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Ursula von der Leyen’s speech shows English still dominates


Tim King writes POLITICO‘s Brussels Sketch.   

The British have departed, but their language grows ever more dominant in European Union circles. Ursula von der Leyen’s State of the Union speech was an unabashed declaration that English now reigns supreme among the 24 languages of the European Union.

Von der Leyen used three languages in her speech: in order of appearance, French, English and German. So far, so normal: Those three are the traditional internal working languages of the European Commission. Her presidential predecessor Jean-Claude Juncker also used those three languages in his annual State of the European Union speeches. What was striking about the 2020 version was that any pretense of balance between the languages was abandoned.

Measuring von der Leyen’s speech by its wordcount, 81 percent was in English, 12 percent in German and just 7 percent in French.

Put another way: She spoke in French for 80 seconds at the beginning of her speech and for two and a half minutes at the end; she spoke in German for nine and a half minutes in the middle; and she spoke in English for 63 minutes — two chunks of half an hour on either side of the German section. By this measure, taking into account the time lost to applause, English actually took up even more of her speech — approaching 85 percent — because she reads German (her mother tongue) more fluently than English.

The plurality of languages is one of the things that makes the European Parliament distinctively different from the Commission and the Council of the EU.

What amplified von der Leyen’s slavish attachment to English still further was that the first MEP to respond to her also used English. Manfred Weber spoke first because he is the leader of the biggest contingent of MEPs, the center-right European People’s Party. Weber is from Bavaria’s conservative Christian Social Union and yet he too opted to read stilted English.

To give that some context: There are 96 MEPs from Germany, plus 19 from Austria and one from Belgium’s German-speaking community. My back-of-the-envelope calculation is that the number of MEPs whose mother tongue is English is now probably below 20: there are 13 MEPs from Ireland, but for some of them English will be a second language behind Gaelic; English is widely spoken in Malta and Cyprus, but those countries boast only six MEPs each.

So the triumph of English in the European Parliament is very much what successive French governments have fought against: the triumph of English as a second language, as widely used by the Nordic countries, the Baltic states and the once-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Only in the countries of Latin/Romance languages can French hope to compete with English as a second language.

It took Iratxe García, a Spanish MEP who leads the center-left Socialists and Democrats group, to put a stop to the speeches in English. She was right to do so. In the European Parliament, nobody needs to speak anything other than their mother tongue, since the principle underlying the language regime is that voters need not subject would-be MEPs to a language test before electing them.

So, for plenary sessions, MEPs should have interpretation available into and out of the 24 languages. (One anomaly is that Luxembourg, a founder member of the EU, never opted to make Luxembourgish an official language of the EU. It was content, back in 1957, with the initial choice between German, French, Dutch and Italian. Ireland, which joined the European Economic Community in 1973, was similarly content not to make Gaelic an EU language, but went back on that decision in 2004.)

What this year’s State of the Union address shows is that the flight to English has been transformed by Brexit into a value-free, pragmatic choice. The likes of Nigel Farage and Daniel Hannan are gone. Post-Brexit, speaking English can be excused as expediency.

Or so it might seem. Beneath the surface, however, the retreat from plurilingualism is potentially damaging for the European Parliament, albeit that Weber cannot see the danger. Listening to him speaking English, it is hard not to detect the undertone of thwarted ambition. This is the man who two years ago was campaigning to become the president of the European Commission. He became the EPP’s lead candidate; the EPP became the largest group in the Parliament; yet he was not chosen as Commission president. Instead the European Council opted for a different German Christian Democrat: von der Leyen. If Weber were not attempting to re-visit that contest, he might see that an English-speaking monoculture is not in the best interests of the European Parliament.

The plurality of languages is one of the things that makes the European Parliament distinctively different from the Commission and the Council of the EU — which conduct the bulk of their internal business using a much more restricted palette of languages. The generous language regime is costly, but it is part of the identity of the Parliament.

When the State of the European Union address was introduced in 2010, it was to a large extent an act of aggrandizement by the European Commission and its then-president José Manuel Barroso. But there was also an element of obeisance to the Parliament: in yet another form the Commission president was presenting the work of the Commission to MEPs for approval. The deliberate aping of the American president’s State of the Union address was hubristic, but the event took root in the EU’s annual calendar nonetheless and the Parliament benefited.

Ten years on, however, the Parliament is in danger of being reduced to a theatrical backdrop and MEPs are being cut out of the action. In 2020, the State of the European Union speech is a social media production: The Commission president’s speech is to be parceled up and redistributed digitally in byte-sized portions. The switching between languages that was once a traditional feature of such speeches in the Parliament doesn’t work on social media.

What’s flattering and inclusive in the confines of a parliamentary chamber — where the audience is linguistically diverse but everyone has simultaneous interpretation — is just irritating on Facebook or Twitter. Hence the dominance of English: It’s the language of robots. If MEPs were only alive to the signs, they would kick against the straight-to-YouTube choreography.

European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen arrives to address her first state of the union speech | Pool photo by Olivier Hoslet/ AFP via Getty Images

And there is another reason why the hegemony of English is to be regretted: Globish isn’t conducive to intellectual rigor. Von der Leyen’s speech came with lots of graphics and film clips, which did their best to distract from the words. But the glossy presentation could not obscure the woolly thinking — the tendency to resort to the passive mood, the reluctance to say who was responsible for action or inaction. “I will ensure that [NextGenerationEU] takes green financing to the next level” and “We flexibilized our European funds and state aid rules” are easy to mock as business-school jargon. But the language of diplomacy has its own empty phrases: “If we are all ready to make compromises — without compromising on our principles — we can find that solution.”

Traditionally, the French language was celebrated as the language of diplomacy and for the first 40 years of the European Union’s existence, French was indeed the dominant language. Diplomats and bureaucrats developed a jargon-filled langue de bois with a distinctly European identity. But the tide turned against French with the 1995 enlargement of the EU and accelerated in 2004.

As the State of the Union debate showed, the victory of the English language over French is almost complete. Jargon’s second victory — over English — is only a matter of time.



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