Europe’s Lost Opportunity?

For all the current integration efforts, did Europe miss its best opportunity 350 years ago?

December 8, 2000

For all the current integration efforts, did Europe miss its best opportunity 350 years ago?

Language is a key factor in accomplishing integration. For proof, just look at the less-than-stellar relations between German and French leaders, which are — in part — a function of their mutual inability to converse fluently in each other’s language. Sadly, all this is happening after more than four decades of EU integration. Moreover, the language picture is even bleaker at the citizens’ level. An examination of European history suggests that this situation is at least in part a result of decisions taken in the 17th century.

The year was 1648, and one of Europe’s most devastating conflicts — the 30-year war — had just come to an end. In an international treaty, the Peace of Westphalia, the exhausted combatants agreed on one simple principle: The religion of the states in Europe’s center — most of them in today’s Germany — was to be determined by the religion of its ruler, be it Roman Catholic, Lutheran or Calvinist. The European powers thus opted for religion — rather than language — as an instrument of territorial integration.

At first glance, such a solution makes sense. After all, the 30-year war was sparked by a religious dispute in 1618. The war broke out because the Holy Roman Empire was under the rule of the Catholic emperor, but comprised both Catholic and Protestant areas. At the time, it consisted of modern-day Germany, Austria, Switzerland, eastern France, Belgium, the Netherlands, western Poland, the Czech Republic and Italy.

But as the war went on, it increasingly lost its religious significance and instead became an outright struggle for hegemony in western Europe. Fighting spread from Bohemia (today’s Czech Republic) to draw in Denmark, Sweden and France. For the next thirty years, these powers struggled to establish their dominance.

When the fighting — which mostly took place in Germany — was finally over, the population in Germany had dropped from 16 million in 1618 to less than 10 million in 1648. Towns as well as the countryside had been devastated, and the economy was a shambles. Politically, the house of Habsburg emerged as the main loser.

The main winners were Sweden and France. The Swedes managed to establish themselves as a power outside Scandinavia and gained territories in Northern Germany. France emerged as a leading player and became the most influential power on the European continent.

To sort out the mess that had resulted from three decades of warfare, the parties agreed to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which solved the religious questions of the time. Yet by focusing on religion rather than language, European leaders of the time made the present process of European integration that much harded.

Now, some 350 years later, the shapers of the EU are faced with the fallout of a linguistic legacy that could have been avoided. Had the powers in the 17th century decided to opt for a more imperialist solution for their ostensibly religious conflicts, today’s EU integration process could be much easier.

What would have happened, one must ask, if France and Sweden — the principal victors of 1648 — had insisted to enforce their respective lingua — rather than religion — on the new territories under their control? In doing so, they could have laid the groundwork for reducing the number of languages in present day Europe.

After France and Sweden had conquered and divided the Habsburg Empire, they should have imposed their respective languages on their newly acquired territories. For all we know, Europe might have had an easier integration process if most Europeans today spoke either French or Swedish. But it did not happen that way.

However, they opted for religion. And as a result, the present-day EU is burdened by the necessity to translate all decisions into the 11 different languages spoken in its member countries. This is no small matter. Just consider that fully one-third of the EU’s 16,000 staff are busy doing these translations.

Some might argue that forcing one or two languages on such a culturally diverse group of nations and principalities never would have worked. But there is an interesting precedent in history where just such a feat was accomplished quite successfully.

Let’s switch sceneries — and move from Europe’s bloody 30-year war to the Arab world. After Muhammad (570-632) had received the words of the Qur’an (Koran) over an astounding period of 13 years by divine revelation, he managed to bring Arab tribes together under his leadership — and thus win them over to Islam.

Since Muslims consider the Koran to be God’s word, they are not allowed to translate it. Thus, in Mosques all over the world, the Koran is being read in Arabic. And even though translations do exist today, they cannot be used to cite quotes or to comment on religious topics.

That means that the spread of Islam also helped spread the Arabic language — and this linkage became an important tool in uniting the Arab world. Thus, when the third Caliph Uthman-ibn-Affan appointed a commission to come up with an authorized version of the Koran back in 650, he initiated a process of linguistically-induced integration that can only be looked at with envy by the 21st century EU commissioners.

Admittedly, simple folk in Malaysia or Indonesia do not speak Arabic and would not understand the Koran without translations. Yet, what Islam did for the Arabian peninsula, parts of the Middle East and most of Northern African was to give them one language. No mean achievement for the seventh century world. Some 1,350 years later, the EU is still struggling to get started in a similar fashion.

But there is one saving grace in Europe’s language muddles. At least the need for translators provides well-paying jobs — a step in the right direction to tackle Europe’s stubborn unemployment problem.