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Latvia can force universities to use only national language

The EU’s top court upheld a law mandating that institutions of higher education teach only in the Latvian language, with a few exceptions for exchange programs and foreign language courses.

LUXEMBOURG (CN) — The European Union’s highest court ruled on Wednesday that member states can require universities to only teach in their national language. 

A group of Latvian politicians had been fighting the requirement that university courses only be taught in the Latvian language, but the European Court of Justice found that such requirements do not violate EU law, provided they allow for some exceptions. 

The Luxembourg-based court was persuaded that a 1995 Latvian law requiring high education institutions to “promote and develop … the official language” did not fall afoul of the bloc’s free trade regulations. A 2018 update to the legislation went even further, mandating that all courses in post-secondary school be taught in Latvian. 

Boriss Cilevičs, a member of the Latvian parliament, and 19 of his colleagues brought a suit challenging the law in 2019, arguing the rule interfered with academic freedom and created a barrier in the higher education market that violated EU law. Freedom of movement of goods and services is a foundational concept of the EU, allowing people and businesses to cross borders without hindrance. 

In June 2020, the Latvian Constitutional Court referred the matter to the Court of Justice, asking for clarification as to whether Brussels had the authority to regulate the language used at national institutions of higher education. 

The Latvian government in Riga argued during a hearing in 2021 that countries were not obligated to provide higher education in any language other than the national language, highlighting the importance of protecting languages and culture. 

The Court of Justice agreed with Latvia, finding protecting the language was a legitimate objective.

"The European Union must respect its rich cultural and linguistic diversity,” the Grand Chamber wrote. 

But the court cautioned that member states must be cautious to not “go beyond what is necessary” to achieve that goal. The Latvian legislation already provided several exemptions to the language requirement, including allowing foreign language courses and exchange programs to be taught in other languages. 

There are about 1.5 million Latvian speakers worldwide. Native Latvians were persecuted during Soviet rule and Russian colonization reduced the ethnic Latvian population in the country to only 52% by 1989. Many newcomers did not learn Latvian and it is only spoken at home in about 62% of households in the country. 

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