#6 Europe: United in Diversity?
With the European elections just a few weeks behind us, we thought it would be interesting to find out what makes Europeans European? Are we united in diversity, as the official motto claims? Steering away from politics, we go looking for people and ideas that reach across borders, in order to understand each other a little bit better.
As co-host of a podcast called The Europeans, and as a British journalist based in Paris, who better to ask the question about what makes us European? Turns out, the answer is not that simple. But it’s very much worth talking about, because we often barely know each other. Let’s do something about that!
Estonia is often billed as the most advanced digital society in the world, so we sat down with the Estonian ambassador to talk about their intriguing e-Residency program. It promises to make it easy for anyone to start and run an Estonian business online – from the comfort of your own desk, anywhere on the entire planet.
Finally we turn to the topic of languages, because boy, Europe has a lot of those. But increasingly we’re all talking English to each other – I’m doing it now! This is the primary field of study for Marko Modiano, linguist and English professor near Stockholm, Sweden. Tune in and listen to his unique, positive view on Euro English as an intermediary language.
Additional notes & links
- We opened the episode with an impression of the European Balcony Project. (We’ll post some pictures on our social media in the coming days.)
- If you do want to learn about the organisation of the European Union, make your head spin with this thorough explainer from CGP Grey:
- Read up on operation Tiger leap in Estonia. It sounds cool, but wait until you see that cute logo…
- Take a look at the fancy Estonia e-Residency dashboard for their latest numbers.
- T-shirts and sweaters and caps with the American flag or the Union Jack, sure. But why don’t we see beautiful fashion inspired by the European flag? Take a look at the European By Choice clothing line!
- Want more Euro English? The European Court of Auditors have written this report full of Misused English words and expressions in EU publications. Weird and wonderful!
🎵 All music by Lennart Schoors, except:
Lee Rosevere – Awkward Silences (Version A)
Lee Rosevere – Betrayal
Lee Rosevere – Slow Lights
Lee Rosevere – We’ll Figure it Out Together
The European Balcony Project
Lennart: Picture this: it is the 10th of November, 2018, around 4 o’ clock. It’s a grey and rainy day. All over Europe, politicians and parties are openly discussing their involvement in the European institutions. Most notably the Brits are frantically figuring how to Brexit. But in a few minutes, from about two hundred balconies all around the continent, the European Republic will be proclaimed.
Lennart: And then the clock strikes four…
[3 … 2 … 1 … Let the flag fall + applause]
Lennart: An enormous blue flag is unfolded from the balcony. It features the familiar twelve golden stars, but in the middle a slogan is written: “Europe it can be different”. Of course this whole event is not anything official. It is a symbolic statement organised by The European Democracy Lab, a think tank that explores a Europe across nations and borders – a citizen-centred, decentralised Europe. They want to spark a broad debate about democracy and what it means to be European citizens.
We declare that everyone present at this moment in Europe, is a citizen of the European Republic.
Lennart: The event’s manifesto clearly reveals the leftist origin of the movement, calling out a neoliberal agenda which they say runs counter to the goal of social justice. But regardless of left or right wing ideologies, there is a valid question to be asked: what is the future of the European project?
The European Council is hereby decommissioned. The European Parliament now has the power to make laws. It will appoint a government committed to the welfare of all European citizens. Long live the European Republic!
Lennart: And of course, a republic needs an anthem.
Mei: Uhm, alright, enough of that?
Lennart: Yeah, good idea. Let’s just run the intro…
This is Tomorrow People, a show about building a better tomorrow, today. I’m Lennart, and I am Mei
A brief history of Europe and the EU
Mei: Now, if you’re listening with anguish, don’t worry. You can rest assured we’ll try to avoid politics in this episode. Well, don’t get me wrong, politics can be very interesting, but there’s already plenty of places for you to go if you want to hear about that. We also won’t be diving into the inner workings of the European institutions. Because to call that a labyrinth would be an understatement. You just need to know that there is the continent of Europe, which encompasses 50 countries, and about 750 million inhabitants. And then there’s the European Union. It’s a political and economic union of 28 of those states, and about 70% of the population of Europe.
Lennart: So what are you going to hear about? Well, today we’re searching for the European identity. We promise it will be interesting for everyone, and we have some smart people talking about interesting projects.
