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Rivers of Meaningless Words: European Commission’s communication strategy

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German thinker Martin Heidegger said that language is “the house of being”. What he meant is that language is not a tool. It is no mere collection of words and phrases that our mind has at its free disposal. Language is woven into the very fibre of human existence and it is that existence which speaks to us with a language. So when sun shines, it speaks with sort of a primordial language – the language of being. For example, it may be a dawning sun at a meadow above a town, on the day of a happy return home after months’ absence. This all could well be retold in a spoken word back in the house to a family, or captured in a poem, or snapped as a photo with an accompanying description. But what comes first, Heidegger says, is that everything speaks to us. And we respond.

To summarise this for the impatient reader who is eager to learn what I want to say by this hefty introduction: language matters, language is important, language makes the world that we live in. That is why there is a distinction between public and private conversations, between what we say to strangers, business partners, friends and those who we love. Each occasion “deserves” different expressions, because it already speaks with a different primordial language to us. It is different.

One of the signs of 21st century postmodernity is that such distinctions and boundaries are eroding and disappearing. People speak the same way to their colleagues as to their friends, and a sign of a successful politician is that he or she speaks a simple youthful language, as if to the best buddy in a bar. Written conversations are increasingly taking the abbreviated form of text messages or Twitter and are rid of onerous phrases of politeness. Meanwhile, political correctness dictates pretence and obscurantism in our daily behaviour. What gets on our tongue cannot be said because it may go against the ideological current. Since “it may hurt someone,” the established wisdom says, it is better to keep quiet. That communication and conversation, in apt and right words corresponding to reality (“primordial language”) even if it can be discomforting (and it will always be, for one or another) is necessary to improve ourselves is a thought long left forgotten.

In consequence, words that we speak too often become disconnected from context, people, and situation. Making distinctions between what is private and public, spoken and written, what is a thought and feeling that deserves expressing and that is not worth the same privilege – all that seems to disappear. In many areas of life, the words acquire a sort of virtual existence and stop being attached to the language that “the world” conveys to us.

With such bleak analysis, my following point may seem a minor one. It is about the way that the European Commission, the EU’s “executive arm” itself communicates. Because to a great extent, it embodies much of the above trends. Any political body, especially the one that claims a mandate to represent 500 million people, should speak a language that may be formal, yet understandable to all citizens. The reader can judge for himself or herself if the European Commission fulfils this role from this tweet from Neven Mimica, European Commissioner for “International Cooperation and Development”:

Commissioner Mimica's tweet, content unknown
Commissioner Mimica’s tweet, content unknown

Can someone tell me if Mr Nimica is talking about gardening, finding a solution to the migrant crisis or perhaps securing development aid for countries in Africa? No one will ever know, at least not from this tweet. To put it in a greater context, it was kindly sent to me by a friend of mine last week, with a reference that I should compare it to the stuff produced by a “eurospeak generator”. For anyone who tries: the resemblance is striking, although both would inevitably fail on the famous Turing test.

The problem with this technocratic babble is that it obscures from the European public the real content of decisions that are made in Brussels. The content of many of these decisions is political and not technical, as the Commission pretends and also demonstrates in its choice of language. National politicians very well know this and the European Commission, which always tries to come out of debates ‘neutrally’, is often blamed for decisions done by Member States. Vice versa, credit is always national and sold to the voters back home.

On the one hand, national politicians are happy if such a controversial political issue as TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with United States) is negotiated by the European Commission. On the other, the European Commission gullibly perpetuates its technicalist myth, thinking that this is the right path to building a “politics-free” consensus and thus deepen European integration. It goes back to the neo-functionalist approach to building a European Union, which foresees that political integration will inevitably follow economics. Rather than being a “bottom-up” process with the support of the European people, this is obviously a “top-down” approach, where people are expected to eat what politicians serve them on the plate.

But I can kindly ask my reader to imagine what would happen if the European Commission started speaking about TTIP, for example, in a human language. That means as of a political issue rather than as of an inevitable turn of fate that brings happiness to all (and more progress and growth to corporations and grannies in backwater villages alike, so to say). The politics within TTIP ultimately entails answering the question whether one is for or against neoliberal capitalism. If someone at the top of the Commission was able to formulate such a stance, put their fat salary in risk by speaking out, then we would have an administration that could be properly loved or hated – because of political choices it makes, rather than painstakingly avoids.

The European Union is not a community of destiny, those are nations into which we are born. Instead it is a community of heart and mind, so that it has to appeal to both. Heart is primarily culture, mind is real defence of European interests. Both require that such mission is expressed in a corresponding language, language of politics that formulates clearly what lies at stake behind each choice.

 

-Jindřich Mitrovský

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