The cover story of The Guardian Weekly of 18 September 2020 has a portrayal of Boris Johnson’s back, with both hands behind him, one gripping a hammer, the other with his fingers crossed, and the caption ‘Promises, promises. What will Boris Johnson break next?’ European Union negotiators in dialogue with the British government have every reason to be concerned about whether Johnson can be trusted. British behaviour is probably no surprise to the head of the EU’s task force, Michel Barnier, a top EU and French government insider. The confrontation looks like yet another drama in a millennium of clashes between France and England, now in the form of a war of words. The words in question, for the British negotiators and doubtless for many of the Eurocrats involved, are English words. What is ironical is that the British are leaving the Union, whereas the English language is staying on.
How and why this is so requires an analysis of how the EU manages the multilingualism of its activities and functions in its key institutions and in links with the 27 member states. The way languages are used, and which languages are used, are key social and political issues in an international world.
The dream of ‘global Britain’ of Theresa May and Boris Johnson is the idea that the UK should join up with the old Commonwealth countries and the USA in an Anglosphere network that will replace membership of the EU. The Anglosphere idea is rooted in the assumption that those who speak English are simply superior to others. That an Anglosphere union of ‘English-speaking peoples’ will emerge is a post-imperial pipe dream that has entranced some influential British politicians for decades. In a speech at Harvard University in 1943, when Winston Churchill was awarded an honorary doctorate, he sketched out a plan for the post-Nazi world. The primary aim was to perpetuate British and American global dominance, with a ‘birthright’ to spread English worldwide. The promotion of ‘global English’ had been discussed at conferences on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1930s.
Others see English differently.
The British have been known in France for centuries as ‘Perfidious Albion’. Wikipédia in its French variant explains that Albion is an ancient way of referring to England, and defines the term as ‘acts relating to diplomatic manoeuvres, duplicity, treachery, and thereby of infidelity (vis-à-vis promises or assumed alliances made with other state-nations) by monarchs or governments of the United Kingdom (or of England prior to 1707) in their quest for egoistic interests.’
This French website provides a wealth of examples of British treachery from the time of Joan of Arc onwards. It refers to Nelson, the banishing of Napoleon to a remote island, incidents of imperial competition in the Middle East, and Winston Churchill’s decision to sink much of the French fleet on 3 July 1940 in the naval port near Oran in French Algeria, Mers-El-Kébir. Churchill acted when the French were allies but had just been overrun by Hitler’s troops. His purpose was to prevent any take-over of French warships by the Germans or the Italians. In addition to many vessels being wrecked, 1,297 French servicemen died.
Wikipedia in English also provides a wealth of examples of how Perfidious Albion has been used by enemies of the UK over several centuries, and recently in connection with Brexit. By contrast an online history course for British schoolchildren has a different understanding of the term: ‘Perfidious Albion is a term used by some people to describe the British Empire. It is a term that suggests that the British were deceitful and treacherous in their dealings as an Empire.’ This website states that the originator of the term was a French author, but fails to provide any examples of the way the term has been used in France or of French resentment of British behaviour.
President Charles de Gaulle rejected an application by the British to join the European Economic Community (as it then was) on 27 November 1967, after blocking an earlier attempt in 1963. The other five member states were keen for the UK to join, but they were not consulted by de Gaulle. At a press conference he stated that the UK would need to change drastically before it could be accepted. De Gaulle did not want the pound sterling complicating European economic integration, and rightly saw the risk of the UK serving as a bridgehead for US influence. This was a reasonable consideration, even if de Gaulle was doubtless well aware that the creation of the EU was as much a project of the US as of key Europeans. Among these the most influential was Jean Monnet, a banker who collaborated with the British and the Americans between the two world wars and was an influential adviser to Franklin Roosevelt during the war. American involvement in planning for Europe is described in Pascaline Winand’s book, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and the United States of Europe.
De Gaulle had personal experience of Perfidious Albion, since he lived in exile in London from 1940 to 1943 as head of the Free French movement. Churchill considered de Gaulle ‘an enemy of Britain’, with a ‘messianic complex” and ‘dictatorial’ tendencies. Churchill’s hostile assessment was first made public when secret documents were released in 2000. Richard Norton-Taylor reported on this in ‘How Churchill plotted against “our bitter foe” ’ in The Guardian (5 January 2000). He reveals that Churchill conspired with President Roosevelt to prevent de Gaulle from leading French recovery in the final phase of the war or after it. The article concludes with stating that between the UK and France ‘tensions remain’. This is still the case in 2020. The French and some other Europeans will breathe a sigh of relief once the UK has gone, but its departure weakens both the EU and the UK.
