Languages of the European Union, Traveling in the Schengen Area, and Using the Euro (or Not)

The European Union’s official web portal,, is translated into the 23 official languages: Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish and Swedish. Each page on the site has the same layout regardless of language so you can easily compare them side by side, as I mentioned in my previous post on multilingualism.

In the next few years, Croatian and Icelandic will be added as Croatia and Iceland finish their accession negotiations and officially join the EU. Macedonia and Turkey are the other current candidate countries, while the rest of the Balkan states – Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Serbia – are potential candidates, which would put the number of languages over 30. Norway, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Andorra and the city-states of Monaco, San Marino and Vatican City are not in the EU.

Naturally all of these languages was the reason I loved the idea of the EU, and being an EU citizen is the golden ticket since you can live and work in any other EU country just as if you were a citizen of that country, with some exceptions. Imagine having the right to work in 27 countries, plus any other countries that eventually join the Union. For someone who needs to be surrounded by languages, becoming an EU citizen would be like winning the language lottery. The Schengen Area (making traveling easier) and the Eurozone (making money issues easier) also contributed to my desire to live in Europe, but in the end, these three entities make the idea of “Europe” even more complicated, whether you live/work here or are just visiting as a tourist.

The Schengen Area includes most of the EU members, except the UK and Ireland, plus Norway, Switzerland, and the city-states; while Liechtenstein, Romania, Bulgaria and Cyprus have yet to implement the Schengen rules. For tourists who don’t need a visa to visit Europe anyway, there are no more passport checks at every border, but there are still random checks on trains and buses. It makes crossing the border faster, but that’s about it. Personally, I really miss getting stamps in my passport. And neither the EU nor Schengen Area actually means that European countries are united together like Americans would probably think of. It still costs a LOT of money to leave a rental car in a different country, even if the distance is rather short between the two agencies. We paid 350€ to leave a car in Lyon when we picked it up in Turin (3.5 hour drive), though leaving that same car in Naples (8 hour drive) would have only cost 75€. Flying between European countries sometimes also requires you to go through security and passport control again at airports when you have layovers. In theory, flying within the Schengen Area is supposed to be flying “domestically” but in four years and dozens of flights later, I have yet to experience anything similar to “domestic” flying in the US where you get off one plane directly at the gate and wander over to a different gate to get on another plane. Your departure, arrival, as well as transfer airports must all be in the Schengen Area, but that’s actually difficult since most transfers go through London and some airports require everyone to go through passport control & security again anyway because they don’t have Schengen vs. non-Schengen zones.

The Eurozone currently includes only 16 out of the 27 EU members, though Estonia will adopt the euro in 2011. Some non-EU countries use it as well, such as the city-states and Andorra, Kosovo and Montenegro. The UK, Denmark, Sweden and most of the eastern countries do not use the euro. Honestly I don’t understand why the UK, Denmark and Sweden have gotten away with not using it when the newer members (Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria) must eventually adopt it. What’s the point of the EU is there are opt-outs to certain laws and regulations? It’s just as unfair as states in the same country having different laws (talking about you, not-so-United States.)

I would love if the EU and Schengen Space were the same – I really wish Norway and Switzerland would join the EU! – but I’m not so keen on the euro. For tourists, it is great to not have to exchange money all the time. But when you live here, it just makes the cost of living ridiculously high and it’s very unfair when one country has higher salaries and a lower cost of living, but the next country over has the exact opposite (ahem, Germany and France). If you’re all going to use the same currency, why can’t prices and salaries be the same too? The euro has been in the news a lot lately because of the economic problems in Greece and Spain, and every French person I know complains about how expensive everything is with the euro. Ten years ago a baguette cost 2.50 francs (or 0.38€) and today it costs 0.85€ while salaries have barely increased, unless you’re the lucky ones who work in Luxembourg or Switzerland.

I suppose all of these differences depend on what union is supposed to mean. I know there is no real United States of Europe, and in any case, I would not want something similar to the United States of America. I have a lot of problems with states having more control than the federal government in a country that is supposedly rather homogeneous (in what world is it fair that some human beings can marry who they want but other human beings cannot depending on what state they live in, even if they are citizens of the same country???) yet at the same time, I would not want a strong federal government controlling states in Europe that are so diverse because of history, culture and language. Of course, I’m more of an observer and outsider since I am not an EU citizen. I can’t imagine what it would be like for my country to join a union of other countries, change its currency, and no longer have control over its own borders. Perhaps EU citizens can enlighten me on your feelings about it?

