The environment is a “place of natural wonder”, but in German?

We belong to an extraordinary species.

Two among the many things which make humans stand out among species are the capacity that we have developed to destroy habitats; and our use of language: sounds and symbols to describe and comment on the world around us. How do we harness the emotional power of language better to reduce our destructive impact on the natural world? Can we stop speaking like eurocrats and start speaking like people?

George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian in August, called for specialists to find better ways of labelling the things we cherish, so as to communicate more directly and effectively with non-specialists. Instead of protected areas, we could have “places of natural wonder”; instead of the environment, the “living planet” or the “natural world”.  His argument makes a lot of sense; the more a wider public feels an emotional response to the words used for the things that policy aims to achieve (or prevent) the more engaged they are likely to be in the process. And the use of technical terms can dissuade people from getting engaged. If you have to work hard to understand what a policy debate is about, it is more difficult, more daunting, or simply less interesting to express your views as a citizen in that debate.

For European policymakers, the challenge is compounded by the fact that the language the policy debate is framed in is not the mother tongue of most of the people they represent.

Over the decades of European cooperation, and particularly since the 2002 expansion to eight central and eastern European countries and two former British colonies (Malta and Cyprus), English has emerged as a lingua franca. While interpretation is provided in European Parliament discussion, and Ministerial-level Council meetings, being able to discuss the subject in English can be vital for exercising influence in preparatory meetings and in huddles. So non-English-speaking MEPs can find it more difficult to wield influence. In Council, English is almost invariably the text of negotiating drafts; and because people need to know what the shared topic of conversation is, the English terms can become the default noun in policymaker discussions, even when those discussions are happening among, say, a group of German-speakers.

When we ran a series of stakeholder workshops in national capitals as part of a project for the Commission on complex trade and environment issues, we wanted to make sure workshops were held in the relevant national language, to make sure that a full range of stakeholders, including those less confident in English, could contribute views. But even so, much of the conversation reverted to use of English terms.

This dominance is unlikely to change as a result of Brexit. Not only will English still be an official language of two Member States (Ireland and Malta), the reason it has emerged as the lingua franca is not because of British influence, and still less because it is a good language for legislating (it isn’t); but simply because it is a lowest common denominator. It has also become, however, a language in which a policymaking elite discusses law. And the fact that key terms become anchored in English (for example, discussion in France or Germany on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership would routinely use the word “TTIP”; “cross-compliance”, a requirement for farmers to meet certain environmental and other requirements before receiving agricultural subsidy payments, tends to be referred to under the English name; and so on). And if something gets a label in a foreign language, it will tend to be viewed as an alien, unfriendly concept, imposed from outside.

There isn’t a simple answer to this problem. Finding common terms in Brussels conversations helps to make possible a fluid discussion about solutions and ways forward. But we should collectively pay more attention to the need for terms which resonate in the relevant national languages; and we should be ready to tolerate some difference of precise meaning in order to achieve that.

The Natura 2000 label for the European network of sites protected under the Birds and Habitats Directive was one attempt to find a common term to reflect a common European commitment; but a Eurobarometer survey in 2013 found that only around 1 in 10 members of the public knew what it meant (as low as 1-2% in the English-speaking Member States). And it doesn’t meet the Monbiot test – it doesn’t communicate viscerally the reasons why we should want to protect these sites. The right terms are almost certainly going to be culturally specific. And they will emerge from engagement with the public in each Member State.

In English, my own attempts at “cross-compliance” and “Natura 2000 sites” are: “being a competent farmer”, and “havens for nature”.  River Basin Management Plans would be better as just, for example, “The Thames River Plan”, although I guess getting the words right is less urgent for plans and strategies (until we manage to make the plans and strategies themselves more directly relevant to individuals).  But maybe the first step is to work out where language is getting in the way of communication and engagement; and we can only do that by talking to people.