by Frank Schnittger
Fri Feb 27th, 2009 at 12:00:48 PM EST
Cross posted from the European Journalism Centre Think about it website
John F Kennedy famously said "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country". I want to pose a similar but slightly larger question to all the bloggers here: "Ask not what the EU can do for your country, but what your country can do for the EU?".
I know it's not quite such a stirring patriotic question. Most people identify much more strongly with their native country than they do with the EU, and that is partly why National elections tend to be so much more hard fought, emotive, and generate a much higher turnout than European elections.
However the question was brought to my mind by Eamonn Fitzgerald's diary in which he argued that the EU should adopt English as its lingua franca and do away with all that tiresome and expensive translation and interpretation of EU documents and discussions.
I find the economic argument Eamonn cites unconvincing, even in the current crisis. The costs of translation are minuscule compared to EU costs as a whole, and translation will have to continue for generations in any case until everyone has at least a working knowledge of English. Machine translations (e.g. Google) are improving all the time in any case, and to a degree all languages are converging as new words and technologies are invented.
Perhaps it can even be argued that, as English goes global, local dialects and variants of it diverge so much as to be come virtually distinct languages. Thus adopting English as a "Standard" doesn't necessarily mean that different peoples won't use and develop it very differently. The Queen's Oxbridge English isn't even widely spoken in the UK!
Then there are the cultural arguments, the literary and poetic heritage. Not so long ago education (in England) consisted mostly of Latin and ancient Greek! National identities usually involve an essential linguistic element - Israel virtually re-invented Hebrew when it became a Nation - virtually none of its immigrants spoke it on arrival. Imperialism has always used the suppression of native tongues as a method of forced incorporation, so the languages which become dominant can also be the languages of conquest and cultural genocide.
However I see nothing wrong with English becoming the de facto technocratic language for business and intergovernmental exchange - in many ways it already is - as Eamonn noted. But that doesn't mean we have to suppress native languages especially if they are still the widely used in their native countries.
I have long argued that the extensive proportion of the curriculum time devoted to the Irish language (Gaelige) in Irish schools could be better devoted to modern European Languages (in which the Irish are notoriously bad) but that is a different argument. Irish is effectively a dead language in all except tiny areas of the country and no-one is fluent in Irish without also being fluent in English. So I don't see a need to translate all official documents into Irish, but neither do I have a problem with Irish language enthusiasts seeking to sustain the language so long as it is not at the expense of other modern languages.
More often than not the argument that English should be adopted as the Lingua Franca is also made by the English as a way of getting one over the French (which used to be the almost universal language of diplomacy) and other major European nations. After all, more EU citizens probably have German as their mother tongue.
But perhaps there is more than an attempt at political and cultural one-up-man-ship and hegemony to the argument. Perhaps, in a truly integrated Union, we should seek to harmonise the best aspects of each society throughout Europe - the English language for business/government, the French Public Health provision model, German industrial/engineering standards, Italian style and fashion, oh - and I almost forgot - Irish Pubs!
Perhaps it would be an interesting challenge to bloggers here to ask them what aspect of their national culture/society/economy they think is the best in Europe and which they think should become the European norm if we were ever to decide we wanted to converge more as a social as well as an economic and political union?
Yes I know, diversity is good, and it would be terrible if we were all the same. But we can all learn from each other as well. So if you were asked to nominate one aspect of your country which you felt was the best in Europe - and which you felt could be profitably adopted as a European norm, what would it be?