  • Anna

    The linguistic diversity of the EU was the hook into my topic on European identity for my senior thesis in International Relations. I ended up going in a different direction – enlargement into Eastern Europe and integration instead of sticking with language itself (too much stuff I’d have to go outside the discipline for which would be too difficult), but it is an interesting topic. Along the way I found a book on the political aspects of EU language policy and European identity: “A Unity of Diversity: language, identity and polity-building in Europe” by Peter Kraus (you can find more who have built on his work through Google Scholar). There are others who lightly touch on the language issue as being a barrier to European unity and the implications of English as a lingua franca (which is kind of ironic that the country in the EU whose language is being recognized as the developing lingua franca is the most Euroskeptic one).

  • Barbara

    Very interesting article, but maybe the following statement is not 100% accurate:
    Within the Schengen area, there is no difference between flying within the same country (e.g. from a German airport to another German airport) and flying from one contry to another (e.g. Italian airport to German airport). In most airports there are separate boarding areas for “Schengen destinations” and “non-Schengen destinations”; when you fly to a Schengen destination there is no passport control as such (i.e. by the police). Within the Schengen area, you are required to show an ID card (or any other valid means of identification, no passport required) to check-in and boarding-gate staff for identification purposes (we live in a post 9/11 world!), and during layovers you only need to go through security and passport control if your next destination is no-Schengen.

    • Maybe it depends on the airport, but I’ve definitely always had to go through passport and security when I had layovers in Europe and I was flying to a Schengen destination. (CDG in Paris, Frankfurt and Zurich when flying to Geneva or Lyon) The last time I flew through Amsterdam from Geneva as soon as we got off the plane, everyone had to go through security again before they would let us even exit the airport or continue on to our transfers. Hopefully things have changed though because that was really annoying!

  • Ken

    “If you’re all going to use the same currency, why can’t prices and salaries be the same too?”
    But, isn’t it like that in the States, too?
    If you compare the Appalachian area, Detroit, not to mention Native American reservations, with more affluent “White man” areas.

    • It seems to me that in the US, higher salaries are in larger cities where there is a higher cost of living, but it doesn’t necessarily depend on the state. In Europe salaries vary wildly depending on the country, but not so much on the city or cost of living. The average salary in France is 20k (regardless of where you are in the country) while it’s 35k in Germany and only 10k in Greece. Now imagine if nearly everyone in Nevada made half as much money as everyone in California for doing the same job, but had to pay the same prices for cost of living.

      It’s going to get even worse when the eastern countries start using the euro. Nurses in France start out at 1350€ a month whereas in Romania it’s only 400€. The cost of living is less in Romania of course, but not so much that living on 400€ is actually feasible since average rent is 300€.

      Plus the switch to the euro has made everything more expensive but salaries didn’t raise with inflation. I’m afraid all the countries who start using it are just going to be completely ridden with debt and the western countries will have to bail them out (exactly what already happened with Greece.)

  • Finnbear

    I am British living in Finland.
    I agree with the Europen Union however I beleive each country should be allowed to keep their own individual langauage’After all this signifies the richness of the EU

  • Gwan

    Well, I love the convenience of the EU, but I’m not really European, despite having citizenship. Things are super cher, but I don’t know if they’re more so than the UK which doesn’t have the euro

  • One of the big reasons I intend to get E.U. citizenship eventually (I’m American) is because of that exact reason: you can move around to and live in every E.U. country for as long as you want, FANTASTIC!! For a travel/language nut like me, that’s a dream come true.

    The reason the U.K. hasn’t adopted the Euro is simple and obvious: it’s against their interests to do so, the British Pound is currently the strongest currency in the world, beating both the Euro and the U.S. Dollar. You can’t blame them for keeping it, I would too if I were them.

    Are you going to try to get E.U. citizenship eventually? I know you told me about how you’re looking at moving to Canada or Australia, so have you given up on the E.U.? If you move to Canada or Australia, are you going to try to get citizenship there or are you going to eventually move somewhere else?


    • It depends on what happens in the next year or so. I can apply for French citizenship in Sept. 2011 if I am still in France, but I almost hope I will be gone by then. If David & I ever get married, I can still get citizenship without living in France after a 5 year wait. I don’t know if I have much interest in living in Europe anymore though. However, I would like for David & I to have the same citizenship one of these days, whether we’re both French, American or a third country.

  • Zhu

    I’m still amazed at how much the U.E grew. When I was a kid in the early nineties we were still learning about the C.E.E and C.E.I!

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