Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Is the E.U. an Unimportant Tower of Babel?

With 24 official languages, the E.U. spent about 1 billion euros on translation and interpretation in 2016. The defense that diversity and language-learning were promoted is based on the specious reductionism of cultural diversity to language and the faulty assumption that E.U. business being conducted in a myriad of languages prompts E.U. citizens to pick up an additional language. After all, such an undertaking is not like changing clothes or knitting a sweater. Meanwhile, the true cost of using the E.U. to make ideological claims using language as a symbol goes beyond euros to include the foregone ability of the E.U. to integrate even enough to adequately conduct its existing competencies, or domains of authority.

Fortunately, officials and staff at the European Commission “usually write internally in only three [languages]—English, French and German—and often speak in English.”[1] That this has annoyed French-speakers disproportionally (relative to German speakers) is but one indication that practicality could too easily be sacrificed in the very functioning of the E.U.’s federal institutions even at a baleful time for the E.U.

The movement to recognize Luxembourgish is similarly at the expense of practicality. At least as of 2016, residents of the state of Luxembourg spoke German and French too, and the state laws were in French! Incroyable!  Could the E.U. afford to add such an unnecessary language, especially given the anticipated secession of Britain and the toll that that could take on the Union even just psychologically? Why hamper the E.U.’s functioning in such a baleful context—literally adding to its budget on translation and interpretation—just to enhance the status of Luxembourgish—a specious, sophist assumption anyway.

Incredibly, some politicians on the state level were urging the removal of English as one of the languages after the secession by the British even though the language had been so useful functionally at the European Commission. That Ireland and Malta relied at the time on English and the language was “extremely popular in Central and Eastern Europe”[2] just adds ammunition to the charge that government officials in the E.U. are not taking its existential threats seriously enough. The implication of the movement is that the functioning of the E.U. at the federal level is not really very important, as word-games are more so. Priorities matter, especially at turning points. The secession of a big state is a big deal for a federal system; going on to enhance integration anyway, Europeans would need to put the E.U. at a higher priority than was the case amid the jealous language-games in 2016.

1. James Kanter, “As the E.U.’s Language Roster Swells, So Does the Burden,” The New York Times, January 4, 2017.
2. Ibid.