Column by Jan Store, Permanent Representative of Finland to the EU, 13 July 2012

All languages are important in the EU – especially one’s own

Permanent Representative Jan StorePermanent Representative Jan Store

Following the conclusion of its membership negotiations, Finland began to participate in the working parties of the Council of Ministers in spring 1994. At first we had observer status and were not entitled to speak, but following the signature of the Treaty of Accession in Corfu in June of that year, we acquired speaking rights.

In those days, two thirds of the background documents circulated by the Council Secretariat were in French. Just under a third of them were drafted in English and only a very small proportion in German.

When attending my first Coreper meeting, I noticed that, of the Permanent Representatives of the then twelve Member States, eight expressed themselves in French, three in English and the German representative alone in German.

The language of conversation during the breaks and at social events was French. The newcomers tipped the balance between the languages used. My Swedish colleague and I spoke English in the meetings, while the Austrian colleague spoke German. We all did our best to speak French outside the meeting room. The atmosphere was very French: if someone didn’t have a perfect command of French, then people were quick to conclude that he didn’t speak any languages at all. It was as if the small languages didn’t count.

Today, the set-up is completely different. The source language of the Coreper working documents circulated by the Council Secretariat is almost without exception English. This varies somewhat according to the language of the President. During the French Presidency in 2008 the change was most pronounced but was reversed when the next President took over.

In Coreper meetings there are only three ambassadors left that regularly speak French, two that always speak German and the rest as a rule speak English with occasional exceptions. A major change took place with the big round of enlargement in 2004. When we meet amongst ourselves without interpretation, the issue of what languages people speak is less regimented, but normally the proportion of English used increases. The prevalence of English is even more pronounced around the dinner table.

Coreper is one of the few arenas where three languages are spoken. The language regime of the working parties varies. A full interpretation regime is provided in some working parties, while English and French are spoken without interpretation in the working parties on external relations. It is still assumed that the diplomats master both English and French.

On the subject of diplomats, Ambassador Ralph Enckel’s rule still holds true: “a (Finnish) diplomat must know a foreign language well enough to be able to say what he wants to say, and not make do with saying what he knows how to say”.

The work of the Council of Ministers is based on the notion of equality. Each minister is entitled to speak his own language and to have the contributions of the other ministers interpreted into his own language. Being able to take part in negotiations and often in legislative work is a fundamental right. Quality interpretation ensures that everybody is on an equal footing. When Finland joined the Union, the general rule was that all ministers expressed themselves in their mother tongue.

When I returned to Brussels in 2008, I noticed that the ECOFIN Council of Finance Ministers had basically become an English-speaking body. The ongoing crisis, which had already begun by then, had created the feeling that time was limited and yet there was much to discuss and decide (even more so in the Eurogroup, although I had no access to it). The ministers wanted to communicate without go-betweens and to speak to each other directly. Part of the reason for the change in the languages spoken was French minister Christine Lagarde, who spoke perfect, idiomatic English. When he participated in his first ECOFIN meeting, my new French colleague literally almost fell off his chair when he heard his minister deviate from his country’s custom of speaking French in meetings.

English is spoken to an ever increasing extent in the Foreign Affairs Council and the General Affairs Council, where the majority are foreign ministers. This is also a result of the ministers sitting side by side at a small negotiating table. When people have eye contact with each other, they also want to speak to each other. In a fast-moving debate, people don’t want to waste time conveying their message via interpreting booths.

Thus, English is to an ever greater extent becoming the “lingua franca”. One has to wonder if this is a positive development.

At this juncture, I will make just one comment about documentation. All documents are currently translated and will be so in the future. When national parliaments adopt a position on an issue, they have the documents available in their own language. There can be no flexibility on this and indeed there is none.

The basic tenet is that a minister has to be able to express himself in his own language and be offered interpretation into his own language at Council meetings. Language skills cannot be the basis for deciding who becomes minister, however important an asset they may be in an increasingly globalised world. When the finishing touches are being put to legislation and the final wording is being agreed on, everybody has to be able to participate under the same conditions. The European Union is based on this premise and its importance has not diminished. In this respect too, the European Union is more than just an international organisation.

All this presupposes that the interpreting actually works. Speaking from my own experience, it does. It works better if a minister speaks freely. Indeed, the job of the interpreter is to interpret speech into another language. It works less well if the minister reads out a text, and that is more the fault of the drafters of the text than of the interpreters. The poorer the expression, the more bureaucratic the text, the longer the clauses, the denser the grammar, the worse the interpretation works. The reason for this is a simple one: the interpreter is an interpreter, not a translator. The minister can make the interpreter’s job easier by speaking in a lively manner, making pauses, repeating the key ideas, stressing points and distinguishing between minor and major points. The interpreter is able to keep up despite the speed provided the minister speaks freely. This has been seen and heard time and time again.

The widespread use of English creates the situation that a full language regime strives to avoid. Some people speak English better than others. Some can participate in drafting exercises more easily than others. It is easier to explain a difficult point to some than to others. As the use of English becomes more widespread, it is unfortunately bad English, not good, that is on the increase.

Not using interpretation could set a trend that may ultimately mean that the services are no longer available when needed. This is not that likely, but one should remain mindful of the danger. Economic pressures are exacerbating the situation, and one day it could be become a reality. If that happens, one of the key elements of equality will be endangered.

Some odd situations have come about. When the justice ministers meet, the Finnish minister is the only one in the meeting room to use Swedish. On one occasion, a minister (not a Finn) whose mother tongue was not English became very active and began drafting a text in English. No one could make sense of what he was saying, let alone what he was drafting. It goes without saying that in such situations the British and Irish are at an advantage over the rest.

For anyone who still remembers EFTA, there only English was used, and long after the British had left. That was actually fair, since once the British had gone it was no longer anyone’s first language. In ministerial meetings everyone spoke English except Swiss minister Jean-Pascale Delamuraz. He used to speak at length and in earnest. On one occasion, he realised that he had taken up a long time explaining a point and summed up briefly in English: “Mr Chairman, I was not short (sic!) but I was good”.

English translation: Richard Fletcher