BRUSSELS — English, the world's second language and the main working tongue of EU institutions, may no longer be an official language of the European Union once Britain leaves the bloc, a senior EU lawmaker said on Monday.
The symbolic, if impractical, move would further reduce London's influence on the continent, and infuriate the Irish.
Each member state has the right to nominate one EU idiom. Although English is the most spoken language in Europe, and an official language in three member states, only Britain legally chose it in Brussels. Ireland chose Gaelic. Malta picked Maltese.
"English is our official language because it has been notified by the UK. If we don't have the UK, we don't have English," Danuta Hubner, chair of the European Parliament's constitutional affairs committee told a news conference on the legal consequences of the British referendum to leave the EU.
English might remain a working language, even if it were no longer an official one, Hubner said, adding that keeping it an official language would require agreement by all member states.
Alternatively, rules could be changed to let countries have more than one official language, Hubner suggested.
French was the dominant language in the EU institutions until the 1990s, when the arrival of Sweden, Finland and Austria tilted the balance, amplified by central and east European countries that had adopted English as their second tongue.
EU documents and legal texts are translated into all 24 official languages of the bloc. If English were to lose that status, Britons would have to do the translation themselves.
English is also one of the three languages used to apply for EU patents. This gives English-speaking researchers and companies an edge over competitors who speak other languages.
France has never digested its linguistic defeat and imposed French as an equal working language, although the number of speakers is shrinking among Brussels officials.