It has become fashionable to refer to the European Union as a “bloc”, a term which is inappropriate except perhaps when referring to the EU specifically as a “trading bloc”. This increasingly widespread misnomer could, over time, impact negatively on how the EU is perceived by the public.
For some time, bloc has been used by the US media to refer to the EU. This reflects a somewhat vague understanding outside Europe of the nature of the union and a slightly clumsy vocabulary to describe its complex workings.
However, it is only since Brexit that the term has become common parlance closer to home. The rapid spread of its usage seems to have originated in the British media to describe, in a deliberately distancing way, the voluntary grouping of diverse independent countries to which the United Kingdom had belonged for half a century.
The word bloc to describe the EU is also now frequently used in the Irish media, no doubt unthinkingly rather than in any calculated way. However, we should be conscious that the practice is becoming widespread, aware of the Brexit-driven psychology behind it and concerned that a particular worldview risks seeping into our own way of thinking.
Bloc carries five misleading connotations: First, it echoes – even if not always intentionally – the terminology used to describe the former Soviet bloc to which several Brexit supporters ludicrously compared the European Union during the 2016 referendum.
Second, it consequently carries an undercurrent of Cold War vocabulary with perhaps the hint of a military flavour. It is the language of confrontation in Europe, which in turn reflects the unnecessarily hard form of Brexit enthusiastically embraced by British prime minister Boris Johnson’s government. It is not appropriate language for friendly engagement with long-standing neighbours and friends.
Third, it conveys the sense of something that is monolithic rather than the reality of 27 independent democracies which freely share sovereignty in agreed areas and which, on a daily basis, vigorously assert their national interests and perspectives in those areas. Indeed, it is ironic that headlines about the so-called “EU bloc” are invariably followed by stories about divisions and unresolved differences between the individual member states. Referring to the 27 as a bloc tends to strip each state of its individuality and to obscure the reality that each one is, of course, every bit as free, distinctive and sovereign as the UK.
Fourth, the term implies an inward-looking, insular organisation rather than the reality of a Europe open to the world, one that has embraced an extraordinary series of historic enlargements, even at some expense to its own coherence; that is a champion of regional and world trade, and that has been the world’s most important consistent supporter of multilateralism and the co-operative inter-dependence of nations.
Finally, and most importantly, bloc displaces the term “union” which has more positive and appropriate vibes with its implicit connotations of inclusivity, shared values and mutual respect.
To those who might argue that the word bloc simply allows for a certain variety in our vocabulary, I would say that we never needed the word before. As one of many who have spent careers writing briefs, speeches and articles about Europe, I never found the need for any term other than “the European Union”, “the union”, “the EU” or, in the appropriate context, simply “Europe”.
To those who would make the point that language evolves, I would suggest that, while that may be true, we should not always be mere bystanders in the evolution of the words we use. This is one instance in which we should be sensitive to how our choice of words can shape our way of thinking and our public discourse.
To those who might ask what Ireland can do about it, I would reply first that at least we can choose the words we use in our own domestic discourse. However, I would add that, as the remaining English-speaking EU member state, our public representatives, journalists and commentators can contribute to restoring more widely the vocabulary that has served the European Union well.
A recent article in a British newspaper, referring to the increasing number of people in Northern Ireland who identify as neither nationalist nor unionist, argued that “this bloc” could swing an Irish unity referendum. The fact that non-aligned voters in Northern Ireland, the very antithesis of a bloc, a “non-bloc” as it were, could casually be referred to as a bloc is a reminder that the term is also now being used, misleadingly, in a wider context.
To some this article may seem to be a great palaver about a single word. But as the poet George Herbert observed: “Good words are worth much and cost little.”
Bobby McDonagh is a former ambassador to London, Brussels and Rome