The Things We Do With Language

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Before we begin this journey together, I will warn you that most of what I’m about to do is pretty standard close reading. There’s nothing groundbreaking here.

On June 24, the EU finished up a two-day summit in which its leaders met do discuss and decide on some pretty important things, like the unimaginable mess that is Greece, the accession of Croatia (really, though?), and immigration issues throughout the bloc. Illegal immigration into and around the EU is hardly news; indeed, by adopting the Schengen Agreement into EU law in 1997, I’d be willing to stake a good deal of my paltry net worth on the fact that EU leaders were willing to let some quantum of illegal immigration go in exchange for the economic benefits of a “borderless” area. So recent griping by France and Italy about immigration is quite clearly not a result of business-as-usual illegal immigration but a result of the droves of refugees pouring in from Tunisia, Libya, etc.

France and Italy both called for changes in the Schengen Agreement. After Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi publicly questioned the very point of being a member of the EU, given that organization’s silent refusal to help stem the flow of immigrants, the European Commission put forth a proposal, to be found here, that provides a mechanism for temporarily reinstating border controls. Let’s take a look at it.

The proposal is long so here is the relevant information. The language is vague, which is to be expected, given that there are 27 EU member states and 25 Schengen members that it must please. But for a proposal that might well set back the cornerstone of European unity (such as it is) – the ability of people to move about freely, both for work and for play – a little more specificity might have been in order.

It states that the visa waiver suspension to non-EU member states can only be active for a short time, “as a matter of urgency, and on the basis of well defined, delimited criteria.” Matters of urgency are defined as “if there is a sudden change of the situation, e.g. when the relevant figures increase suddenly within a relatively short period of time, and where an urgent ‘visa’ response needs to be given to solve the difficulties faced by affected Member States…”

First of all, this logic is somewhat circular and hardly “well defined” or “delimited.” The visa waiver can be activated by member states whose “situation” changes such that they need a visa waiver to solve the situation? That presents a fairly basic definitional problem– the Commission is using its policy to define the policy.

Furthermore, the proposal uses the most limitless language it can to define matters of urgency; almost any major political event can create a situation in which “relevant figures increase suddenly within a relatively short period of time.” Elections, strikes, protests, even celebrations of a nation’s independence day all involve “relevant figures increase[ing] suddenly within a relatively short period of time.” Select words are tucked into the sentence that seem benign enough at first glance but that can be used to devastating effect – veritable linguistic sleeper cells. “Relatively short period of time” is one such troubling phrase. “Short period of time,” alone, without clarification as to what is meant by “short” is ambiguous enough; adding “relatively” to the mix either renders the phrase needlessly redundant or is a clever layering of ambiguities that allows for an even greater number of possible interpretations. Countless hours are spent laboring over the wording of even the shortest of press releases, so any gambler worth his salt would put his money on the latter explanation. (Lots of gambling in this post; clearly I’m due for a poker night.) Labeling something as relative naturally implies a perspective, which is why “short period of time” simply will not do to the drafters of this proposal. The last words of the sentence, “difficulties faced by affected Member States”, tells us all we need to know. The period of time must be short relative to what the affected member state considers to be brief. If children were allowed to construct their own rules for playtime, they might sound something like the Commission’s definition of matters of urgency. Rule to Facilitate Sharing in the Sandbox: The bucket must be shared among the children so long as no child feels the need to lay claim over the bucket.

What about “relevant figures”? To what or to whom are the figures relevant? “To the matter of urgency, of course!” would be the ringing reply. But any number of figures could be relevant to such a situation: there are the malefactors (or those fighting for all that is good and holy, depending on your angle), there are government agents, there are third party observers. To the reader, it seems natural that “relevant figures” is referring to the first group, the miscreants, because this entire proposal is predicated on current events. Its language, though vaporous, does suggest a solid form: it appears suspiciously like the recent migration issues that have emerged along with the Arab Spring’s march into summer.

Had the drafters omitted the second clause, thereby shortening the sentence in question to “if there is a sudden change of the situation, e.g. when the relevant figures increase suddenly within a relatively short period of time,” the definition of ‘matter of urgency’ would have still been quite expansive but at least it would not have insulted the reader’s intelligence. Indeed, there is a kind of cheekiness to this paragraph of the proposal, which paints with the broadest strokes possible an image that the audience already knows, an image that in some sense the audience actually instructed the painter to create.

Here’s where things get even murkier. This proposal was up for vote on June 24 and given the European Council’s conclusion that “A mechanism should be introduced in order to respond to exceptional circumstances putting the overall functioning of Schengen cooperation at risk…”
it’s safe to say that response was favorable. The baffling part is that only two paragraphs down, the European Commission “is invited to submit a proposal for such a mechanism in September.” Did they not just do that with this proposal? Or is its language going to be presented (again?) in September as the mechanism in question?

This is the problem with the EU. The general lack of transparency is enough to drive anyone crazy; if someone tells me a proposal is up for a vote, I goddamn want to know how that vote went. When the proposal-as-object seems to evaporate murkily into air but the proposal-as-idea still finds its way into the final conclusions of the summit, I am both flummoxed and suspicious. In any case, I would be shocked if the language proposed in September is much different from the language in the proposal here discussed and I’ll tell you why. The basic aim won’t have changed. Member states will want to feel like they can flex their sovereign muscle against the frightening outsiders without asking permission from the EU and the EU won’t want member states to have a blank check in flexing that muscle. It’s called pooling sovereignty and in Europe, the membership of this concept’s fan club is dwindling, post-sovereign default. Only by creating a mechanism that works from the perspective of the individual member state whose national/ethnic/economic integrity is threatened and yet still has some semblance of an institutional check can the EU please both its members and the handful of outside interested parties. But we’ll see in September if I’m right. And if I’m wrong, well, I’ve metaphorically bet so much already that I won’t have any money left.

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One Response to The Things We Do With Language

  1. Guy Fox says:

    Thanks for the non-American content.
    You’re right about the fact that the member states want to look like they’ve achieved consensus when, in fact, they’ve done nothing of the kind. In that sense, it’s ‘pooling sovereignty’ with a magic mirror: it only looks pooled when you squint in poor light. Some of the woolliness might also just be a result of seeking a formulation that remains acceptable in translation. No German bureaucrat would accept the phrase “within a short period of time” merely on the grounds that it displays a galling lack of ‘differentiating’ adverbs, not that most Germans could tell an adjective from an adverb if tattooed on their foreheads by Strunk, White & Duden.
    And don’t worry about losing the bet in September. By then, when Greece’s bridge financing will have to turn into a permanent overdraught and America’s debt ceiling will have been raised (or not), nobody will have any money. Your remaining two cents/pence will be a veritable fortune.