“How can anyone govern a country with 246 different kinds of cheese?” Charles de Gaulle, the founding president of France’s Fifth Republic, is said to have asked. As it prepares for European elections next year, the European Union faces an even bigger challenge: how to run a multinational democratic community with 24 official languages. And remember that the Union is gearing up for a decade of enlargement, potentially including Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia as well as six countries in the western Balkans, which would take the official language tally closer to 30. In Europe at large, there’s an even greater diversity of languages – somewhere between 64 and 234 according to one expert.
This matters. Politics is also theatre. Politicians are actors, as we watch them on the national and international ‘stage’. And democracy is meant to involve people deliberating with each other. What if you can't understand a word they say?
Europe has three answers to this: multilingualism, translation and the English language. According to the EU's official website, multilingualism is ‘one of the EU's founding principles’. This polychromatic linguistic diversity – compare and contrast the US – is one of the things that makes Europe so endlessly fascinating.
You can speak any one of those 24 languages in the European Parliament and you'll be interpreted into others by the most formidable team of expert translators outside the UN. “The language of Europe is translation”, the Italian writer Umberto Eco famously observed. But if poetry is what gets "lost in translation", so is politics. There are keywords, resonances, associations, kinds of rhetoric that touch the emotions, which are different in every case. Winston Churchill’s speeches don't have quite the same power in Slovenian, nor de Gaulle’s in German.
So if you want to reach a wider audience, and hearts as well as minds, there’s no substitute for being in as many languages as possible. That's why I aim to have my commentaries appear in a wide variety of European newspapers and magazines, and why there are now some twenty different European editions of my personal history of Europe, Homelands, in preparation. Each edition, and the debate I have when I go to that country to talk about it, reveals subtle but profound differences in how that society experiences Europe – and, indeed, as the other side of the same coin, how that society thinks about itself.
Yet most of us can’t speak each other's languages, and none of us can speak all of them. Nor can we ordinary mortals afford interpreters and translators. (The annual cost of those services for the European institutions is around €1 billion.)
So then we have recourse to English. Or should I say Euro-English? For although "English" is listed as an official language of the EU, since Britain left the EU the only member states that have it as official languages are Ireland and Malta (alongside Irish and Maltese).
English is by far the most widely used language, both in the EU and in Europe as a whole. According to a 2012 study, some four out of every ten EU citizens spoke English. (That’s not including the British native speakers who in those far-off, happy days, were still European citizens). The proportion is now probably even higher. So English is what Latin was to Europe for centuries, only more so, since Latin was the preserve of a relatively small educated elite.
I've been thinking about this because this week the Guardian is doing something which I've long been hoping it would do. It's launching a European digital edition, to complement its existing three dedicated Anglosphere ones – UK, US and Australian.
The Guardian already has unique reach in continental Europe – more than 250 million page views last year, and nearly 25 million monthly unique browsers. If those 25 million regular Guardian readers constituted a state, they’d be the sixth most populous country in the EU. The Guardian is expanding its European news coverage, hiring new transcontinental reporters on environment, sport, culture and community affairs, bringing in some terrific new commentators from across the continent, and launching a European live blog. This will complement the existing Ukraine live blog, which has been running continuously since Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February ended Europe’s post-Wall period. All this will be a useful source for future historians of whatever this dramatic and dangerous new period eventually comes to be called.
But if poetry is what gets ‘lost in translation’, so is politics. There are keywords, resonances, associations, kinds of rhetoric that touch the emotions, which are different in every case
Of course the Guardian is not alone in the English-speaking Eurosphere. The European edition of Politico does sterling work, as do websites such as voxeurop.eu, euractiv.com and eurotopics.net. The Financial Times is the pulpit of choice for Europe's political, diplomatic and business elites. Major continental newspapers and magazines have their own English-language sites.
The Guardian is clearly going to be an important player, judged by criteria of both quantity and quality. But in conversation with me, the editors have been keen to stress that they are not trying to supplant any of the others. The more the merrier. And here’s the point: even if this digital European edition does spectacularly well, and is subsequently joined by more big players, their combined monthly readership will almost certainly still be well under 10 percent of the EU’s population – and a much smaller proportion of all Europeans.
So the European public sphere will continue to be three-dimensional: multiple individual languages (whether or not they are the official language of one or more states), Eco’s “translation”, and English-language.
Some might grumble – or at least wonder at – a publication based in post-Brexit Britain launching itself so decisively into the Eurosphere. That's silly. An exceptional confluence of circumstances in the late 2010s made it possible for a group of skilful political entrepreneurs to take Britain out of the EU, but you can't take Britain out of Europe or the Europe out of Britain. Geographically, historically, culturally, politically, that's where Britain has always been, and will remain.
Anyway, had it been up to the Guardian, Britain would never have left the EU. Precisely because Britain is no longer institutionally embedded in Europe’s core political community, it becomes all the more important to intensify every other kind of connection across the Channel.
So join me in saying Bienvenue, Willkommen and Vitajte to this great new asset for the Eurosphere – and for European democracy.
Timothy Garton Ash’s Homelands: A Personal History of Europe (Bodley Head, 2023) will appear next month in Italian. Other European editions are in preparation.