ECMI Minorities Blog. A post-election update on the Brexit implications for Celtic Languages in the UK


Author: Craig Willis

Ever since David Cameron announced a referendum on membership of the European Union (EU) in late 2015, the implications of leaving the bloc have been discussed from a wide array of perspectives, intensifying after the referendum result on 23rd June 2016. Following on from the recent snap general election on 12th December 2019 and the Conservative Party’s clear victory, it appears that the UK is set to leave the EU by the 31st January 2020. Boris Johnson’s new parliamentary majority has allowed the EU Withdrawal Act to pass it’s second reading and thus the negotiated transition period should then be in place until the end of 2020. The Government had previously stated it to then be the UK’s intention to leave the single market and pursue a looser free trade deal with the EU, outside of the current customs union.

Amongst all the Brexit noise there has been limited scrutiny on specific impacts, including from the angle of traditional native minority languages. Under the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages, the UK recognises the Celtic languages of Cornish, Irish (Gaelic), Manx, Scottish Gaelic, and Welsh. Whilst the five languages are all related under the linguistic classification of Celtic, they vary greatly in terms of their historic path, including number of current-day speakers. Cornish is a recently revived language having become extinct in the 18th century and to-date has just over 500 speakers but is growing; Irish in comparison has just over 100,000 speakers in Northern Ireland; Manx is spoken on the Isle of Man and by less than 2,000 people (although is not analysed here given it is a crown dependency of the UK and not in the EU or its single market); Scottish Gaelic speakers number around 58,000 concentrated mostly in the western islands of Scotland; Welsh is spoken to some degree by almost 900,000 in Wales and England. Despite this, these minority languages do face many similar challenges particularly in relation to potential outcomes following the UK’s intended exit from the EU.

This article aims to add a comparative perspective to the limited articles that have been written in the three years since the referendum, and highlight potential future implications on Celtic languages that Brexit could have on themes related to: legal instruments, funding opportunities, regional economic impact, pan-European cooperation opportunities, and independence movements. In this, particular focus is given to potential short and long term implications of what still remains a hypothetical unknown phenomenon.

The core international legal instruments relating to national minorities and minority languages are treaties developed through cooperation in the Council of Europe, rather than the EU. The UK signed and ratified the Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) and the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages (ECRML) in 1998 and 2001 respectively. Thus, these treaties are applicable in UK law which would continue to apply after Brexit. Furthermore, the EU currently does not have any minority language legislation or protection and thus leaving the bloc would not have a direct legal impact in terms of rights and protection. However, the ongoing high-profile EU citizen’s initiative from the Federal Union of European Nationalities is seeking to change this and have EU-level legislation protecting minorities including several provisions relating to language. Thus, the Celtic languages of the UK would miss out on any future stronger protection or direct funding this brings.

Although the EU does not offer direct funding provisions for minority languages, there have been many EU-funded projects which have benefitted Celtic languages in the UK, including through Erasmus Plus, Creative Europe and Horizon 2020. Furthermore, through structural and regional EU funds which have contributed to development in areas where Celtic languages are most spoken (Highlands and Islands in Scotland, West Wales and the Valleys in Wales, and Cornwall in England). A joint statement from the European Language Equality Network with its Celtic language member organisations in the UK, suggested Brexit “will have a profoundly negative effect” due to loss of EU funding opportunities. Similar sentiments have been expressed by organisations specifically in the case of Welsh and Irish Gaelic and negative impacts on the survival and growth of the languages. Similarly, the Cornish language has benefited from EU funding and some Cornish activists have predicted that the language will be negatively impacted following Brexit. Moreover, concern at loss of EU funding has been expressed by local authorities (where minority languages are most spoken) and the UK government has only guaranteed to replace such funds until end of 2020. Yet, there is not a complete void of language based funding and it seems both UK and local government will continue to provide funding for minority languages under the ECRML, for instance as announced in July 2019 for Cornish. Thus, in the short-term the funding may be replaced, but the longer-term impacts of Brexit could be more damaging in this regard.

