In our last post, Michael, one of our commenters, suggested that many of Europe’s current woes stem from a simple lack of common identity:
[It] is obvious (to me at least) that Europe has to reform its identity… Europe has culture, Europe has civilization, Europe has history and finally Europe has what it takes to create the ideal social structure…
Nikolai, another commenter, agreed about the importance of identity, but was highly sceptical that such a thing was possible:
Indeed identity is an absolute and critical issue… [but the EU is a] geographical supra-structural blob on the map with no clear ideology amongst its populous, despite what the elected and non-elected leaders may otherwise state.
Nikolai makes a good point. When in post-war Europe has “European solidarity” appeared quite so fleeting? With the British and French at each others’ throats and the Greeks making Nazi jokes at the Germans whilst the Germans suggest the Greeks mortgage off the Parthenon, never before has “European identity” seemed like such a bad joke. Was the idea doomed from the start? It doesn’t seem possible to create a sense of common identity and solidarity out of such a bitter stew of squabbling populism.
Language, in particular, is often cited as the basis of a common identity; Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities - his much-cited book on the construction of nationalism – argues that all national identities form around a common vernacular. Yet Europe has no common language. Will, then, all efforts at forging a common identity be in vain?
We spoke with Leonard Orban, the Romanian Minister of European Affairs and former European Commissioner for Multilingualism, and asked him if he thought a common “European identity” was possible – especially given the huge diversity of languages spoken in Europe.
I think yes, it is possible. I don’t think that the variety of languages in Europe creates division. The divisions are sometimes created by different stakeholders trying to promote their own agenda; an agenda which is not similar to the agenda of the European Union. I do think it’s important to consolidate a kind of European citizenship, but let’s be very clear (and this was also my main message when I was a Commissioner): only by respecting the diversity of languages in Europe can we ensure a feeling of common identity. It looks a little strange that, on the one hand we are supporting diversity but on the other we want to create such a feeling of European citizenship, but by defending the language of different people living in the European Union, we may offer this feeling of being really a European.
But can we have a common identity without a common language? In a long-running thread on Debating Europe about using Esperanto in the EU, it was argued that over 50% of people in the Union speak English as either a first or second language. Could English be promoted as a common second language?
It is not our role to propose which languages should be learned by different people. Of course, it is clear that there is a tendency to learn certain languages over others and, day by day, we see that more and more people are learning English. English is an excellent language, and it helps one have a direct dialogue with people from different member-states. However, we should also encourage people to learn other languages. Ultimately, it’s a question of defending the cultural diversity of Europe. One of the mottos of the Union, after all, is “Unity in Diversity”.
How do you answer those people who have argued on Debating Europe that Esperanto or some other artificial language might be a solution?
I answer very simply: we have many languages spoken in the European Union, including hundreds of minority languages. Why should we invent a new language? Even within Esperanto, there are different versions; Esperanto spoken in South America is different from that from spoken in Europe, for example. I don’t think we should push for an artificial language as a common European lingua franca. And, ultimately, every language in Europe represents a people and a culture, and we cannot simply invent a new language without having a culture behind it. I said very clearly when I was Commissioner for Multilingualism, we have many languages spoken in Europe, why invent a new one?
Do you share Nikolai’s pessimism about the possibility of a common European identity?
In spite of the many difficulties, in spite of the huge challenges, I’m still optimistic for the future. It’s time to have a vision of a United States of Europe – different, perhaps, from a United States of America – but we nevertheless need a consolidation of Europe. We need to be more united than we are today, to face the challenges ahead.
What do YOU think? Is a European identity impossible? Are there too many diverse languages and cultures in Europe? Or is that very diversity the basis of a common identity? Let us know your thoughts in the form below, and we’ll take your comments to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.
Leonard Orban is the Romanian Minister of European Affairs and former European Commissioner for Multilingualism