Katy Lee and The Europeans
Mei: Like Katy Lee for example.
Katy Lee: Hello?
Mei: I’ll let her introduce herself.
Katy: So my name is Katy Lee. I am a British journalist based in Paris, and I’m also the cohost of a podcast called The Europeans, which is about stuff happening around this continent that we call home.
Mei: She runs the podcast together with Dominic Kraemer, an opera singer living in Amsterdam. Although we agreed not to spend too much time on the B-word – you know, Brexit – it actually was the trigger to start their podcast.
Katy: Both Dominic and I, my cohost and I, we both are Brits living on the continent. We were both, like, profoundly shocked by the result of the referendum.
Mei: In particular, they were shocked by the image that people had of Europe.
Katy: It really didn’t help that in the media, Europe was always kind of presented as something that was boring, and that was far away, and not really relevant to our lives. Just these kind of faceless bureaucrats in Brussels who made decisions for you. And we just wanted to kind of interrogate that idea.
Mei: One of the biggest issues here in Europe is that we don’t actually really know each other well.
Katy: We don’t really hear from other Europeans very much, in the British media. They’re not on TV.
Lennart: Oh that’s true. If you look at pop culture and social media and news, it’s mostly just America, the UK, a bit of China and Japan, maybe some France and Germany, but that’s about it…
Mei: Yeah, that’s also one of the reasons we started this podcast, right? We often know more about the big power nations than about our own neighbours. Now, in and of itself, that’s not really worrisome.
Katy: I don’t think it’s ever gonna change that we’re gonna pay a lot of interest in these countries that are big and powerful. I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem. I do think it would be good for us to pay more of an interest in what’s happening in our neighbours, and to find out what’s going on there. For me, the best way of doing that, is to try and find human stories that help us recognise what we have in common.
Mei: So in their podcast, they bring you the news from that perspective.
Katy: So every week we interview people around the continent, who are doing interesting things. Maybe they’re scientists, or they’re artists, or chefs even. And we just try and get to know our neighbours a little bit better.
Mei: Now, last month, in May, we had the European elections. Every five years, all EU citizens can choose their representatives in the European Parliament. And usually the voter turnout is pretty low. I asked Katy if these elections are a good litmus test for the enthusiasm of the whole European project.
Katy: Hmm, no, I don’t think so. I don’t think Britain is alone in being the only country where the elections don’t get talked about that much. I think a lot of people, if you ask them, you know, “are you kind of broadly happy with the European Union?”, quite a lot of people would say yes. Would they bother to vote? No.
Mei: Weren’t you in that camp yourself?
Katy: Right, yeah, and I’m a fairly enthusiastic European. And I don’t have any excuse for it, beyond being really lazy until now.
Mei: This time though, the voter turnout numbers were encouraging.
Katy: In Europe as a whole, I think it’s the highest in twenty years. I mean it’s still not very much, but I think it is just over 50%.
Mei: In fact, it was the first time since the direct elections started in 1979 that turnout went up instead of down. Maybe this is simply the effect of this polarising trend we see in today’s society. There’s this rising antagonism towards even a mere interest in Europe. In some people’s eyes, either you are squarely in the pro camp, or you want to leave as soon as possible.
Katy: Yeah, no, we get that too. So, people kind of often assume that our podcast is like a pro-EU podcast. Which it isn’t really. I mean, both Dominic and I, we should be upfront about this, voted to remain part of the European Union. But that doesn’t mean that we think the European Union is this absolutely perfect institution. We think there’s loads of problems with it.
Mei: We’ve kind of lost this middle ground. This grey zone. Now why is that?
Katy: That is to some extent born out of frustration with not understanding how Brussels works, and Brussels feeling ver far away. I think the general levels of education of like how the European Union works, is really low. And I think it’s really easy in every country in Europe to blame Brussels, to scapegoat Brussels – you know, big bad Brussels – as something that is to blame for lots of things. It’s a very convenient excuse. And when you blame Brussels with something as a politician in whatever country, not many people interrogate whether or not, that’s true or not.
Lennart: Sometimes the way the European institutions work kind of feels like that quote from Tyrion Lannister in the final episode Game Of Thrones – uh, we won’t spoil it of course, if you haven’t seen it yet. But he says that line that neatly captures the ambiguity of democratic politics.
