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Spanish Constitutional Court Protects Citizens’ Language Choices

Spanish Court deems language prioritization restrictive, overturns requirement for Basque language in town councils
Photo depicting a state building. Spanish Court Protects Citizens’ Language Choices, Deems Language Prioritization Restrictive. SEBASTIAN PICHLER/UNSPLASH. 

The full session of the Spanish Constitutional Court has overturned as unconstitutional the requirement for the priority use of Euskera, the Basque language, in the town councils of the Basque Country​, thus upholding the appeal promoted by the Basque Country High Court. The ruling, which has a dissenting vote by two judges, takes the view that the preferential drafting of municipal agreements in Basque “undermines the linguistic rights of members of local entities”. Under the Basque regulation, if any council member sought to use Spanish in motions, events, agreements, votes or opinions, it had to be verified that the councillor could not speak Basque.

“The Basque language requirement, so that convocations, agendas, motions, private votes, proposed agreements, committee opinions, agreements and minutes are not written in Spanish, is preferential treatment of the Basque language, which undermines the linguistic rights of members of local entities“, affirm the majority of the constitutional judges in annulling the law. The Constitutional Court sees the rule on Local Basque Institutions as prescribing a priority use of Euskera and thus the rule “causes an unjustified and disproportionate imbalance in the use of Spanish”. In other words, the use of Spanish in the drafting of agreements cannot be conditional on not knowing Basque or any other factor, but the councillors must be able to use it freely. The text sent this Thursday by the Constitutional Court continues its argument as follows: “It establishes formality or conditions in order for the representatives of local entities to exercise their right to a free choice”.

In general terms, the plenary of constitiutional judges recalls that the Spanish Constitution defends “the need to protect and respect the different linguistic modalities of Spain”. This is why it assures that prioritizing one language over another by public authorities “establishes a priority treatment in favour of one of the co-official languages”. In addition, it considers that the law of local entities breaks the “linguistic balance” provided for in the Constitution in the matter of languages. “With this requirement, the linguistic balance between the two co-official languages is broken by making the ability to use Spanish dependent on ignorance of Basque, so that the rights of free choice in linguistic matters of those who represent the citizens in the local entities are unjustifiably restricted”.  

The decision came with a dissenting vote by the judges Laura Díez and Ramón Sáez, who argued that the question of unconstitutionality raised by the Basque High Court should be rejected. In their opinion, Díez and Sáez believe that legislative power can correct “occasional imbalances” in the use of languages and they assert that the rule complies with constitutional jurisprudence. “The legislator can take language policy measures intending to correct specific situations of imbalance and [asserting] that public authorities must address members of the public or of local bodies in the language chosen by [the latter]”. The two dissenters claim that the disputed rule “does not aim to promote the co-official language”, as the majority of the court argues.

Produced in association with El Nacional En

Edited by Suparba Sil and Virginia Van Zandt

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