Does Catalan have a chance in the European Parliament?

The request the Spanish government has committed itself to make to the European Parliament will depend on the majority in the Bureau

5 min
Sessió at the European Parliament in an archive image

Exactly sixteen years have passed since the last and only time that the European Parliament discussed whether Catalan could be spoken in the European Parliament. The debate ended with the Bureau slamming the door on the request made by the Spanish government presided by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Since then, the European Parliament has not discussed the issue again despite pressure from Catalan MEPs. The trend, however, could change this autumn, following Pedro Sánchez's governmentps commitment to ask the European institution to allow Catalan to be spoken in the plenary. It is one of the pacts reached by the Generalitat and the Spanish government this month of July in the latest meeting of the negotiating table. "The Spanish government will ask the presidency of the European Parliament to consider Catalan a language to be used in the plenary and for the purposes of exercising the right to petition the institution," the two executives wrote in the agreement to give Catalan a boost. Now, does this petition have a chance of succeeding?

It will depend, mainly, on the position adopted by the members of the Bureau of the European Parliament. At this point there is a conservative majority: of the fourteen vice-presidents, seven are representatives of the right-wing bloc (with three representatives of the European People's Party; three Renew Europe, and one European Conservatives and Reformists), to which the president of the European Parliament, the EPP's Roberta Metsola; while the other seven are part of the progressive bloc (with five representatives of the socialist group, one of the Greens and one of The Left). From the outset, it is difficult to believe that the Spanish government's request will be successful. But in the European chamber, the groups' voting discipline is fluid. It will depend, therefore, on the those in favor of the use of Catalan in the plenary's power of conviction.

"[The Spanish government] will work to obtain a sufficient majority to endorse this request before the end of the current year", the agreement reads. The Greens have already made explicit their predisposition to vote in favour. "When the request arrives, we will work so that the Bureau of the [European] Parliament adopts the decision as soon as possible," said the MEP and group vice president, Ernest Urtasun, in a tweet on Monday. In fact, his group issued a statement that same day defending that a language spoken by 10 million European citizens must also have its place in the European Parliament.

Before the bureau deliberates, however, the Spanish government has to present its request, accompanied by a proposal that is "technically and financially feasible", as agreed by the two governments. The member state that requests it is the one who has to bear the cost of the translation, and the Spanish government has commited to finance the "translations and whatever is necessary", according to Generalitat sources. The interpretation of the Catalan would be "passive", as established in a resolution approved by the Council of the European Union on June 13, 2005. This means interventions could be made in Catalan and translated for other MEPs into their language, but interventions made in other languages would not be translated into Catalan.

The 2006 precedent

This 2005 resolution is precisely the one that enabled a language that is not official in the European Union, but is official in a member state – such as Catalan, Basque or Galician – to be used in places such as the plenary session of the European Parliament. The request can be made by the government of a member state, but also by any MEP. After the Council approved it, the Spanish government asked the European Parliament that communications with citizens in Catalan be allowed, legal texts translated and MEPs allowed speak in Catalan in the plenary. The Bureau, then chaired by the Socialist Josep Borrell – a supporter of using Catalan in the plenary – only accepted the first request and did so after an initial rejection, which was rectified in a second meeting.

The vote to allow Catalan to be spoken in the plenary was tight and what ended up tipping the balance was the campaign against it by the then vice-president and PP MEP Aleix Vidal-Quadras. Several witnesses consulted, including two of the Catalan MEPs who defended the petition those months, Raül Romeva (ICV) and Maria Badia (PSC), corroborate this. "His arguments, with which it seems he managed to convince some colleagues, were based on the fact that accepting these requests would involve a technical problem and a high economic cost," explains Romeva in his book Som una nació europea (Rosa dels Vents), which also denies that this was the case, among other reasons, because many of the Spanish translators knew how to speak Catalan.

Badia recalls that the People's Party member also took advantage of the recent incorporation into the EU of Eastern European countries, the use of whose languages had not yet been standardised, to defend that it was not logical that a language that was not official could be spoken in the plenary. He also used the fact that in the Spanish Congress and Senate do not allow Catalan to be spoken (in the latter only on rare occasions) to conclude that it did not make sense to use it in the European Parliament, despite the fact that none of the regulations governing the use of languages in the European Parliament makes it being used in state parliaments a condition.

After the Bureau's rejectopm, Romeva and Badia, together with other Catalan MEPs such as Oriol Junqueras (ERC), Raimon Obiols (PSC) or Ramon Tremosa (CDC), continued to press for the debate to be reopened during Martin Schulz's term as head of the European Parliament, since he had shown his predisposition to support the petition. Schulz was a supporter of the Catalan language and, specifically, a fan of the work of Jaume Cabré. However, the issue was not brought up for discussion under his mandate either. In 2018, the EPP's Antonio Tajani was open to deal with the case of the Catalan language if the Spanish government asked for it again. But the executive already presided over by Pedro Sánchez refused because of "the high cost it would entail". Now it seems that he has changed his mind.

The limited use of co-official languages in the Spanish chambers

In addition to the European Parliament, the PSOE has also been open to extending the use of Catalan in the Senate, where it is now limited to motions, but continues to oppose its use in Congress.

Congress of Deputies

The PSOE, together with the three right-wing parties, vetoed in June an initiative to reform the rules of Congress presented by Unidas Podemos and the Catalan, Basque and Galician sovereigntist parties. They defended that MPs should be able to speak in Catalan, Basque and Galician in all parliamentary sessions, as well as being able to present written documents in these languages. The argument the Socialists gave to reject this reform was that the three languages can already be spoken in the Senate, which is considered the chamber of territorial representation. This is not the first time sovereignist groups have tried to introduce co-official languages in the lower chamber; there are several precedents. Without going any further, in 2011 the PSOE and the PP refused to debate the initiative promoted by ERC, CiU, PNV and BNG, as well as ICV, which called for the same thing: Catalan, Basque and Galician being allowed in Congress. Last week's agreement at the negotiating table did not include this issue.


The Generalitat and the Spanish government, on the other hand, did agree to extend the use of Catalan in the Senate through a reform of the regulations of the upper chamber –now it can only be used in motions or to register writings–. In fact, the Socialists had already endorsed the study of the reform proposal presented by JxCat in September, which aimed to put the use of the co-official languages on an equal footing with that of Spanish. The initiative, however, is blocked in the Senate because the Socialists have been extending the period to table amendments every week. The Generalitat does not specify whether they will take advantage of this reform to push forward the agreement reached at the dialogue table. "The necessary mechanisms will be activated", point out sources from the Catalan Department of the Presidency. On September 6 the latest extension to the deadline to present amendments to JxCat's proposal ends. JxCat's senators trust the PSOE will not push the deadline back again. Then, the report on the regulation commission would have to be constituted, where the text proposing to speak Catalan, Basque and Galician in all of the chambers' activities has to be debated and voted on. JxCat believes that it could be submitted to the plenary in October.