Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Cacophony That Is Europe

I'm sitting behind my computer with an amazing view out my window. Europe (for me, France in particular) is beautiful this time of year.

View from my window above the Rhone River.

The serenity of the vista contrasts with the malaise I note on the television, originating for the most part from France's budgetary restraints, which in turn are imposed by its membership in the European Union.

The EU is a heroic effort that unites 28 very different peoples and cultures under one flag, while at the same time retaining each's individuality. This sounds ideal and seems to function well on the trade level. But in everyday-life reality, it can be quite cumbersome. For example:

My husband bought an electric lawnmower the other day. He handed me the user's manual. Here's the front page:

Looks normal. But take a closer look at the lower portion:

(Click on the image for an even larger version.)

This is a list of 27 languages presumably spoken in the European Union. (There are 28 countries, but I know that Germans and Austrians speak the same language; however, according to this website, there are only 23 official languages in the EU.) This means that in order to take advantage of the 28-country commercial market, Bosch, a German company, had to hire people to translate the owner's manual into the other 23-26 languages.

Each language section is four pages long. The whole document is 118 pages long. Think of the translation cost, the cost of the effort to limit translation cost by making the instructions as short and sweet as possible, and finally the printing cost. And now remember that this applies to every product sold in the EU. The overall expense must be staggering, probably enough to bail out Greece and maybe Cyprus.

I have bought items that need to be assembled (Ikea desk, for example) whose manufacturers have solved the language problem by issuing user's manuals that only have pictures. That's right, no words, only pictures. I know it sounds impossible to make complicated instructions so simple that no words are necessary, and–well, in fact it is. I had to spend triple the usual time trying to figure out what the pictures actually mean, and I'm still not sure the drawers are in the proper order. And when I say "usual time," as you know that's a lot of time. (Obviously the customer's time-opportunity-cost was not a priority here.)

Then there's the compliance cost that manufacturers must pay to satisfy 28 different sets of government regulations–most of which, of course, have been centralized in Brussels by now, with all of the "misfitting" on the local level that this implies.

Now try to conceive of the same problem spread among the thousands (if not tens of thousands) of matters that must be handled on the top government level. Is Europe even a rational possibility?

In Brussels, the hub of the EU, they seem to have solved the language problem during government sessions by making English the most commonly used language, even though Ireland is the only English-speaking country that is part of the fiscal union. (The UK and Ireland are the only English-speaking countries in the EU, but the UK and a few others have their own currency.)

I'm not sure what conclusion to draw from all of this, but so far the Union has held together in spite of the language barriers, the monstrous fiscal problems, and the incredible governance headaches described above. Skeptics such as Anna Schwartz don't believe the EU can possibly survive without a more integrated fiscal union. The powers that be seem to be driving in that direction, in spite of local resistance.

However, attempts to solve the very serious fiscal problems are causing political tensions to grow all over Europe. For example, France's President Hollande's popularity rating is down to 19 percent. Extreme-right and extreme-left parties in a number of countries are making hay with their ruling party's current predicament caused by the fiscal discipline imposed by Brussels. One of the platform planks of most of these extreme parties is an exit from the Union.

We'll just have to wait and see, won't we, as we try to make sense out of this 27-language and 28-culture European cacophony.

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