Tyrion Lannister: “No one is very happy, which means it’s a good compromise I suppose.”
Mei: Tyrion’s right, it’s a balancing act, without clear winners or losers. Granted, the scale often tips a little too much in one direction or the other. All things need correcting, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we should do away with the scale altogether.
Mei: So perhaps the election turnout went up because of the heated debate surrounding them, but maybe we’re also experiencing a resurgence of the European identity. Lennart, do you know the official motto of the European Union?
Lennart: Uh … there is an official motto?
Mei: To be honest, I didn’t know either, but the official motto is short and sweet: “United in diversity”.
Lennart: Hmm, that sounds … actually nice?
Mei: It does, but the obvious question then is, are we? Are we united in diversity? I asked Katy Lee that question:
Katy: I don’t know the answer to that yet.
Mei: Because what is diversity, right? Is it simply about 28 states working together? Is it about accepting minorities within those states? You could say we still have long way to go on that.
Katy: I went to Brussels for the first time in my life a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been kind of amazed at just how white the European institutions are. I’m mixed race myself, and, you know, I don’t feel white. And it was something that kind of stood out for me like a sore thumb.
Lennart: We’ll get back to Katy later in this episode, but first we wanted to showcase a project that aims to reach across borders, making them pretty much invisible to business owners. For that, we took a train to Brussels and rang the doorbell of the Estonian embassy.
Lennart: After going through security, we had an appointment with the ambassador.
Toomas Tirs: [Speaks Estonian]
Lennart: Oh, sorry, let’s try that again in English…
Toomas: My name’s Toomas Tirs. I’m the Estonian ambassador to Belgium, and Luxembourg.
Lennart: Sometimes billed “the most advanced digital society in the world”, Estonia has an impressive array of digital services.
Toomas: Pay taxes, communicate with your state, ask for allowances, buy tickets, …
Lennart: You can vote over the internet, all medical records are digitised, and more.
Toomas: It is so much simpler to run your life when you don’t have to queue behind the local government door or office. You can do those things at home.
Mei: But, what about people who don’t have access to the internet, or people who are not that familiar with computers?
Lennart: Well, Estonia thought about that. More than twenty years ago in fact, when the internet was still in its infancy…
Toomas: There was a program called Tiger Leap.
Mei: Tiger Leap? Well, that sounds fancy.
Toomas: And it was focused on internet education It was a a way to actually train hundreds of thousand of people how to use internet. It brought computers to classrooms. It brought computers to libraries. It gave companies computers for their employees to use. It was the time when actually our banks worked very hard to teach people of using internet banking.
Lennart: So step by step, over many years, services and utilities and companies, they all moved their business online. And step by step they got everybody on board.
Toomas: I can see it for my own parents how they have actually also started using it. Now they do their banking or some of the things on the mobile, they don’t want to do it on a computer anymore.
Lennart: Put simply, Estonians have become digital residents.
Toomas: We have just taken the electronic ID a step further than many other countries have done.
Lennart: But since 2014, they offer this concept not just to Estonian residents. It is now available to anyone. Or better said, to anyone who wants to do business. They call it the e-Residency. Toomas explains:
Toomas: Estonian e-Residency is a way to offer to the entrepreneurs from all over the world, the ability to open easily a business in Estonia, and run a business from there. So the idea is that you can use electronically all the main services that are required for opening a business, running a business, paying taxes, banking, billing, … things like that.
Mei: So when you become an e-Resident, I don’t suppose you automatically get the Estonian nationality, right?
Lennart: No, you should see it more as a way to authenticate yourself online.
Toomas: We’re giving them a unique identity, guaranteed by a state. Because nowadays, when you making your transactions on the internet, who tells you that you are you?
Lennart: Which institution can prove your identity online?
Toomas: Well it’s usually the companies, or Facebook, or Google, or credit card companies. We have not gotten used to governments proving that we are – digitally – who we are.
Lennart: So it’s a a government-issued digital identity and status that provides access to Estonia’s online business environment. And it’s been a success: more than 55.000 e-Residents have signed up in the past 6 years, and about 7000 companies have been established by those people. The obvious question, of course, is “what’s in it for Estonia?”.
