the European project

“We have made Italy, now we must make Italians.” So said Massimo d’Azeglio, an Italian intellectual, just after his country’s unification in 1861. The current generation of EU politicians face a modern version of the d’Azeglio dilemma: They have made a European Union, now they must make Europeans. ….

But “making Europeans” will be much tougher than making Italians: the process of identity formation must take place across a huge territory with entrenched differences of language and culture.

All nation-builders have known that a shared national narrative and a common language are essential building blocks for the creation of a nation. Control of the education system is essential. In 1861, just one in 40 Italians actually spoke Italian. That was rectified through the schools. But today education remains firmly in the hands of the EU’s 27 nations. There is no common school curriculum inside the EU – far less instruction in a common language. ….

If Europe genuinely wanted all its citizens to be taught in a common language, the obvious candidate would be English. But proposing that English should be made the language of instruction in French schools would simply be a new and amusing way of committing political suicide.

Gideon Rachman, “Europe has yet to make Europeans“, Financial Times, 10 April 2012.

I am not sure that a single language – though helpful – is essential for building a nation-state. Numerous nations, including Canada, Switzerland, Belgium, Finland and Spain are able to function with two or more official languages. The number of languages spoken by citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire rivaled that of pre-unification Italy. According to Wikipedia, only 36.8% of the population in the Austrian Empire spoke German as a mother tongue. In the Kingdom of Hungary 54.4% of the total population spoke Hungarian as a mother tongue, and 10.4% spoke German. The Dual Monarchy had 11 officially recognized languages, and it collapsed in 1918 only because it was on the losing side of World War I.

The European Union in the 21st century, like the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in the 19th, might thrive despite its ethnic and linguistic diversity. On the other hand, 23 official and working EU languages does seem excessive. How about reducing that number to two – English and French – patterned on Canada. France, like the province of Quebec, would have French as its official language. Belgium, like the province of New Brunswick, would be bilingual, with two official languages. In the rest of the EU, English would be the official language of government and public education. Or, moving to a Swiss model, the EU could add German to its list of official languages.

Just as in Canada, governments should be allowed to offer immersion schooling in any official EU language, even if it is not the official language of the country. (Four of the seven public high schools in Greater Victoria, BC, offer French Immersion even though almost no-one speaks French in Victoria. Many parents think, rightly or wrongly, that fluency in French will give their child an advantage over those who speak only English.)

 

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