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

The European Union’s official web portal, europa.eu, 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?

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The other main countries in Europe that speak French are Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland; however, they do not just have French as an official language. Belgium also has Dutch and German; Luxembourg has German and Luxembourgish; and Switzerland has German, Italian, and Romansh. What that means for language lovers is that certain websites have multiple […]

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Why is Jennie no longer in France?

I created this blog in September 2006 when I moved to France from Michigan to teach English. Many of the earlier posts are about my personal life in France, dealing with culture shock, traveling in Europe and becoming fluent in French. In July 2011, I relocated to Australia to start my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Although I am no longer living in France, my research is on foreign language pedagogy and I teach French at a university so these themes appear most often on the blog. I also continue to post about traveling and being an American abroad.

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