Mei: Let me guess, money? They probably collect tax revenues from those e-Residency businesses, right?
Lennart: Absolutely, and Estonia wants to build this business hub, and create a healthy environment for startups and small businesses. Because in this modern day and age, if you run a business online, it’s pretty easy to attract customers from all over the globe, but you don’t want to deal with borders and bureaucracy and stuff like that.
Toomas: If you can do your paperwork or board meetings online, you don’t have to physically always meet, you can do it quicker online, … It makes the business more fluid and easy.
Lennart: Rest assured, you won’t have to learn Estonian to become an e-Resident. Like a very big part of our digital worlds, English is the native tongue here.
Toomas: Of course it is much easier to do business if the registration forms, the banking services, the tax services, … are in multiple languages.
Lennart: And that got us thinking. When traveling in the European Union, borders are largely a formal concept ever since the abolition of internal border controls. You can drive from Lisbon in Portugal all the way up to Helsinki, Finland without ever needing to show your passport. That’s about 4500 kilometres, through 10 countries – I looked it up. But there are still barriers that prevent us from understanding and knowing each other.
Mei: You could say that languages are the real borders in Europe. But there is one language that increasingly binds us. Ironically, it’s the native language from the country that is trying to leave the EU. More about that after the break.
Lennart: We’re almost at the end of the first season of Tomorrow People, and so far, we’re pretty happy with the response. The numbers are growing, steadily, and you’ve been listening, and liking our instagram posts and retweeting our tweets. But, if we want to keep doing this, and have a season two, and a season three, an so on, there’s no way around this: we’ll have to grow a lot more.
Mei: Indeed. And we’re going to need you, dear listener. Don’t worry, we’re not asking you to donate or fill in long surveys – no, just help us spread the word. So, tell your friends and family, write a review on Apple Podcasts, share the Tomorrow People podcast on social media. It’s just two minutes of your day, but it would mean a whole lot to us. Alright, back to the content.
Mei: Lennart, when we first came up with the idea for Tomorrow People, we didn’t really hesitate about what language we would use, right?
Lennart: No, of course. I mean, if you want to reach a broad audience in Europe, and by extension the world, you choose English.
Mei: Right. And it’s also the language we’re most fluent in, other than our native tongue, which is Dutch.
Lennart: Yeah, it always surprises me, that when talking with French-speaking people for example, which is an official language in Belgium, we often resort to English. And we learned French in school from the age of 8, but still, it’s just easier. Less awkward.
Mei: Yeah. So if we wanted to dive into the topic of languages in Europe, we had to reach out to this man from Sweden.
Marko Modiano: Well, could you just wait just one quick second? Okay …
Mei: So his name is Marko Modiano.
Marko: And I’m professor of English at Gävle University in Sweden.
Mei: He’s an expert on linguistics and literary history, and an authority in the field of language diversity.
Mei: First up, a bit more background: there are many dozens of languages currently in use in Europe. Just looking at the EU countries for example, there are 24 official languages. So obviously, if we want to communicate with each other, we need a common language. Throughout history, several languages have tried to manifest themselves as this lingua franca, with varying degrees of success. Depending on the time and location, it used to be French, or German, or Spanish, or even Italian…
Mei: Some people even tried to come up with an entirely new language. Perhaps the best example here is Esperanto. It was invented by a Polish-Jewish doctor at the end of the 19th century, and its goal was to create an easy and flexible language, that would serve as a universal second language to foster peace and international understanding. You know, a very noble initiative. But a couple of issues prevented that from ever really happening.
Marko: First of all, it is evident that that effort came from the left. It had its greatest support from people that have sympathies for socialism, and marxism, and so on.
Mei: So it had a political connotation.
Marko: But the big problem is that if a language is not directly associated with a community – we call them speech communities, or you could say an ethnic group or a cultural group – if you don’t have that tied to historical documentation, poetry, different political texts written in the language, and so on… If you don’t have a rich literature, it’s extremely difficult to promote that language. And Esperanto has none of these things. So it really was doomed from the beginning.
Mei: Depending on how you count, there are now a couple hundred thousand or maybe 1 or 2 million people who can speak Esperanto in the world. Which is hardly enough to call it universal, of course. So until World War II, there was no consensus or clear winner when it came to a common intermediary language. At that moment both German and English were on the rise…
Marko: But after the war, people did not seem to be interested in learning German, to the same extent.
