Thursday, 21 July 2016

Brexit Citizens and Communities

Word cloud with Democracy at centre and other related words crossword-style

Today, Theresa May and Angela Merkel met for the first time. I have followed Brexit events closely. Oddly enough, I have been working on a translation on team-building. The respective terms citoyenneté and community in French and English have stood in sharp contrast. French and English are full of false and fickle friends. The words may look similar, but they often have different positive or negative connotations, emotive appeal or different usages. They only look like equivalents. This set me thinking…

I used community in my translation. My French client queried my word choice. Communauté does not have the same resonance for him as citoyenneté. Yet, for me, the word community has a much greater emotive appeal and greater resonance in a text about working together. The emotive effect of a word in a foreign language is different for us.

I wince when I read an EU text addressing citizens. My reaction is instinctive. I wrote it off as Eurospeak until today. Now, against the Brexit backdrop, I see a fundamental breakdown in communication. I remember how odd the EU’s citizens’ dialogue sounded. The wording seems wrong to engage Brits from the front cover or the first words of a speech.

Citizenship in English is closely tied to nationality – and that now infamous Brexit word sovereignty. Sovereignty is important to the British for strong historical reasons. Citizenship is a cold, legal term; we associate it with our passports and official form-filling. It doesn’t have the same sense of belonging as community.

Pic of 3 British Passports on top of  Europe Road Atlas

Citoyen has a much stronger emotive appeal in French than citizen in English. Its usage dates back to the French Revolution with its sense that all are equal. It appears in La Marseillaise – can you get more emotive than a country’s national anthem?

Researching my subject, I found that citoyenneté appears to have much of the usage of the English community. In a highly topical usage, I found it applied to efforts to bring Muslims and Christians closer together. A similar UK local government text refers to community cohesion.

My research has left me wondering if the UK would have felt more emotionally connected, if we had been choosing to remain in the European Community rather than leave the European Union. I suppose Brexiters will merely say that I am crying over spilt milk. I’m splitting hairs over word choice. Yet, such nuances do matter. They speak to something deeply rooted within us.

EU Presidency
The UK was to take up the EU Presidency in 2017. I think it was wrong that UK voters were never told how close we were to holding the EU Presidency during the Referendum. This should have been the UK’s chance to influence the future direction of the EU. Very few Brits were aware of the UK’s forthcoming opportunity. Nor did they know that the Presidency would have meant working as a team or trio with Malta and Estonia. The EU Referendum should have followed the UK’s Presidency if Brits were still dissatisfied after this 18-month period of influence.

Theresa May today suggested that she would let the EU Presidency go. I believe that this is a mistake. Even without Brexit, the EU will have to redefine its mission and remit. All the indications suggest that the UK will remain one of Europe’s staunchest allies and a strong trading partner. Our pragmatic approach could prove useful in the tricky times ahead.

Cultural differences in communications
I can only hope that the EU PR machine reconsiders its homogenised communications as a result of Brexit. It needs to take greater account of cultural differences. I wonder how many other miscommunications like citizen and community are lurking in other translations. I can’t help thinking about Khrushchev’s “we will bury you. What we understood and what he meant weren’t the same thing. The influence of those words was far-reaching, as Brexit is proving now. 

What will Brexit mean for democracy and union in the United Kingdom?

Ah, but Theresa May and Angela Merkel seem to agree that ‘Brexit is Brexit’. Did they mean it? What do they each understand by Brexit? Undoubtedly, not the same thing at this early stage.

What did the UK public understand by Brexit? Not how it is turning out… Will the Referendum withstand legal challenge in the courts? Where does any course of action leave democracy?

Is the subject really so dead and buried?