Britain and the European Union
British disagreements about many EU policy issues with other EU countries are partly caused by the goals of European integration being deliberately left unclear. Unification has been a gradual process since 1955. For some the goal is an increasingly merged union and ultimately a federal United States of Europe; for others the EU should remain only an economic union, but it is already vastly more than that. The EU faces major challenges quite apart from Brexit: migration, member states not observing the rule of law, the messy interface between national and supranational interests, and the euro serving some countries better than others. A book by a distinguished American observer of EU affairs, John R. Gillingham, The EU. An obituary (2017, updated in 2018) argues strongly that the EU’s many weaknesses mean that it could disintegrate.
Those who thought that a British exit would rapidly lead to other countries following suit have been proven wrong.
Gillingham, an economic historian, basically recommends that the EU should become more like the USA. This fits well into an Anglosphere agenda, which I will return to. He complains that ‘Europe is governed today neither by its peoples nor by its ideals but by a bank board, but tendentiously argues that ‘repair of the financial system ….will mean dropping ambitious EU reform plans in favour of American banking practices and accepting increased influence for US investors and financial methods’ (ibid., 239, 207).
This is almost as crude as when the US ambassador to Denmark stated at my university in 1997: ‘The most serious problem for the European Union is that it has so many languages, this preventing real integration and development of the Union’.
It was de Gaulle’s successor as president, Georges Pompidou, who agreed to the UK joining in 1973. This was on one condition, namely that all British staff in EEC institutions should be fluent in French. In Pompidou’s view, French was the language of Europe, and English the language of the Americas. This sample linguistic nationalism provides a glimpse of the complexity of managing multilingualism in the EU, in which in principle and in law all 24 EU languages have equal rights.
There was a witticism circulating during Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister. Ministers from many continental European countries have often been able to function in more than one language. The British by contrast were relentlessly monolingual. In Thatcher’s government only two of her Ministers had any proficiency in a foreign language. But these two were the ones who really could not be trusted because they were suspiciously interested in foreign cultures! A key factor influencing the outcome of the Brexit referendum vote is English insularity. A key factor influencing the Brexit vote was ignorance about how the EU functions.
The British vote to leave the EU can be seen as British perfidy vis-à-vis its European partners of 47 years. The perfidy reached new heights in September 2020, after three years of complicated negotiations on the terms of the UK’s departure and future relationship with the EU. Johnson’s government decided on legislation that was in breach of a legally binding treaty with the EU, one that he himself had negotiated and described at the time as ‘fantastic’. The legislation, the Internal Market Bill was passed by the House of Commons on 29 September 2020. Perfidious Albion of the crudest kind.
On 1 October 2020 the European Commission reacted by sending the UK a ‘letter of formal notice’ for breaching its obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement. This marks the beginning of an infringement process against the UK, since ‘Article 5 of the Withdrawal Agreement states that the European Union and the United Kingdom must take all appropriate measures to ensure the fulfillment of the obligations arising from the Withdrawal Agreement, and that they must refrain from any measures which could jeopardise the attainment of those objectives. Both parties are bound by the obligation to cooperate in good faith in carrying out the tasks stemming from the Withdrawal Agreement.’
Face to face negotiations on this issue failed to deter the UK from acting illegally. The British legislation is in conflict with the Protocol on Ireland / Northern Ireland, as Ursula von der Leyen stressed in her press statement of 1 October. Failure to react to the infringement notification and to comply with the UK’s obligations can result in the issue being referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union, which can impose heavy fines. The UK is still legally obliged to respect the Court’s decision.
One of the goals of Brexit was to escape this kind of control. However, the UK’s behaviour is undermining its international reputation as a country that respects the rule of law.
EU language policies
Language policy management in the EU system is complex and politically sensitive. Any analysis of it needs to be calibrated with language rights and language use in law and in practice, and the market forces that have propelled English forward over the past five decades. There are very different challenges for permanent employees of the European Commission, for Members of the European Parliament and their staff, for the activities of the European Council of Ministers, which brings together government ministers of the 27 member states, and for countless experts involved in negotiations on policy documents or budget implementation. The continuous production of policy documents and of the massive corpus of Eurolaw (the ‘acquis communautaire’), which overrides national law, and is published in parallel in 24 languages, in principle with the same semantic content in each of them, requires the world’s largest translation service. These activities are radically different from the management of speech in diverse institutional contexts, supported by extensive, flexible interpretation services.
