English gains official status in European cities

26 April 2022

Many European capitals with a sizable population of migrants have, at some point, faced the issue of how to properly communicate with everyone. How to reach out to the wider population by speaking their language and offering quality services without leaving anyone behind?

It’s impossible for a city government to speak all the different languages spoken by its citizens, but English is often the one working as a common language, a lingua franca.

Both Brussels and Helsinki have been seriously debating making English an official language as a way to effectively integrate all citizens and workers. After all, one-third of Brussels workforce is non-Belgian – whereas the national percentage falls to 14.8%.

It’s not a new debate. In 2013, the Flemish Minister for Education Pascal Smet was already calling for English to become one of Brussels’ official languages (besides French and Dutch), and now the topic has finally been put to a serious discussion.

Brussels takes the lead

Minister Sven Gatz. Image by Wikipedia (Creative Commons).
Minister Sven Gatz. Image by Wikipedia (Creative Commons).

Sven Gatz, the Brussels Capital Region’s Minister for the Promotion of Multilingualism, explains that “Brussels has a large English-speaking international community due to the numerous international institutions present.” Therefore, “English is already used in many situations in Brussels and some Brussels communes already provide services in English.”

He adds that recently, for example, “this was formalised by the municipality via a decree,” meaning that services can legally be provided in the international language. Amsterdam is a city where certain services and information are provided in English, so Brussels, as the acting European capital, couldn’t lag behind.

Gatz believes that “this will happen more and more in the big cities characterised by internationalisation. Brussels can be a pioneer in the field of multilingualism, and it is important that (multilingual) cities and regions continue to exchange ideas.”

Companies have embarked on the initiative and the Brussels Enterprises Commerce and Industry (BECI) launched ‘Betalky.Brussels 2022-2023’, a project to promote multilingualism in local companies with a €200,000 budget that will “encourage the Brussels business community to invest in multilingualism,” said Minister Gatz.

Following Brussels initiative, Schaarbeek, in the greater Brussels Capital Region, has also implemented a plan to have English as a lingua franca. A plan to do so was approved in 2021 and since the start of this year, the measure has become effective.

Quentin van den Hove, the Alderman for Civil Registry and Population in Schaarbeek, explains that “in a commune with 165 different nationalities English was de facto used by the administration to help citizens at the town hall.”

However, he notes, “this was not officially allowed nor endorsed. The same situation exists in all Belgian communes and cities with citizens coming from all over the world. The administration wanted to give the usage of English an official status to support our personnel.”

Welcoming expats and opposition arise

Aeldorman Quentin van den Hove. Image by: Personal archive.
Alderman Quentin van den Hove. Image by: Personal archive.

The fact is that Brussels as a whole attracts workers from all parts of Europe and the world, the private sector demands highly skilled workers who are able to speak English. However, van de Hove notes, “expats complain about the poor service in some Belgian communes and cities.”

Gatz agrees, adding that having English as an official language “is a recognition of the language of a fairly large community in our city, one that will gain even more ground in the future. The use of English is increasing in the public space, in the first place in the workplace.  Whereas in 2001 some 10% of workers in Brussels used English in their work situation, that number has recently grown to around half.”

But Brussel’s and Schaarbeek’s initiatives have encountered opposition. “It is understandable that this phenomenon could be considered threatening to other languages, in Belgium’s case to French and Dutch. But it need not be so. English is now, once and for all, a world language which can be used to communicate with the rest of the world,” explains Gatz.

And van de Hove agrees, noting that “the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, but we, of course, encountered negative feedback from both the extreme left and extreme right parties.”

He explains that some people fear “that this opens the door to accept all languages. We only welcome English because it is an international common language. Accepting other languages, such as Bulgarian or Romanian (the two most represented nations in our commune) would deliberately provide an extra service for citizens from one specific country or region. This is something we don’t want, as all citizens are equal, and this would not embrace integration.”

And integration is always in the mind of legislators and civil servants. Both Gatz and van den Hove remind us that learning one of Belgium’s national languages is important for integration and living in the country.

Helsinki also has a plan

The city of Helsinki. Image by kostiolav at Pixabay
The city of Helsinki. Image by kostiolav at Pixabay

In Helsinki, several reasons influenced the decision to adopt English as one of the city’s official languages besides Finnish and Swedish, one of them being the shortage of technology and other professionals. Language barriers are cited by foreign students in Finland as one of the reasons for them to leave after completion of their studies.

“Helsinki could call itself an English-speaking city, where people who speak the language wouldn’t need to speak Finnish or Swedish,” said Mayor Juhana Vartiainen to the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat.

One of Europe’s startup capitals, Helsinki might find itself in serious problems in the near future due to the shortage of highly skilled workers as language becomes a barrier. That’s why, since last year, Vartiainen is discussing adding English as one of Helsinki’s official languages and making the lives of foreigners a bit easy.

His initiative has found some opposition from Swedish speakers, about 5% of Finland’s population feel they might be left behind. Nevertheless, Mayor Vartiainen pointed out several times that it’s a decision between having someone doing a job speaking only English or no one performing the job at all.

Throughout Europe, cities can’t ignore English and are slowly realising that efforts must be made towards real multilingualism. Foreign workers, after all, have all the freedom to move within the European Union, settle and work in any city of its country members.


Raphael Garcia Eurocities Writer