What language does Europe speak? France has lost its battle for French. Europeans now overwhelmingly opt for English. The Eurovision song contest, won this month by an Austrian cross-dresser, is mostly English-speaking, even if the votes are translated into French.
The European Union conducts ever more business in English. Interpreters sometimes feel they are speaking to themselves. Last year Germany’s president, Joachim Gauck, argued for an English-speaking Europe: national languages would be cherished for spirituality and poetry alongside “a workable English for all of life’s situations and all age groups”.
Some detect a European form of global English (globish): a patois with English physiognomy, cross-dressed with continental cadences and syntax, a train of EU institutional jargon and sequins of linguistic false friends (mostly French).
In Brussels “to assist” means to be present, not to help; “to control” means to check, rather than to exercise power; “adequate” means appropriate or suitable, rather than (barely) sufficient; and mass nouns are countable, such as advices, informations and aids. “Anglo-Saxon” is not a historical term referring to Germanic tribes in Britain, but a political insult followed by “capitalism” or even “press”.
Ordinary Europeans got a first taste of Euro-globish in the televised debates among leading contenders for the European election on May 22nd-25th. The idea of the main European political groups picking “Spitzenkandidaten” to become the president of the European Commission is a novelty (and has created Brussels’s first German neologism in years). It is meant to close the democratic deficit, stir excitement, arrest the fall in turnout and check the rise of anti-EU parties.
In contrast with popular music, though, Euro-globish has a long way to go before it dominates electoral politics. Of the five Spitzenkandidaten debating in Brussels on May 15th, Alexis Tsipras, champion of a far-left alliance, insisted on speaking Greek.
Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg’s standard-bearer for the Christian Democrats, chose French. The three others gamely abided by the request to speak English: two Germans, Martin Schulz and Ska Keller from the Social Democrats and Greens, respectively, and a Belgian, Guy Verhofstadt, for the Liberals.
As they replied to the Italian moderator’s questions about growth, austerity, the euro, economic integration, free trade with America and much else, the politicians showed remarkable fortitude in trying to reach out to voters in what was often their second language.
And spare a thought for the viewers who, for the most part, were not native English-speakers (many broadcasters provided simultaneous interpretation). Inevitably, it made for a stiff and stilted exchange.
The candidates were uninspiring and hard to tell apart in their desire for “more Europe”.
But language barriers added to a sense of strange remoteness. Europhiles are pleased that the final debate stimulated more than 100,000 messages on Twitter.
But contrast that with the 5m tweets around the Eurovision contest, and it is plain that European-level democracy has not gripped the public.
Politics is surely best conducted in the vernacular.
John Stuart Mill, for one, thought multilingual democracy a nonsense because “the united public opinion, necessary to the working of a representative government, cannot exist.”
Yet, as Switzerland shows, a country can have more than one vernacular.
In theory that might work for Europe. Mr Schulz and Mr Juncker got more prime-time attention when they debated separately on French and German TV in the local tongue.
However, even the finest polyglot would struggle to reach voters in 24 official languages.
Philippe Van Parijs, a professor at Louvain University, argues that European-level democracy does not require a homogenous culture, or ethnos; a common political community, or demos, needs only a lingua franca. Was Nelson Mandela less democratic for speaking English in multi-ethnic and multilingual South Africa?
English is spreading fast, with more than 40% of young Europeans claiming to be able to speak it in some form. The answer to Europe’s democratic deficit, says Mr Van Parijs, is to accelerate the process so that English is not just the language of an elite but also the means for poorer Europeans to be heard.
An approximate version of English, with a limited vocabulary of just a few hundred words, would suffice.
Yet European politics remains firmly national.
There is often a gap between the Spitzenkandidaten and the national parties they supposedly represent. The Christian Democrat, Social Democratic and Liberal Spitzenkandidaten may believe in Eurobonds, but their German colleagues do not.
Mr Schulz was told by Britain’s Labour Party not to show his face there. Mr Juncker has no real ally from his European People’s Party in Britain (the Tories left in 2009) and the wrong sort in Italy (Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia is waging an embarrassing anti-German campaign).
And The English Problem
The experiment with Spitzenkandidaten will probably end badly. If one of them wins, it will be seen as a power-grab by MEPs to take from elected national leaders the right to choose who runs the commission; if they all fail, the EU-wide democratic contest will look a sham.
It also poses a dilemma for the British prime minister, David Cameron. He finds all the Spitzenkandidaten unacceptably federalist (Britain vetoed Mr Verhofstadt’s bid for the commission in 2004). But he cannot block anybody alone.
Several leaders, including Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, have more or less endorsed Spitzenkandidaten, and few have criticised the idea openly. If Mr Cameron is isolated and an arch-federalist is chosen, that will increase the risk that Britain may leave. How strange if Europe were to become an English-speaking union without its largest English-speaking country.
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