[Viewpoint] Europe’s crisis of tongues

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[Viewpoint] Europe’s crisis of tongues

When history repeats itself, it is rarely gentle. Today, as in the era of colonialism, tens of thousands of ambitious young people from Europe’s periphery are escaping the old Continent in search of better opportunities in America, Africa and Asia. But, unlike in the colonial era, the human outflows are not compensated by inflows of natural resources or precious metals. European emigrants used to contribute to the glory of their homelands; now, their exodus is contributing to Europe’s decline.

In an extreme attempt to address his country’s job shortage, Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho recently urged his country’s young unemployed to emigrate to Portugal’s former colonies, such as Brazil or Angola. Last year, for the first time since 1990, Spain was a net exporter of people, with 31 percent of emigrants going to South America.

The severity of Europe’s economic downturn, deficiencies in the euro’s design and ill-conceived austerity measures are all fueling the exodus. But the main driver is culture, not economics. Europe’s high degree of linguistic fragmentation does not allow the euro zone to absorb a self-inflicted crisis, so people move out of the currency area.

Europe’s linguistic variety is immense. Thirteen official tongues from six distinct branches of the Indo-European group of languages - Germanic, Slavic, Uralic, Romance, Celtic and Greek - are spoken in the euro zone. Add to this a plethora of regional dialects, which in Italy alone amount to around 20 (with several variants each). In many secessionist regions, like Catalonia in Spain, they are de facto the official idiom.

The implications of this linguistic variety are profound. A language is not just a systematic means of communicating. It is a sign of identity, culture and national pride. According to most experts, linguistic processes shape the way people perceive the world, how they live their lives and, ultimately, their mindset.

The same concept expressed with different words in different languages generates different emotions. Indeed, Germany’s indifference toward the pain inflicted on Greece is inscribed in its language. In English, as in several other European languages, the term austerity derives from the Greek austeros, which means harsh and severe, whereas for Germans it is merely a technocratic savings scheme dubbed sparprogramm.

So far, political myopia and national interests have prevented European leaders from formulating a common language policy. According to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistical agency, 18 percent of people aged 18-34 perceive themselves to be proficient in another language (usually English), and the percentage decreases dramatically with age.

In such a Tower of Babel, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s call for a political union to save the euro is wishful thinking, even for the staunchest European official. Linguistic barriers will obstruct continental political debate and impede the creation of a truly European identity. Citizens’ passion, rather than technocrats’ creativity, should inspire political unification. But Europe is still far from that point: after more than 60 years of economic integration, a truly European people, with its own identity and language, has yet to emerge.

The logical implication of a currency that brings together 17 countries is a common, official language. The EU’s founders believed that a Lingua Franca would emerge through economic and social interaction. But they were wrong. To strengthen the euro and establish the foundations for a political union, European leaders should undertake a rapid and explicit process of linguistic integration.

At the same time, national governments could minimize the political and transition costs of adopting a common language whichever is chosen by using their own languages for domestic affairs. Unlike a currency, languages can easily coexist in an economic area. Indeed, countries should promote their national languages and regional dialects an invaluable cultural patrimony and source of identity in an increasingly globalized world.

Changing the course of European history requires bold action, particularly the adoption of a common language. Otherwise, European history will remain a vicious circle of fragmentation and aborted efforts at integration.

*The author, an economic adviser to the Italian Senate, was an economist at the World Trade Organization.
By Edoardo Campanella
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