Lennart: … for obvious reasons, I guess?
Marko: And this when German fell from grace and English took over, if you will. In Eastern Europe, we had then the promotion of Russian through the Warsaw Pact countries, and their political situation.
Mei: The rise of English got a boost because of the second World War, but it was the American culture that made a real difference.
Marko: You know, this interest in jazz, this interest in the culture of New York. You know the superstars of Hollywood through the thirties and forties. That had a tremendous influence.
Mei: English took over because it was an appealing language.
Marko: In very simple terms one could say that where you have money, where you have military might, where you have high technology, and so on… that language would be considered attractive to others.
Mei: It became a third or even second language in schools, and got another big boost when TV and later the internet appeared on the scene. So that, in a nutshell, is how we came to the current situation. In Europe, and specifically in northern Europe, and countries like the Netherlands and Belgium, you’ll find very high degrees of basic English proficiency.
Marko: It’s extremely rare to be 20 years old, and not know English.
Mei: Now, enter Brexit. Will the use of English as an intermediary language decline again, as the UK tries to leave the EU?
Marko: I believe that what we will see is that English will become more important and stronger in the European Union, in the decades to come. And this is of course very unfortunate for the French. They seem to be the ones who seem the most concerned. The Germans have pretty much conceded.
Mei: The reason the French are upset, is that they have always had objections to the exclusive use of English in official contexts, because they argued that it gives sort of an unfair advantage to one member state, the United Kingdom. But with the UK out of the EU, you could argue that English is even more suited as a lingua franca, as it will no longer be native to a large part of the remaining population. It sort of becomes unburdened.
Marko: The French seem to think that now everybody’s going to start speaking French. Unfortunately that’s not going to happen.
Mei: Also because English is much more useful when communicating with the rest of the planet.
Marko: And this is especially true for Asia, which is becoming more and more important as an economic power in the world.
Mei: Okay, but what if this whole Brexit thing never actually materialises?
Marko: I think we’re at the point now where it doesn’t matter. The British have lost their influence. They’ve lost their hold on being an authority for English on the continent. And I don’t think they can get it back.
Mei: Where the United Kingdom used to keep a close eye on English grammar, pronunciation and spelling, that role as a language watchdog has expired.
Marko: That mindset is now gone from the European Union. There are no native speakers. The British have left the field.
Mei: Without this grip on our use of English, Marko Modiano predicts that we’ll see a further proliferation of Euro English, a version of English shaped by our daily use of it as a second language, or what linguists call an L2.
Marko: Users of English as an L2, will begin incorporating certain aspects of their native languages. Aspects of grammar, pronunciation, and certainly the choice of lexical items, and even innovative expressions, and so on… You have a process where these become nativised. And this always takes place when a language is used as a lingua franca. So it’s a natural process.
Lennart: So Euro English? Do you have any examples so I can get a better idea?
Mei: Sure, I have a list here of grammar and vocabulary variations. Let’s look at the possessive form for example: In “correct” English – and I’m using air quotes here – you might say “I’m going to my brother’s house” whereas in Europe you might hear “I’m going to the house of my brother”. Which is a grammatical construction derived from languages like French and Spanish.
Mei: Or instead of “What do you call that” you might hear “How do you call that”. Or we invent new words like the adjective “touristic”, which doesn’t actually exist in English, or plural forms like “informations”, which is normally always used in singular form. So there’s a whole list of these variations and mistakes, and the list is growing.
Marko: It’s interesting that you talked about them as mistakes, because I would not use that term. In linguistics, they use the word interference. And they mean negative interference. But in my work I’m claiming that there is something that can be considered positive interference. In other words, there are aspects of European languages which enrich the English language. Which can be brought into the English language as something positive. And this is always going on, as languages loan aspects of other languages. This is a natural process. So I see the influence of mainland European languages on English, as something which is an aspect of identity, it’s healthy and positive, and should be encouraged. As long it takes place within the context of a comprehensible usage, which is understood by people throughout the European Union. But I believe we have the emergence now of a kind of European English.
Mei: Some of his colleagues don’t really agree with his positive approach though. But Marko would love to see so-called grammar and spelling police back off.
