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15 May 2022

When Brits explain the EU to us

Here is a media pro-tip for europhiles everywhere, and especially for those whose first language is not English. Whenever you read somebody referring to the EU as a bloc, stop right there. And stop reading anything from those news organisations or think tanks, or academics who use this language, or encourage their staff to use it. I recall many times when editors tried to replace repeated references to the EU in my copy with the word bloc. It was the attempt to replace the right word with an ideologically loaded placeholder.

The EU is not a bloc, never has been. Bloc is the ultimate europhobic insult. But herein lies the irony. The insult is usually delivered by authors and news organisations that consider themselves pro-European. It is just that in the UK being pro-European means something very different than it does elsewhere. For British pro-Europeans, the EU is a bloc of otherwise happily co-operating nation states.

The UK has left, but the bloc-heads are still there. British media and think-tanks, as well as UK and US universities, are still trying to set the tone in the European debate. I believe that this will change eventually, but we are living in a transition. Media habits change slowly.

This is not about the use of English. English is, and will remain, the lingua franca of cross border communication. It would be futile to force Estonians to communicate with Greeks in French. But there is a difference between the language through which we communicate and the nationality of those who control the nodes of our communication networks.

I see no reason why high-quality information about the EU cannot be generated in English, but EU-sourced. I was once involved in a trans-European newspaper venture. It failed commercially. All other attempts of setting up genuine European newspapers also failed. Robert Maxwell’s The European was a low-life tabloid rag. The International Herald Tribune read like it was written by Americans in Paris. It turned out it was. Politico is at least a serious journalistic venture. But it is dominated by UK and US trained staff. The world’s most influential television stations and news wires are American and British. The media space is still Anglo.

The problem with the Anglo-dominated newspapers lies in the construction of European narratives. It starts innocently with words. The union becomes a bloc. The civil servant becomes a eurocrat. Peace-making become appeasement.

But it does not stop there. The Anglos have their agenda. There was a time, some twenty to thirty years ago, when the EU had reached a consensus that deepening and widening should go hand in hand. I myself supported that consensus and still do. I think it was the dominance of American and British narratives that got us into the loss of that balance. Since the adoption of the euro, the EU has ceased any meaningful integration. But its membership almost doubled. All the talk right now is about enlargement to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, in addition to North Macedonia and Albania.

If you keep telling yourself that the EU is functioning well as it is, with the European Council at the centre, surrounded by a European Parliament with limited powers and a technocratic European Commission, you may conclude that the EU needs no treaty change. You may call yourself a realist. The realists are obsessed with power politics: who is up, and who is down.

But realists don’t focus on actual problems, like a dysfunctional monetary union that wobbles during each crisis, or migration streams across open borders in the Schengen area. If you believe, like I do, that the EU should become a democratic political union, you will not find much support from authors whose institutions are based in London.

So what to do? The only answer is: start reading other stuff. If you don’t speak French, German, Spanish or Italian, you may struggle to find non-English alternative information sources. But, technically, it is possible, and affordable. Translation software has become uncanniy good, to the point now where it can produce readable output. There is no reason why the aforementioned Estonian should not be able to read a Greek political essay. Here at Eurointelligence, we have been using translation software for over 15 years. I recall when, in a previous era, translation software we used rendered Malo, the surname of a Spanish central banker, as the evil one. That does not happen any more.

But perhaps the more important impact will be on the commercial viability of new English-language media products, because advancing technology allows for workflows that were financially out-of-bounds before. It takes time for media habits to change. But at least this is now technically and commercially feasible when that wasn’t the case before.

Eventually, EU citizens will no longer need Brits to explain the EU to them.

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