The Tower of Brussels

The future of Europe lies not in more bureaucracy, but in a deeper understanding across linguistic barriers. Modern technology might help save the European project.

“More Europe!”, it echoes from everywhere, as if “Europe” were some sort of substance that could be administered in greater or lesser doses, some medicine that should be applied according to the credo “the more, the better.” But what, exactly, is the European essence, and why is it supposed to cure the continent’s problems like an omnipotent serum?

If we look more closely, we can see that those who cry loudest for “more Europe” usually aim at the strengthening of European institutions and inter-state control mechanisms. More Europe thus means more state – with the added twist that the state that is supposed to be strengthened isn’t even a formal entity yet. In reality, of course, the European state exists already. States don’t come into existence through the definition of statist symbols or through the drawing of lines on a map, or through the inauguration of a head of state. A state develops as the bureaucratic apparatus grows: the state is the totality of the institutions that sustain it.

In this sense, Europe has long been a state. Karl Marx described the state’s apparatus in his pamphlet “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” as an “executive power with its enormous bureaucratic and military organization, with its wide-ranging and ingenious state machinery, with a host of officials [….] – this terrifying parasitic body which enmeshes the body of […] society and chokes all its pores.” This is the essence of Europe today, and we can easily imagine what “more” of that essence would mean.

But Europe is older than the so-called “European institutions,” whose alleged purpose it is to secure the continent’s further integration. Europe, for centuries, has been marked by conflicts between big and small powers in different areas, who forged alliances and marched into battle against each other. And it has also been marked by cultural exchange, cultural mixing and demarcation, by the integration and contestation of different traditions. This is Europe: a wild mix of siblings who are bound to each other in a perennial love-hate relationship.

One doesn’t have to believe that the explosive potential of this cultural mix is simply dispersed when we tighten Europe’s institutional shackles. Different value systems are the products of long-standing traditions and cannot easily be assimilated and unified by bureaucratic control mechanisms. Everybody knows that it can be conducive to long-term peace to avoid each other for a while. We must not always work together – sometimes, temporarily, it is okay to simply exchange friendly smiles at a distance.

If we can distill a European essence or identity, it probably is the knowledge that we are bound to a common destiny despite our obvious differences. The peoples of Europe are like siblings who have the same genes (and don’t deny their common ancestry) but frequently lack appreciation of their differences, and who bear the scars of past quarrels. Europe is united in difference, as paradoxical as that may sound, and this is what makes the continent most different from other regions of the world. Europe is too small to avoid each other, and too pluralistic to understand each other.

A European language would be the precondition for a European dialogue, or at least the possibility to transcend linguistic barriers. More Europe would have to start with a European public sphere. Dialogue implies that we can understand each other, reply to others’ arguments and rely on being understood by others. We’re far away from such a public sphere, despite international newspaper circulation, satellite TV and internet. Despite decades of globalization, our dialogue remains largely limited by linguistic barriers. If those in power really desired more Europe – and not more state power – they would invest in our abilities and possibilities to understand each other.

Modern translation technologies will soon empower us to do just that, wholly without state support. “More Europe” is partially driven by the computing power of cloud server centers in the United States, from where every website and every video can be translated in real time from one European language into another one.

It’s unclear whether the Eurozone will still have a common currency when Greek newspapers or Spanish news programs can be understood by everyone, thanks to the split-second translations of a foreign cloud computing service. But that is of secondary importance. Europe finds itself in a process of perpetual mixing and separation. Every period of disunity is followed by a period of renewed integration. We are bound to each other, we are part of the same cocoon that is spun by our respective traditions and that always tears anew. But as long as the internet exists, we will be able to understand each other just a little bit better.

Read more in this column Jörg Friedrich: Familiar Feelings

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