be French’, meaning it is constitutionally illegal for any other language, including Catalan, to be recognised as a national co-official language. However, the départment of Languedoc-Roussillon recognises Catalan as a regional language. In 2015, 61% of the Pyrénées-Orientales region declared they could understand Catalan but only 35% could speak it, equating to 131,000 people. In Italy, Italian is recognised as the sole official language, however the constitution ensures the safeguarding of linguistic minorities. Catalan was recognised as one of these minority languages in 1999. In a 2015 survey, 88% of people understood the language but only 17% spoke it as their first language, a 5% decrease from 2004

Catalan on a hot tin roof

The EU currently has twenty-four official and working languages, and any EU national has the right to communicate with the institution in these languages. In order to be recognised as an EU language, it has to be an official language in at least one member state, which Catalan is through its co-official status in Spain. In September 2023, the EU deferred Spain’s application to recognise Catalan, Galego, and Basque as official languages of the EU. All twenty-seven member states will have to vote unanimously in favour of accepting Catalan for it to gain EU status. If the EU accepts the application, Catalan would be in the top fifteen most widely spoken languages of the European Union and spoken in three EU countries. 

More than half of the EU countries raised concern about the Spanish government’s proposal, citing the fact they were unsure of the legal, economic and political consequences, both in their own countries and in Spain. Jessika Roswell, the Swedish EU minister, said after the debate, “We need to have [an] investigation about the proposal, both when it comes to legal questions and financial questions.” However, the Catalonian government responded to these financial worries, saying ‘the government is and will be at the disposal of the European institutions’, including translation services. 

Many fear that the recognition of Catalan as an official EU language will open the floodgates for other minority languages to be recognised by the EU – some of which do not hold legal status in their native countries. Roswall also noted, “There are many minority languages within the European Union that are not official languages.” This is a worry for France and Italy where many other minority languages are spoken in addition to Catalan, such as Breton, Corsican and Sardinian. Aside from three of Spain’s national languages, the EU also does not recognise Turkish or Luxembourgish as EU languages, despite them both being national languages in EU countries. Giving EU status to Catalan and no other minority languages or national languages may lead to more political issues for multiple countries and also accusations of prioritising Catalan. 

Proposition and debate

“the Catalans are not demanding favourable treatment, just linguistic equality”

Pere Aragonès

In defence of the Spanish preposition, Spain’s foreign minister Jose Manuel Albares said, “We are not talking about minority languages. Catalan is spoken by more than 10 million people, which places it above many of the languages that are currently official.” Catalan would be one of the more widely spoken EU languages, ranking above Croatian, Danish and Bulgarian and on a similar scale as Swedish and Portuguese. The president of the Catalonian government, Pere Aragonès, in response to the EU’s fears, wrote “In Catalonia, we realise this opportunity may be viewed with suspicion in some parts of Europe. But the Catalans are not demanding favourable treatment, just linguistic equality.” 

On October 24th, the EU met once more to debate this issue – Albares proposed introducing an amendment which would prevent other minority languages following the precedent of Catalan, Galician and Basque. Before the meeting, the Latvian Minister said that the EU has ‘many issues on the table’ and that this wasn’t a priority for the EU. Albares spoke afterwards saying that ‘several countries explicitly expressed support for our proposal’ and the Catalonian government celebrated the fact that no EU country vetoed the proposal. No country has outright rejected the proposal; however, they once again deferred the vote. Many seem to agree that they need more time to consider the consequences that this proposal could have throughout the European Union. 

A language of political gain?

The reason behind the Spanish proposal was partially for domestic political gain. Spain went to the polls in July 2023 to elect a new government – a government still has not been formed. If a government is not formed by 27th November, another election will be called. Neither major political party won an absolute majority, with the People’s Party winning 136 seats and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) winning 122. Even with the support of Vox and Suma respectively, the PP and PSOE would not have enough seats to gain power. 

In an attempt to end the hung parliament, at the request of King Felipe VI, the PSOE began negotiations with Catalan, Basque and Galician regional parties. One of the main concessions was promising to get the regional languages recognised as EU languages, in a symbolic move for the co-official languages of Spain. Catalonia’s president Aragonès refuted the claim that the EU proposal was solely for the PSOE’s political gain, saying, ‘Nothing could be further from the truth’ and that the Catalonian government had been planning this proposal for over a year.

xenaia, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There are fears amongst Spanish unionists that recognising Catalan as an EU language could fuel Catalan nationalism and the independence movement further. This is partially because Catalan language is intrinsic to the Catalan identity and is part of the larger argument for Catalan independence. The fear also arises from the political parties involved in the negotiations. The two Catalan parties negotiating with PSOE are Junts and Esquerra Republicana (ECR) who support the independence of Catalonia. In October 2017, Catalonia voted overwhelmingly for its independence, with 92% of the vote in favour, although over half of the eligible population did not vote. However, in September 2017, the Spanish government had ruled this referendum unconstitutional and illegal, and several Catalan leaders were arrested. 

The PSOE reached an agreement on the 2nd of November with ECR and on the 8th November with Junts, meaning Sanchez will have enough votes to form a parliament if all vote in his favour. Both Catalan parties agreed to back the PSOE on the condition that amnesty is granted to party members who exiled themselves after the 2017 referendum to avoid imprisonment, including Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalonian president. The deal has led to criticism from politicians in Spain, as well as numerous protests throughout Spain. 

The EU are reconvening in late November to discuss further possibilities about making Catalan an official language and the consequences that come with this decision, including possible Catalan independence or more political turmoil in Spain. However, they must also consider that Catalan is a European language, spread over four European countries, spoken by 10 million people, and yet it continues to struggle for recognition throughout Europe.