Which place is more suitable to ask people about the future of the European Union than Luxembourg? I am heading for the building of the European Commission today to interview some of the people who work for or with the EU. Despite being sent off at first approach - I need an authorisation even to people smoking outside about their personal expectations of a European future ? I do have success at my second attempt. Upon explaining my project at the reception desk, I manage to get an entrance badge. I exploit my admittance to talk to some people who, like me, spend a lot of energy on thinking about Europe.
In the corridors, French and English are the most common languages. People don`t talk a lot though, except when they are direct colleagues or compatriots. Others don`t greet each other, don`t look at each other and/or know each other. Syllabi full of instructions, directives and guidelines lie around on tables. Written internal communication is written in foggy language, usually involving a lot of CC-ing, references to other people or department who oftentimes slow down whatever intended action that either sender or receiver of the e-mail had.
`Thinks that after 25 official European language, another one extra or less does not make a big difference`
The men`s toilets are marked with an A4 page filled with the world `gentlemen` in all of the 21 official EU languages. The premises further feature small offices in a labyrinth setup, all bearing numbers and codes, and most of them with the door closed. The impersonal and bureaucratic atmosphere make the building feel like an indoor city rather than a functional organism.
Iztok (35, photo) works for the commission as a translator for English > Slovenian. He works in a team of 50 colleagues who perform the exact same task of providing all requested documents in their Slovenian equivalent. All official texts, official meeting reports and website material need to be translated into all languages, causing massive overhead and a lot of hassle. Discussions about adopting a single language of conversation have been lingering but there seem to have been no initiative to cut the number of language to a few core ones.
Together with Iztok, I try to list a number of challenges the EU may be facing during coming years. The first one he mentions is the further enlargement of the union, with Croatia and Bosnia set to join soon, later followed by the other countries in the region. Iztok is not worried about member states splitting up, especially if the respective parts will remain member states. `Another extra language makes no difference on top of the many we already have`, he says with a smile.
Although Iztok doesn`t oppose the procedure of adding new countries, the differences in wealth between the richest and the poorest members do worry him. `The divide may be used by poor countries to morally justify corruption. Rich countries could easily get frustrasted to see their money drip away in financial mazes`, he says. `In both cases, the differences may feed nationalistic and separatist feelings within member states. States who are familiar with corruption have a long tradition of `envelop money`, to the extent that the official economy also depends on these structures. Phasing these out is a risky business, and requires very careful change management. States with a lot of money do not tolerate their money to be fooled around with. They may start to put limits on their contributions or try to opt-out on financial obligations.` Iztok thinks that the preferential treatment stipulated by the UK in the 1980s will not be demanded by other countries. He does mention that a fair and careful distribution of funds will be vital in maintaining the richer member`s support.
Iztok further thinks that integration is going very slowly: `Look at the old member states, including Luxembourg and Germany. I am one out of many Frontaliers, commuters who daily cross the Luxembourg border to get to work. The fact that I still need to bank accounts ? a Luxembourg one to receive my salary and a German one to pay for my apartment ? is straightforwardly ridiculous. I can understand that cultures take a long time to integrate, but just procedures like this one.. That`s unacceptable.
Closer to the matter
Carlos (25) has remembered some other financial issues that bothered him. He grew up in Portugal and witnessed how EU funds were used for people`s personal projects instead of the common good. `Many local Portuguese farmers received funds from the EU. Some of them converted the money into bigger cars and bigger houses without investing in their business. The end result: money gone, rich farmers but zero use for the community. Agriculture in Portugal still needs subsidies so the country and the EU both lose. Europe should be a lot closer to their work terrain, to actually see what can and can not be materialised. Fortunately, they are slowly getting better at it.`
Matthieu (30) from France thinks that the European Union itself is to blame for the French and Dutch `no` against the Constitution. Matthieu thinks that the rejection was not a rejection of the constitution itself, but a general vote of disapproval about the way the European Union presents its projects. He explains: `We as citizens do not relate to what they do and we feel like we have no influence whatsoever. They send out directives which we then see integrated into our national legislation, whether we agree with it or not. In France, many people chose according to what the national political party of their preference advised them to vote. They needed somebody to tell them what to vote, because they didn`t know what they were actually voting for.`
Instead of taking the rejection as an encouragement to improve communication, the new constitution will be more incomprehensible, less accessible and therefore even more distant from the population than the original.
Marie-Elisabeth (35), Belgian, is optimistic about the European integration, in spite of separatist movements in several European countries. `The same happened with Czechoslovakia and that did not prevent them from joining.` Marie-Elisabeth does not foresee that any of the current member states will actually give up its membership. Comparing this hypothetical scenario to the disintegration of the Roman Empire or the Soviet Union does not make sense to her: `Countries who joined the EU did so by choice, while the Roman Empire simply tried to expand it territory by conquering other tribes. The consensus model of the European Union may cause slow progress, but the progress is certain and has broad support.` Marie-Elisabeth further thinks that Turkey should be admitted to the European Union, because it is one of the major gateways to Europe: `Their religious tradition may be a barrier, but they for sure should be let in.`
Monique (26) thinks that further integration of the European Union will wipe the Luxemburgish nationality off the map within the next 50 years. She does not seem very sad about that and quickly adds that Luxemburg does not have any nationalist political party, nor a nationalist tradition. `We depend on Europe and Europe is our future. Still, local and regional languages are becoming more important, because people don`t want to lose the culture they grew up in.`
Monique`s boyfriend Michel (27) agrees that culture, religion, language all create barriers which are hard to overcome, first and for all because they are based on human traditions. He has fewer worries for financial issues. `Luxembourg depends on its bank secrecy and tax advantages to attract foreign companies. If we are forced to give those up, we will have a hard time maintaining our current living standards. We trust that the balance we create by supporting poorer member states now, will also help make them support us once we need their help`,
Anyway, for all that is not tangible, financial and capitalistic: 2008 will be the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue and Integration. Maybe that will help get Europe and Europeans a little closer together.
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