One of the lesser-known aims of the European Union is that its citizens should be able to speak two languages in addition to their own. Not just one – as the British secondary education system used to mandate – but two. The rationale is clear: a union that respects linguistic diversity and enables freedom of movement must give its citizens the ability to work elsewhere in the EU, and that means learning languages.
The fact that the UK has never – for understandable reasons – embraced this aim is one of the root causes of the widespread indifference to the EU. Few demographics show much enthusiasm for the EU, but the inability to speak a foreign language matters more for young people, because they would have been more likely to work or study abroad had they felt keen or able to do so. Take the Erasmus programme, which sends students abroad for a semester. Young people who had participated in Erasmus made up just 2% of the 2012 cohort of UK graduates – the lowest percentage in the EU. We receive about as twice as many Erasmus students as we send.
Young Britons with fewer qualifications have stayed at home primarily because jobs are more plentiful here, but also because the barriers to working abroad without a command of the local language are too great. And the kind of jobs that might be available, on factory production lines and on farms, are poorly paid and unappealing.
Put simply, Britons favour English – and its status as a world language makes it easy for them to do so. Even at the highest levels of research and academia, David Walker, head of policy for the Academy of Social Sciences, points out that “economics, psychology, sociology, probably geography, and certainly business studies are intellectually inclined towards the United States of America.” The same can be said of music, TV and films.
The perception that the European Union is an elitist project whose benefits are enjoyed only by the better-educated – those more likely to speak another language – is a recurring trope of the Leave campaign. Boris Johnson, uncomfortable with any suggestion of anti-intellectualism, insisted recently that “we will not be voting to leave Europe”:
“Of all the arguments [Remain] make this is the one that infuriates me the most. I am a child of Europe … I can read novels in French, I can get along in Spanish, I can sing the Ode to Joy in German.
“I have promoted the teaching of … French and German, which are dying out… So I find it offensive … sometimes by people who can barely speak a foreign language, to be told that I belong to a group of small-minded xenophobes, because the truth is that it is Brexit which is now the greatest project of European liberalism.”
If a well-educated ‘child of Europe’ can argue for Leave, the implication goes, there is no correlation between knowledge of the EU and enthusiasm for its aims. Culturally, Johnson is comfortable with multilingualism. But his command of French, Spanish and German is rooted in cultural appreciation rather than practical purpose. This touches on Remain’s argument that it is possible to trade freely with other countries without a mutual language: English, they imply, is usually enough.
The EU’s credo is that it is not enough, both in order to preserve and respect minority tongues and to facilitate freedom of movement and the financial autonomy that confers. The fact that better-educated Britons enjoy such an advantage in the EU job market is a sign of how far the EU’s linguistic ambitions have to go and how little they have touched Britain.
So Remain faces a double challenge when it tries to persuade younger Britons of the benefits of the EU. One is to convince them that freedom of movement and labour benefit Britons rather than only the citizens of poorer countries and those with a better command of European languages. The other is to try to overcome the chilly North Sea that rolls in when Britons try to understand those talking to them in a different language. The #hugabrit meme urges EU citizens who want Britain to stay to take a picture of themselves hugging a Briton and post it on social media with a plea not to Leave. Inevitably, it is in English.