Kathleen Nutt

Political Correspondent

SCOTLAND may struggle to participate fully in the EU in future years because of a lack of skills and relevant knowledge among the country's workforce, according to leading Brussels experts.

Dr Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive of the European Policy Centre, which is based in the Belgium capital, gave the warning amid a sharp downward trend in school pupils studying French, Germany and Spanish at Higher level.

His concerns were echoed by fellow EU expert Anthony Salamone who said a declining number of skilled linguists would be "deeply problematic" for Scotland as a new EU member.

Dr Zuleeg urged the Scottish Government to invest in language teaching as well as in specialised university level courses about EU policy to ensure there continue to be sufficient number of people with the required skills to work in the European civil service.

The senior expert also called for support to be given to students wishing to study on the continent including at the College of Europe, which prepares graduates to work in EU institutions and in member states. It has bases in Bruges and Warsaw.

And he also urged Scottish ministers to establish a process to allow talented students to be recruited under the civil service "fast stream" to spend part of their career working in EU institutions. The programme was paused by the UK Government after Brexit.

"Proficiency in European languages is certainly an advantage when applying for positions in the European civil service and for promotion," he told The Herald on Sunday.

"There are also a number of positions that require languages, for example when it comes to interpretation or the lawyers who translate legal texts into all EU languages.

"But it goes further than this, you also need people with EU policy-related knowledge and expertise, for example in EU law. For the moment, Scotland could draw on a pool of people who fulfill these criteria but over time, it is likely to diminish as both demand for such skills and their supply (ideally from an early age onwards) is reducing.

"For Scotland, there should be an investment in such skills, enabling as much exchange and interaction as possible, especially since Erasmus will no longer be available. In future, full engagement and support for students going to the College of Europe would be important, and Scotland needs a European Fast Stream (as well as retaining the Fast Stream in contrast to the rest of the UK)."

Dr Zuleeg's comments were echoed by Mr Salamone who said good knowledge of different European languages is a crucial requirement to work for the EU institutions.

"Candidates for the EU civil service normally have to speak at least two EU official languages (usually the native language plus one other). To gain promotion, civil servants often need to demonstrate knowledge of a third language as well," he said.

"The EU currently has 24 official languages. Of those, English, French, German, Italian and Spanish are regularly the most sought-after. If Scotland became an independent state and joined the EU, it would need qualified candidates for the EU civil service who had a solid grounding in the functioning of the EU and were proficient in these languages."

He added: "Declining numbers of Scottish learners of European languages would therefore be deeply problematic for Scotland as a new EU member state. A lack of candidates with language qualifications would hamper its ability to fully participate in the workings of the EU. Moreover, Scotland would need speakers of European and global languages for its own diplomatic service.

"Regardless of the constitutional question, knowledge of languages is essential to Scotland – in fostering understanding of different countries, facilitating business and trade opportunities, providing pathways to art, literature and wider culture, and in offering insights to alternative perspectives. If language learning in education shrinks in Scotland, it will have real-world consequences, and any future rebuilding of expertise will take years."

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is planning to hold an independence referendum on October 19 next year and if successful seek membership of the EU for an independent Scotland.

However, it is unclear if the vote will take place given UK Government refusal to agree to a vote and legal uncertainty whether she can use Holyrood powers to bring about a referendum. The Supreme Court will rule the legality of the matter next month.

Should it decide Holyrood has not got the powers to hold an independence vote, Ms Sturgeon has said she will use the next general election as a "de facto" independence referendum.

A total of just 505 pupils sat Higher German this year out of 188,220 Higher entries across the curriculum, figures from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) revealed last month. The number was a drop from 780 in 2020 when there were 186,227 entries across all Higher subjects.

There were also significant falls in the number of pupils taking French and Spanish at Higher level despite the increase in overall entries.

Some 3165 pupils took Higher level French in 2020, with the figure dropping to 2500 this year. In 2020, a total of 2900 students entered Higher Spanish, with the number falling to 2465 this year.

The reasons for the significant falls in pupils taking modern languages at Higher level are not clear but the issue of availability of language teaching in schools was considered in a highly critical report by Holyrood's education committee in 2019.

Professor Jim Scott identified languages as one area being squeezed at the senior phase of school from the curriculum.

"We probably have five problems. We have a modern languages problem, an ICT problem and a STEM problem because of a drop that was caused by structural changes in Scottish education," he told the committee.

Professor Sheila Dickson, Professor of German at the University of Glasgow, said she believed young Scots were outward-looking and positive about the EU but weren't being given sufficient opportunity at school to study languages.

"Increasingly schools are just not offering German at all or saying that students have to do it by themselves and there are restricted offerings in modern languages generally," she said.

"It's a lottery, it depends what school a pupil is at, what year he or she is in. You can now start languages at Glasgow University as a complete beginner but obviously it is a huge ask for someone to start as a beginner and work through to honours over five years.

"Committed and talented linguists can do it, but it is hard."

She said that Brexit and the UK's withdrawal from the EU's Erasmus education exchange programme had made it harder for university language students to secure places abroad to study for a year.

"Universities are trying really hard to maintain partnerships [with those in the EU] with bi lateral agreements," she added.

"It absolutely matters that we have people who can speak other languages. For instance with German, we want to do business with Germany and while a German company may be perfectly happy to have a chat in English but they are not going to sign a contract in English. They want it in German. If we have people with language skills it can put us ahead and if we don't it puts up barriers.

"Why should a German company or cultural institution exchange with us if there is someone in another country who is happy to engage with them in German?"

Professor Dickson added that many companies in Scotland needed linguists to help with overseas trade and export matters, while other professional people often needed to speak other languages to take up placements overseas.

Some 32,169 civil servants are employed by the European Commission with staff coming from all over the EU 27 member states, according to official figures published in January this year.

The highest proportion of staff are from Belgium (14 per cent) due to the headquarters being based in the country's capital, with Italians making up 13 per cent and French, Spanish and Germans 10, 8 and 6 per cent respectively.

A spokeswoman for the European Commission said new recruits had to have a thorough knowledge of one of the EU languages and "a satisfactory" knowledge of another language during their selection and recruitment process.

She added: "In addition, officials are required to demonstrate, before their first promotion after recruitment, their ability to work in a third language. This information is part of the staff member personal file."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “It is important for young people to learn European and global languages, in addition to gaining an understanding of worldwide issues and cultures.

“This is why we have invested over £50 million since 2013 in the 1+2 languages learning policy, which sees every child learn two languages in addition to their own native tongue while at primary school. This cultural shift in our approach has supported young people’s awareness of foreign languages, culture and global issues. It has now been embedded across Scottish schools.

“The pass rate among Scotland’s students in languages is higher than other subjects. When comparing to other parts of the UK, the proportion of French, German and Spanish entries to Highers was greater than the equivalent entries to A-Levels. Scotland also ranked among the top performing nations in the 2018 programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for global competence.

“Over the next year, we will review our approach to support students who have benefited from the 1+2 languages policy to fulfil their aspirations in their qualifications and beyond.”