Europe’s Crisis of Tongues by Edoardo Campanella*

August 06, 2012, Monday/ 17:01:00

ROME – 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% of emigrants going to South America. Even in countries with no imperial past, but with an enduring migratory tradition, like Ireland, the brain drain to Australia and North America is accelerating.

The severity of Europe’s economic downturn, deficiencies in the euro’s design, and ill-conceived fiscal-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 eurozone to absorb a self-inflicted crisis, so people move out of the currency area rather than within it.

Labor mobility within a currency area represents a key adjustment mechanism to preserve the effectiveness of monetary policy against asymmetries in regional shocks: in theory, workers from the eurozone’s shrinking periphery should flow to the expanding core. In practice, the language barrier impairs this safety valve. Thus, southern Europe is losing its best talent, northern Europe is struggling to fill its job vacancies, and all of Europe is becoming poorer.

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 eurozone. 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, a Sparprogramme.

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, just 18% 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.

Edoardo Campanella is currently a Fulbright Scholar at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He has worked as an economic adviser to the Italian Senate and was formerly an economist at the World Trade Organization.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012.

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