Marko: No, I think it’s terrible when people are quick to point out when someone makes a mistake. That’s an act of power, it’s a way of stigmatising, and marginalising people. I think we really need to get away from that. What we need to do instead, is we need to say “how nice that you’ve taken the effort to learn a language that we can share”.
Mei: And he goes even further.
Marko: There is no such thing as bad English. There is no such thing as someone who speaks English poorly. There are only people who are in the process of attaining competence in the language. And they should be encouraged, and praised. And that’s important.
All the effort and kudos aside though, at the end of the day we need to understand each other in order to come together.
Marko: Naturally of course, languages are a barrier. But I personally do believe that there is a European culture, and that there is a European understanding that we share. And obviously, using English will make it easier.
Mei: Using English may allow us to discover that we’re not that different from each other. To illustrate this, Marko paints a fictional picture:
Marko: I go to dinner with a gentleman from Portugal, and gentleman from Greece. And the three of us are having dinner.
Mei: Cosy atmosphere, great food, some chit-chat back and forth.
Marko: Well, it could very well be the case that we discover that we like the same television programmes, we like the same movies, we have similar values, … There’s a sense of brotherhood, there’s a sense of understanding between us, which is greater than the connection I have to my neighbour. To the person living across the street in Stockholm.
Mei: That’s because we now travel, we have mass media, the internet, universities, …
Marko: Which a lot of people are doing today and which very few people did 50, 60 years ago.
Lennart: So, to wrap up. We’ve been searching for the European identity across borders, across languages. And it’s a simple question; What makes us European? The answer though, is anything but simple, according to Katy Lee, co-host of The Europeans podcast.
Katy: You know, I’ve making this podcast about what it means to be European for a year and a half, and I’m still not sure I could give you a good answer to what it means to be European.
Lennart: Sure, the European institutions are easy to criticise, and without a shadow of a doubt some of that criticism is justified. But let’s also remind ourselves that we’ve managed to overcome incredible obstacles so far.
Katy: Sometimes I’m amazed at how far we’ve been able to come, given just how many languages we speak. Like, I was sitting in the European Parliament the other day, looking at all of the boxes around the parliament, where the interpreters sit. And it just really struck me, like, my god, we have managed to build this political union out of 28 countries that speak all of these different languages – sometimes multiple languages per country. And I think that’s something that we don’t pat ourselves on the back for, enough.
Lennart: And there are several initiatives and projects that truly have a positive impact.
Katy: If you look at things like Erasmus.
Lennart: Erasmus is a EU programme that allows millions of young adults to study abroad.
Katy: I meet people all the time who say they did it and it was, you know, one of the best years of their lives, and they managed to make friends from all these different countries… Stuff like that does make you – even the most cynical person like me – feel a little bit warm and fuzzy inside about our capacity to reach across borders and build relationships with people that come from different cultures and speak different languages.
Mei: We still have a long way to go before Europe is that democratic, balanced force it should be – and, let’s face it, it’s never gonna be perfect for anyone.
Katy: I think it’s very easy to be full of doom and gloom. And certainly you see headlines all the time saying “Is this the end of Europe?” and people pitching things as a battle for the soul of Europe. I think part of that is just newspapers trying to sell papers, through shock value, really. I actually think, when it comes down to it, the European project is fairly strong. I think we’re in a better position than a lot of people think.
Lennart: This episode of Tomorrow People was produced, hosted, edited and scored by Mei Van Walleghem and me, Lennart Schoors. With additional music by Lee Rosevere. Thanks to our guests Katy Lee, Toomas Tirs and Marko Modiano. Additional thanks to Meelimari Guljavin.
Mei: While doing research for this episode, we collected a few interesting projects, movies and links again, all about Europe. A pretty cool project is European By Choice, which is a clothing line inspired by the European flag and other European symbols. Because, you can easily find a t-shirt or a cap with the American flag, or the British Union Jack, but when do you ever see anyone proudly wearing anything European? We’ll put all of that on our website at tomorrowpeople.today
Lennart: In two weeks, we’ll wrap up this first season of Tomorrow People with a short episode with some updates and news, and a little Q&A. You can still send us your questions, both for us, or for any of our past guests. You can send them on social media or via email. Our contact details are at our website tomorrowpeople.today.