Many traditional industries in rural areas of the UK rely greatly on access to the single market and customs union, leaving these (as the UK government has stated is its intention) would reduce the industries’ potential market substantially in the short term. Concern has been expressed for such areas where Celtic languages are most spoken; for example, the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) claims that Brexit is an “impending disaster for the Highlands and Islands”, for reasons including a future lack of immigration into such underpopulated areas. Scottish Government research has highlighted the fact that rural parts of Scotland could be affected to a much larger extent than the urban hubs, plus the Brexit Vulnerability Index Map demonstrates that the council areas of Na h-Eileanan Siar and the Highlands would be some of the worst affected. Thus, the traditional industries on the Isles of Skye and Lewis where Gaelic is spoken in its largest number, could suffer economically from leaving the EU single market. The UK government is in the process of replacing existing trade deals and pursuing future trade deals which in the longer term may present new global opportunities for exporters and growth in the regional economy, yet some short-to-mid-term disruption seems likely.

Celtic language scholars and advocates have long partnered with other prominent minority language activists in EU states (speakers of Basque or Breton for example) and it is difficult to assess what exact impact Brexit could have on these cooperation efforts and opportunities. If a UK institution can no longer be an official lead partner in EU funding applications then it may slowly become ostracised from existing networks. Concern is also expressed that intellectual and political support could diminish, yet it is unclear to what extent. In the case of Irish, there is concern that any future EU legislation on minority languages would leave Irish language in Northern Ireland cut off from Irish language in the Republic of Ireland in the event of Brexit. As mentioned above, the core minority legislation is at the Council of Europe level and minority organisations outside the EU currently cooperate on varying issues. In this sense, Brexit might not have a direct impact, yet there is concern of a narrative of Brexit as an indicator of an inward-looking population which could leave the UK and its institutions isolated in the long term.

Whilst there is no substantial data specifically on Celtic language speakers support for independence or unification, there are suggestions that the general population in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland post-Brexit vote are shifting towards favouring leaving the UK. The SNP’s 2019 general election manifesto reiterated their call for another independence referendum, with the party then taking 48 of the 59 Scottish seats in Westminster and claiming this to be a mandate for independence. In Wales, Plaid Cyrmu advocate independence and have suggested there will be an independence referendum in Wales before 2030. Further, the Irish nationalist parties in Northern Ireland continue to exist with the ultimate goal of Irish unification, and the recent UK general election saw more nationalist MPs returned than unionist, for the first time. The consequent question is; what would a break from the UK mean for the respective Celtic languages? Scottish Gaelic has seen growing support since devolution in 1999 institutionally and in terms of funding, with the current Scottish Government Gaelic Language Plan evidence of this. This is supported by the SNPs strength in Westminster and Holyrood and the party continues to state their past and ongoing support for Gaelic language. In Wales, the Government’s goal of reaching 1 million Welsh speakers by 2050 is strongly supported by Plaid Cymru, they go further and advocate for a Welsh Education Act to meet this – alongside their support for Welsh independence. Finally, in Northern Ireland, the proposal of an Irish Language Act has long been pushed for by Irish Nationalist parties.

Despite a normative shift, the empirical consequences of Brexit remain hypothetical and unprecedented – including any impacts on the Celtic languages. In the short term, it appears likely that there will be economic disruption particularly for regional economies. Moreover, UK organisations will no longer be able to apply for EU funding and this could be a significant issue for academic institutions working on issues related to Celtic languages. Despite this disruption and extra hurdles for minority language advocates, the core legislation and protection provided at the Council of Europe level will remain.

Perhaps more impactful will be the normative implications of Brexit, with suggestions of it painting the UK as an inward England-focused society and creating divisions between the Union and a less tolerant society in general. Yet Mr. Johnson claims the December 2019 election result will allow the country to unite and move forward beyond Brexit, stating that the Conservative Party is one nation speaking for everyone. Nonetheless, as the election results in Scotland and Northern Ireland show, the longer-term implications could well involve independence or unification, and this could eventually have positive knock-on effects for the Celtic languages.

Read the article about this publication (FLENSBORG AVIS, 31st January 2020)

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