There has always been something fundamentally wrong about Britain’s understanding of the European Union, and it comes down, surprisingly often, to one thing: language.
Anyone who knows how the EU works knows that if you want to get anything done that requires a bit of give and take, you need to be able to talk the language of those with whom you are negotiating. It is not enough to assume that everybody speaks English. As the Germans like to say, if we are selling, we talk English; if we are buying, we speak German.
Last week, the 27 Remainer states of the EU were sent translations of the UK’s white paper on Brexit. By all accounts, these versions of what was already a weak document were amateur at best and grotesque at worst, full of schoolboy howlers. Europe ended up laughing at us.
Part of the blame, it should be said, belongs to the Civil Service bosses who commissioned the translations in-house. Any half-decent professional will tell you that you translate into your native language, not out of it. But even allowing for that, the level of ignorance on display was nothing short of a national embarrassment.
I could almost forgive the fact that no translation into Irish – the first official language of the Republic of Ireland – was included in the package submitted to Dublin. The Irish, by common consent, are like the Scots – pretty good at English, and the reality is that only a minority of their civil servants and a handful of politicians would have done more than glance at the version of the, er, páipéar bán submitted in Irish before turning to the real thing, written in the Queen’s English.
But the fact that the Dutch and German translations were full of errors, never mind those in Spanish, Portuguese and Greek, is inexcusable. Who did we think we were fooling? It is bad enough that Boris Johnson – whose linguistic skills are wildly overrated – thought that “foreign” meant Latin. To discover that our Department for Exiting the EU appears to contain hardly anyone capable of speaking anything other than English beyond, say, a B-grade pass at A-level, is a disgrace.
Our Victorian ancestors would be ashamed of us.
Brits are crap at languages. We all know this. To make things worse, we don’t care. We assume that all we have to do is turn up at an international gathering and everyone will immediately stop talking gibberish. It is as if we expect them to do what they do in restaurants and hotels across Europe – hand us the menu in English and direct us to the table next to the toilets…
What actually happens in Europe, when things get heated, is that they talk to us in English, all smiles, but to each other, behind their hands, in whichever language is deemed most appropriate, or useful. Thus, British officials and their masters are typically given a précis of what is happening, but never the full deal, which is all about nuance and depth of understanding.
The pattern was established 45 years ago when Britain first joined the Common Market. Yes, there were Brits, usually trained by the Foreign Office (still the exception to the rule), who could debate in French, German or Italian. But not nearly enough of them. And as time passed, with the Commission and Council in Brussels keen to recruit UK fonctionnaires, what became obvious was that a majority of our people were destined to be part of the conversation only for as long as those around them chose to indulge them.
No wonder that thousands of Commission places nominally reserved to the UK had to be given out over the years to applicants from other member states. No wonder Nigel Farage, after 20 years as a member of the European Parliament, still has to pull on his earphones to understand what is going on in front of him.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
In fairness, there is no language on Earth as useful as English, the lingua franca not just of the EU, but of the UN, banking and international commerce. The point is that while the Germans, French, Chinese, Brazilians, Russians and Saudis know what we are talking about pretty well 100 per cent of the time, we only know what they are saying when they choose to speak to us in English.
And, in case you ask, it is different for Americans. They have the power and the numbers. We don’t.
If we can only negotiate Brexit in the language of Downtown Abbey, which in this case is that of the supplicant, what chance is there that we are fully on top of things, fully conversant with the subtleties of what is under discussion? Is there a single member of the Cabinet, from Theresa May down, who could go on television sur le Continent (as Jimmy Young used to say) and answer questions put to them in a language other than English?
No one is suggesting that politicians should be polyglots, able to move from one language to another at the drop of a hat, chapeau or hut. But, for God’s sake, our governing class in the time of Empire used to pride themselves on their ability to speak native languages, never mind French. it would be nice, as well as a mark of civilisation, if, just occasionally, our leaders could open talks with our neighbours, besides whom we have lived since time began, without having to wait for them to do us the courtesy of talking to us in the only language we understand.
In the meantime, perhaps we could aim a little higher than Google Translate.
Walter Ellis speaks passable French and has done his best in the past to get along in German and Dutch. He points out that he is not responsible for negotiating Brexit.