Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Love of the Tower of Babel

The Wall Street Journal - July 23rd 2001

The debate is on-finally the issue of the working languages of the European Union is being openly discussed, in the context of enlargement. So far its been almost of taboo status for an MEP such as myself to question the rationale of 11 official languages for the European Union which would rise to 20 if and when the EU reaches the target of 27 member states after enlargement. For those of you who do not know 2001 is the European Year of Languages, nothing wrong with that you might say, after all we are celebrating the wonderful richness of culture and history our continent offers the world. However on the 30th May I attended the official inauguration in the European Parliament of this project and participated in the debate. The current official doctrine on multilingualism in the EP is that the use of all 11 languages: lends legitimacy to the Institution, with even sceptic visitors (the EP receives over 250000 per year) impressed by the respect for their national culture; preserves the democratic right of MEPs to stand for election irrespective of linguistic skills and enables them to speak in their mother tongue; ensures the continuity of a level playing field so that all MEPís are speaking and thinking at their best in their mother tongue whereas limiting the official languages would advantage members from those countries privileged by an official language.

However all this lofty idealism comes at a price. The Podesta Report (a French Green Vice President of the Parliament) calculates that if 6 new countries with 5 new languages were to join the EU in time for the next 2004 elections this would involve an increase in staff of 512 interpreters in the Parliament. The current budget costs of translation and interpretation in the whole EU would increase from around €700 million to at least €1.2 billion. The most ridiculous thing is that because there are no interpreters who can cope with the new and unusual combinations of say Greek to Estonian (hardly surprising as there has never been a cultural or historic link between the two countries ) then the interpretation will have to go through a relay of English anyway which adds to the delay and accuracy of thr interpretation and means the speaker might as well speak in English directly. It is also relevant that plenary speeches are always limited to a couple of minutes, are rarely ex tempore and can easily be written out in correct English (with assistance from staff) and read-out directly.

I was recently struck by some of the waste when during a trip to Chile the Parliament sent 3 Portuguese interpreters at enormous cost (4 star hotels and club class flights) for the sole Portuguese MEP who did not turn-up; they ended-up interpreting for the Brazilian Latin American Parliament delegation who made most of their speeches in Spanish anyway!

It has also always impressed me that dogmatic insistence on the status quo would result in a long term undermining of the whole project. Paradoxically those most committed to a united Europe blow the trumpet of multilingualism the strongest, even to the point of adopting the Council of Europeís Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In the EP the sole representative of the extreme Basque Nationalists, Koldo Gorostiaga, makes his speeches in English in protest against the official primacy of Spanish. Whereas Euro realists such as myself believe strongly that for a single and successful single market to really work we must encourage the supremacy of English as a lingua franca and a global means of speedy communication.† Mainly thanks to Uncle Sam English has now become the unofficial working language of the Parliament,in all its informal meetings. This is in spite of latent anti-Americanism in much of its Foreign policy, and French linguistic self-esteem, typified by Georges Pompidouís statement Ďwe must not let the idea take hold that English is the only possible instrument for industrial, economic and scientific communicationí. Well the late French President has been defeated by the progress of instant global telecommunications, Hollywood movies and the Internet. You might not be surprised that a recent survey showed that 82% of Dutch think everyone should speak English (their MEPís often make speeches in English in the Plenary sessions leaving the interpreters idly bemused and the French nationalists angry) or that 78% of Spaniards share that view, but it is far more surprising with all the noises made against Franglais that 66% of French people actually agree! The fact is that already an estimated 2 billion people or a third of the world population speak English, which will rise to half by 2050. Already 41% of Europeans speak it as a second language. You might say that the landing of English settlers on Plymouth rock 4 centuries ago set in motion a process which may one day destroy Babel as mythologyís best-known image of divisiveness of language.

Certainly the notion that EU multilingualism brings the Institutions closer to the citizen is nonsense, as demonstrated by apathy, increasing Euroscepticism and ever-lower turnouts in Euro elections and the most recent Irish surprise rejection of the Nice Treaty. The EU can communicate its business far better by competent civilassociations and better media cover and profile for its elected politicians than by promoting a veritable legion of interpreters and translators (though I admire the immense competence and professionalism of those working there at present).

I remain nevertheless a champion of efficiency in the EU and do not believe that it would be any less democratic if it cut its working languages to say 3. I would suggest French, as itís the official language of the host country where the Institutions are based, German as itís the most spoken mother tongue in the Union, and English as the global player. After all the United Nations with 180 member states gets by with only 6 official languages. I believe that readily available interpretation is a recipe for linguistic laziness and stops MEPís developing or being incentivated to speak in another major tongue. I also do not accept the argument that MEPís should be able to stand for office irrespective of language skills. Surely those that do not speak English or French can be elected to local, regional or national legislatures leaving a different slate for those linguistically fit to be MEPís. It is certainly my experience that of those MEPís who do not speak any English in the Parliament (several Italians spring to mind) they generally have a miserable time and remain socially isolated as they cannot network or cut deals politically in the informal settings. They inevitably rarely turn-up except to vote and ensure their allowances in Strasbourg, spending more time as local Mayors or MPís back home, and punching below their proper weight in the Parliament which hardly serves their national interest.†

Enlargement discussions are certainly focusing the mind on this hitherto taboo issue. The French were miffed that at the Nice Treaty talks, of the keynote speeches delivered by the 12 applicant country Prime Ministers, all bar one (Romania) were given in English. Certainly the rise in English will play a not insignificant part in promoting British and American interests and ending the traditional French and German hold over the EU. It seems that Britain may have lost its Empire but is now gaining the world through the new lingua anglia.