Language, Politics and the European Union

The European Union has a language problem. It doesn’t have a foreign minister, it has a “High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.” The position of foreign minister would have been created had the constitutional treaty passed, but it didn’t pass. Instead we’re left with all these words. And while everyone understands more or less what a foreign minister does, no one has any idea what a high representative for foreign affairs and security policy does.

Then there are the EU treaties. There are two of them: the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. These treaties are legally equal and together with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU constitute the Union’s primary law. But try reading these treaties. It’s almost impossible. They aren’t identifiably unique documents that lay out clear priorities and the means of accomplishing them. Instead they’re accretions of past treaties stocked with all the abstruse jargon (protocols, annexes, declarations, etc.) usually reserved for international agreements. And the Charter, which supposedly makes up the third primary legal document of the Union, isn’t even acknowledged as binding in the UK or Poland. These two countries opted-out of the charter.

What is the EU?

Eurocrats stress that the EU is not an intergovernmental organization. It is something else: a process of integration, a system of values, a supranational entity in statu nascendi. But with all the jargon of EU titles and the impenetrability of the EU’s primary documents, it sure seems more intergovernmental organization than supranational entity to me. The most recognizable aspect of an intergovernmental organization is its functional incomprehensibility – it exists to conceal clarity and enable technocratic bargaining behind doors closed to public scrutiny. And if the recent sovereign debt crisis in Europe has taught us anything, it’s taught us that most EU leaders prefer bargaining behind closed doors. Democracy, in the form of referendums over legislation with direct impact on EU citizens (e.g., austerity), is messy and might not produce the most Eurocratically desirable outcome. So European leaders and their bargaining representatives motorcade to some gilded resort or other and decide how to implement various institutional changes without actually having to go through the annoying process of treaty alteration, or being held to account. The EU might have legal personality, but its activity, meaning and scope are shrouded in incomprehensible, diplomatic legalese.

Concealing meaning

In George Orwell’s famous essay, Politics and the English Language, he makes the point that language should work to express meaning rather than conceal it. Jargon-blasted and many-claused phrases not only try the brain, they actually end up producing, by their very sloppiness, a politics as unintelligible as the language that describes it:

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

Aside from a kind of Marxist, material dialectics and some rhetorical exaggeration (no Latin!), Orwell’s essay makes a lot of interesting and correct points. I’m not sure I totally agree with his view that language ought to serve a primarily functional, or instrumental, purpose, but I’m not sure I totally disagree as well. And regarding political language, his point seems spot on. (It’s not “torture,” it’s “enhanced interrogation.” Phew, now I can go to sleep at night not thinking my government is pissing directly into the wind of its own ideals.)

Diseases and symptoms

Which brings me back to the EU. The sovereign debt crisis is not a disease of profligate European governments, it’s a symptom of a larger disease, the disease of European language and European politics.* The language of the EU is completely opaque.** There’s the European Council, The Council of the European Union (distinct from the Council of Europe), the Commission, the European Parliament, the European Court of Justice, EURATOM (which is and isn’t an EU institution), the Schengen Agreement (which also is and isn’t an EU institution), the Economic and Social Committee and all kinds of other committees.

According to the treaties, only the Commission, a body composed of representatives appointed by the Council, i.e., not elected by the people, proposes legislation. The parliament, with 736 members, sometimes sits in Strasbourg, other times in Brussels, but its secretariat (administration) is based in Luxemburg. As for the Council of the European Union, their membership of ministers rotates according to what’s under discussion. Really though, the ministers do very little – all the work is done before the ministers meet by members of COREPER, the committees of permanent representatives, or Euroocrats, that do all the closed door bargaining.

demonstrators in front of the ECB in Frankfurt last month (AFP, Daniel Roland)

I do not think all doors should be opened. Much of the time, elected officials and the experts they appoint need privacy in order to bargain honestly and effectively. The democracy deficit in the EU isn’t simply a problem of closed doors, it’s a problem of no one knowing the what, where or why of the doors to begin with.

Although I’m pleased that EU leaders finally seem to be dealing with the fiscal issues underlying the current crisis, this will not address the true disease of the EU, which is one of language and of politics. For the EU to function intelligently and effectively, for citizens of the EU to understand how it actually works and what it actually does, the current entity, qua economic and legal agreement, needs to be reconstituted not merely as a fiscal entity but as a political entity. The confederation needs to be federalized. And unlike in the past, where further cohesion was brought about through treaty-accretion, a federal EU has to start with a constitution that clearly and concisely lays out its purpose and the means of attaining this purpose.

* There’s a great (sadly, firewalled) essay by Henry Farrell in The Nation entitled Zoned that describes how the incomprehensibility of European language and European institutions has left most EU citizens just bored with the whole thing.

** This isn’t to criticize from some absurd balcony of American exceptionalism. Criticism need not be the inverse of laudation. America has a “language problem” too.

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