Accessibility links

Breaking News

EU: Enlargement Could Create Modern Tower Of Babel

The European Union has embarked on a Convention on the Future of Europe. It is to last for as much as a year and, in the minds of some, aims to emerge with a workable draft of an EU constitution. Some participants are likening the European convention to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, where the U.S. Constitution was conceived. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill reports that one important difference between the Brussels and Philadelphia meetings is this: At the Philadelphia convention, all the delegates spoke the same language.

Prague, 14 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Ancient scripture common to Jews, Christians, and Muslims tells that the Babylonians of pre-history set out to build a great tower. In the words of the Bible, the tower was to have "its tip in the heavens." The story says that this arrogance angered God. He disrupted the construction by confusing the language of the workers so they no longer could cooperate, and the tower never was completed.

That sounds something like one of the problems now confronting the modern Tower of Babel known as the European Union.

As it contemplates expanding from its present 15 member states to 22 or more, the EU also faces the prospect of doubling the 11 languages it currently recognizes as official. Language and communication are among the subtlest and most intractable of the issues that the expanding EU must cope with.

The EU on 28 February in Brussels opened a Convention on the Future of Europe. More than 100 European parliamentarians, experts, and governmental representatives are to spend the coming year working on how the newly enlarged union should be reformed, structured and governed. They will confront issues such as whether the EU needs a foreign minister and an elected president, what legislation the European Parliament should be empowered to pass, and what kind of constitution, if any, the group should adopt.

The convention began its work only a few days ago and immediately developed disputes.

Its rules permitted the 13 nations aspiring to membership to send delegates. But the prospective new members did not receive a seat on the 12-member steering committee guiding the deliberations. A number of the applicant countries protested against the arrangement. The Polish and Czech prime ministers in a joint commentary wrote of a potential for, as they put it, "an exclusive hard core of member states" developing a gap between themselves and the others.

Another complaint of the prospective new members is that the EU is asking them to bear any costs of translating convention documents into their own languages.

Eric Mamer is spokesman on administrative reform for the European Commission. He says that worries about translation and interpretation difficulties of additional languages in an expanded EU may be exaggerated: "I can fully understand that for people who are not in the business it does sound somewhat daunting, but working with 11 languages already is a daunting task in itself. If we have been able to manage that, we should be able to manage a certain number of other languages as long as we have got the right number of professionals and they continue to be trained adequately."

British, U.S., and Continental newspapers have carried a number of reports in recent days speculating on new language difficulties in the EU. Several commented on the likely scarcity, for example, of translators and oral interpreters who can work in, say, Czech and Estonian. Asked about that, Mamer chuckled.

"Well, that is a question that people think is new, but in fact that is something that we already have, and we have had for some time -- for example, translating from Finnish into Portuguese. That is not any less difficult than translating from Lithuanian into Portuguese," Mamer says.

Mamer says the European Commission works internally in English, French, and German. He says the staff commonly uses what he calls "relay languages" between languages not widely spoken. For example, to convert from Estonian into Czech, one translator or interpreter might render a document or address from Estonian into English, and a second from English into Czech. There has so far been little mainstream support for the development of a single common language like Esperanto.

Mamer says the EU has developed a number of computer tools to assist in translation. These include glossaries, multiple-language dictionaries and even an electronic translation program known as Systran. All, however, require human monitoring and direction.

The EU's costs of translation and interpretation are immense. European Commission staffers trying to respond to a reporter's inquiry about just how much still were calculating two days later. In the European Parliament alone, translation and interpretation costs take up some 33 percent of the parliamentary budget.

Sweden is urging the reduction of translation and interpretation workload to be among administrative reforms that the EU pursues. Swedish Prime Minister Goeran Persson has proposed a system for reducing translation services.

At a higher level, some European thinkers are expressing concerns about more fundamental pan-European communication needs. Europe, they say, must develop a European voice.

Karel van Wolferen is a professor at the University of Amsterdam specializing in political and economic institutions. He says ultimately, Europe's greatest political need may be for what he calls a "public sphere."

"A public sphere exists of course for political purposes, and it exists in order to give the citizens the ability to control power -- to some extent. Without a public sphere you cannot have a [true] democracy," van Wolferen says.

Van Wolferen decries the lack of a single European-edited pan-European newspaper: "[Such a paper would provide] a means by which different segments of the population can actually be informed about what it is that their democratically chosen representatives are discussing, and what they should be thinking about this."

Professor van Wolferen expressed the need for a Europe-wide "public sphere" at a conference in Switzerland in 2001 sponsored by the Vienna-based International Press Institute. A number of intellectuals, journalists, and academics have since gathered around him to pursue the idea of a publication to meet the gap. They have not yet reached the question of what language or languages it would employ.