Friday, November 1, 2013

Euro Money as Euro Language

This is the first of a series of reflections on the social meaning of the Euro.

Investigations of the social character of money often feature an analogy to language. Like words, money forms intelligible signs. Money, like language, is a critical medium of social exchange. Money, like language, is constitutive of identity: the particular kind of money we use, in part, makes us who we are. And money, like language, is both stable and unstable over space and time.

The architects of the European Monetary System (EMS) anticipated that the Euro would serve as an institution around which a European consciousness could be built. The Euro (at least in its material forms) functions like the EU flag or the EU passport to construct a new identity that plays on commonplace nationalist expectations. That is, when we see flags or passports or money, we have been acculturated to expect national sponsorship. The European Union thus displaces the traditional state in presenting itself through these institutions; if not precisely declaring itself to be a state, the European Union is, at a minimum, asserting that it is like a state for various intents and purposes.

But notice the peculiarly assertive case of the Euro. The EU flag often flies alongside the traditional flags of the EU Member States. The EU passport is formally issued by the respective member states: while it prominently features “European Union” on its harmonized cover, it also bears the name of the relevant member state. The EU passport in fact overstates the EU nature of the document. A passport begs the admission of a members state’s nationals into another state’s territory; it is only secondarily evidence of nationality (and in the case of EU passports, evidence of the bearer’s status as an EU citizen). Through flags and passports, the EU and the relevant EU member state co-occupy a space in the EU citizen’s imagination that had been occupied by the state alone.
The Euro -- for those EU member states adopting its use -- eliminates national money. There are no alternative currencies that survive in the Eurozone: no francs, no Deutschmarks, no lira. In the realm of currency, the European Union has entirely eliminated the Eurozone member state from the prior place. The European Union alone steps into the shoes of the eclipsed nation, playing the national role. (And yes -- it is true that Euro banknotes are strictly speaking issued by respective member state central banks and it is also true that Euro coins continue to display national iconography; these are vestigial incidents.)

Of course, the original EMS design has not been and will not be achieved. The Euro will remain the currency for most but not all of the territory of the European Union, and this incomplete adoption will continue to limit the ability of the European Union to displace national identities through the daily use of money.

Consider for a moment the self-evidently doomed proposition of a common European language that would sweep national languages aside, much as the Euro eliminated the franc (the Romans made considerable linguistic progress along these lines in earlier times). Why did the European Union not press for adoption of a common language -- as an even more ambitious assault on pre-existing national allegiances?

The idea is not so farfetched: the local languages of Paris and Madrid were imposed on the newly-built nations of France and Spain. (And recall that China has imposed Mandarin as the national language -- though Mandarin is not widely spoken in many parts of China.)

Of course a language cannot be newly fabricated the way a currency might be -- a thoroughly artificial Euro-wide language would be infeasible. But perhaps German or French could have been candidates: each is a repository for both national and Europe-wide values.

We know, however, that the imposition of particular existing European language as the Euro language would be seen as evidence of an exercise of power. Those EU citizens not speaking the Euro language from birth would be at a disadvantage. The European Union of course has elected to go in the opposite linguistic direction. Given that there is (and cannot be and will not be) a single Euro language, the EU policy has been to embrace all the national languages. And hence the legions of translators engaged in making EU law and regulation intelligible throughout the EU territory.

A single currency. Many national languages. Imagine if one were to impose a particular national language (say German) by simply relabelling it “Euro.” One could hardly mask the national origin of such a Euro language. The Euro is not a freshly-born currency; in some very real sense, it is the continuity of the prior German currency -- the former Deutschmark -- applied throughout the Eurozone. The Euro’s German origins may be masked -- but its consistent German character shines forth.

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