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Ever closer Union or Babylonian discord? The official-language problem in the European Union


  • FIDRMUC, Jan
  • GINSBURGH, Victor
  • WEBER, Shlomo


The policy of official multilingualism is one of the most important and fundamental principles of the Union. However, a large number of official languages imposes substantial financial, communication and legal costs. We address the merits of extensive multilingualism and formulate an analytical framework to determine the optimal number of official languages in the EU. First, we derive the sequence of optimal sets of languages which identifies the sets of languages that minimize aggregate linguistic disenfranchisement of the Union's citizens for any given number of languages. We then proceed by discussing the political-economy framework and feasibility of a potential linguistic reform in the EU under various voting rules, including the Nice Treaty, the proposed European Constitution and the Penrose law. We argue that a six-language regime would be a reasonable intermediate choice: a lower number of official languages results in excessive linguistic disenfranchisement whereas adding further languages increases the costs but brings only modest benefits. We also show that even though a linguistic reform reducing the number of official languages to six is unlikely to gain sufficient support at the present, this may change in the future since young people tend to be more proficient at speaking foreign languages.

Suggested Citation

  • FIDRMUC, Jan & GINSBURGH, Victor & WEBER, Shlomo, 2007. "Ever closer Union or Babylonian discord? The official-language problem in the European Union," CORE Discussion Papers 2007020, Université catholique de Louvain, Center for Operations Research and Econometrics (CORE).
  • Handle: RePEc:cor:louvco:2007020

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Bruno van Pottelsberghe de la Potterie & Didier François, 2009. "The Cost Factor in Patent Systems," Journal of Industry, Competition and Trade, Springer, vol. 9(4), pages 329-355, December.
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    Cited by:

    1. Fidrmuc, Jan & Ginsburgh, Victor & Weber, Shlomo, 2009. "Voting on the choice of core languages in the European Union," European Journal of Political Economy, Elsevier, vol. 25(1), pages 56-62, March.
    2. Victor Ginsburgh & Shlomo Weber, 2012. "Culture Languages and Economics," Working Papers ECARES ECARES 2012-009, ULB -- Universite Libre de Bruxelles.
    3. Victor Ginsburgh & Shlomo Weber, 2016. "Linguistic Distances and Ethno-Linguistic Fractionalisation and Disenfranchisement Indices," Working Papers ECARES ECARES 2016-25, ULB -- Universite Libre de Bruxelles.
    4. Ginsburgh, Victor & Moreno-Ternero, Juan D. & Weber, Shlomo, 2017. "Ranking languages in the European Union: Before and after Brexit," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 93(C), pages 139-151.
    5. Ginsburgh, Victor & Weber, Shlomo, 2015. "Linguistic Distances and their Use in Economics," CEPR Discussion Papers 10640, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    6. Victor Ginsburgh & Juan D. Moreno-Ternero, 2017. "Compensation Schemes for learning a Lingua Franca in the European Union," Working Papers ECARES ECARES 2017-07, ULB -- Universite Libre de Bruxelles.

    More about this item


    languages; disenfranchisement; European Union; linguistic standardization;

    JEL classification:

    • D70 - Microeconomics - - Analysis of Collective Decision-Making - - - General
    • O52 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economywide Country Studies - - - Europe
    • Z13 - Other Special Topics - - Cultural Economics - - - Economic Sociology; Economic Anthropology; Language; Social and Economic Stratification


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