Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Newcomer’s Language Battle in the European Union: French or English?

by Lindsay Ozburn

Taken by demuxxx. Brussels; June 6, 2009
Image Source
What is it like to be a newcomer? At the start of another school year, this question looms in our minds as many of us embark on new and exciting opportunities. On September 12th, I had the pleasure of attending an EU Center of Excellence lecture given by the 2014 Larry Neal Prize winner Dr. Carolyn Ban from the University of Pittsburgh. Her book entitled Management and Culture in an Enlarged European Commission: From Diversity to Unity? explores the impact of the 2004 and 2007 enlargement process on the European Commission. Dr. Ban has broken new ground addressing the culture inside the European Commission rather than its relations with the international community. In her lecture, she discusses the cultural atmosphere for newcomers recently recruited into the European Commission.

What is it like to apply for a job at the European Commission? Dr. Ban explains that after a grueling process of written tests, oral interviews, and assessments (all while competing with over 20,000 applicants) a qualified individual is recruited into the Commission. The types of people in the Commission, Dr. Ban explains, are a sophisticated group of people, well educated and often from privileged socioeconomic circumstances. However, she also notes that very few are of color, from African backgrounds, and almost none from a Muslim background. While the Commission staff may represent the nationalities, they do not necessarily represent different classes or religious variation (or, at least they did not in 2004). The recruits coming from Eastern Europe were concerned they would be seen as second-class citizens – not Europeans, but East Europeans. “Was their concern legitimate?” asks Ban. “Yes. In some cases.”

When you have a melting pot such as the EU, several issues arise upon integration, particularly in the case of Eastern Europe. When conducting interviews, Dr. Ban asked many senior Commission officials, “What has changed as a result of these newcomers?” The immediate response: “language use. “ Up until 2004, the primary language used for communication was French. However, these newly adopted member states, while multi-lingual, did not typically speak French – they preferred English and their native tongue as their universal modes of communication. While the younger newcomers were more receptive to learning French, the senior newcomers were not. According to Ban, this resulted in serious issues during meetings – i.e., the established member states purposefully spoke in French to provoke a linguistic battle. When Dr. Ban returned to Brussels after 4 years, she noted the language battle is still present. The senior staff members argue that the newcomers had been in the Commission for 4 years and should know French by now.

So, what are the broader implications of this language battle? I agree with Dr. Ban when she says it foreshadows the future organizational challenges of other enlargements, both for the EU and for Commission newcomers. Additionally, it sets a precedent for other international organizations looking to the EU as a model for organization and integration. The EU is often described as a ‘single voice’, standing together as a large supranational unit to externalize its model of governance. Does this mean that ‘single voice’ is in French or English?

Lindsay Ozburn is a Graduate Assistant for European Union Center at University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign

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