The language of EU official documents is sui generis. It is screened by legal specialists as well as linguists. High-level negotiation on all of the many policy issues on which the EU legislates is dependent on the precision of every word in written texts, and the capacity to decode these, in all of the 24 languages. The written language is essentially a technical, bureaucratic, legalistic one for very specific purposes. It has to navigate the turbulent waters of maintaining linguistic diversity, and consistency in formulating EU principles. This is of major importance for citizens and for the representatives of all countries, since EU law takes precedence over national law. Unfortunately, the general public, and probably many British Members of Parliament, know little about the interface between national law and EU law, and the shared responsibility of all member states for the formulation and implementation of decisions and policies.
Blaming ‘Brussels’ for EU decisions and decrees is simply false, when each and every country has had a shared responsibility for these policies.
Use of one language rather than another is not merely a pragmatic choice. Seeing a language as purely instrumental, or as ideologically neutral matter, is false. Choice of language reflects political choices and realities. A language is one particular way of understanding and shaping reality, drawing on a worldview that emerged in specific historical and cultural contexts. All languages change over time, as the variety of English worldwide demonstrates. All 24 EU languages are in both national and international use because of the way the EU operates.
When Finland joined the EU, it needed to translate the over 70,000 pages of Eurolaw into Finnish. They attempted to translate from the English version but could not understand it without consulting the French original.
One of the consequences of British EU membership has been a major change in the language policies of EU institutions. English has gradually since 1973 become the dominant in-house language of the European Commission, largely displacing French. In communications with the wider world, it is mostly English that is used. English has become the default language, and massively important in the conduct of EU affairs, not least when policies are initially conceptualised in English, and drafted in English. Proficiency in English therefore, whether used by a native speaker or by a well-qualified non-native speaker, delivers a strategic advantage to those who think in English and are able to use it optimally in speech or writing. Conversely, for those less proficient, English puts them at a disadvantage. English may not be fully understood, especially when native speakers do not adjust their discourse sensitively for an audience with diverse linguistic backgrounds. Speech in limited English, sometimes disparagingly described as ‘broken English’, can lead to misunderstandings or can complicate interaction. Whether any ‘Euro English’ has evolved, as has been claimed, is disputed, and seems improbable, in part because of the diversity of its users and of its contexts of use.
The triumph of English
Many factors have contributed to the expansion of English in Europe and worldwide. English is the dominant language of the USA, Hollywood, NATO, the UN, international finance, several countries, and many international organisations. Economic integration has strengthened English in continental Europe. It has also contributed to major investment in the UK by corporations from Japan, the USA, and continental Europe because the UK was part of the European common market with freedom of movement of goods, people, and capital. This investment is at risk once Brexit is completed if there is no agreement that suits both the EU and the UK. Industrial products, for instance vehicle or airplane parts, can typically cross borders many times before a finished product exists. Bailey’s Irish cream reportedly crosses the UK/Irish border six times during its production process. Even the pre-eminence of the City of London in finance has suffered because of Brexit.
Other factors influencing the expansion of English in continental Europe are geographical proximity, giving the learning of English pride of place in schools, and extensive use of it in higher education and research. Applications for research grants from the EU are invariably submitted in English (even if the regulations state that any of the 24 languages can be used!). Applications are also assessed by a variety of Europeans using English. This puts applicants and assessors whose primary research language is a Romance, Slav, or Finno-Ugric language, or Greek at a disadvantage. Since there is immense competition for such funds, the hegemony of English is consolidated in this way, and will not change once Brexit is finalised.
The expansion of English was not left to chance. US ‘philanthropic’ foundations invested significantly in academia in Europe from the 1920s onwards. The British and Americans have promoted English worldwide since the 1950s, as advocated by Churchill (and by political leaders in the UK and US over 200 years). Linguistic imperialism of this kind is well documented. When the iron curtain was removed, it was an explicit policy of successive British governments to expand the learning of English in former communist countries so as to make English the link language across the continent, and to marginalise Russian and German. French has been losing out to English for centuries, after losing wars with the British in North America, India, and Europe. Former French colonies in north and western Africa are also moving into using English. English is the dominant language of the African Union. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is modelled on the EU, has English as its sole official language.
Other key factors influencing the expansion of English can be related to what some term its soft power, the reputation of the BBC, prestigious universities, literature and culture from Shakespeare to the Beatles and Harry Potter, the Westminster parliamentary system, etc. Soft power in fact converts into major economic benefits, through fee-paying foreign students, cultural industries, and English language teaching. Almost the entire budget of the British Council, the para-statal body that promotes British interests and English in over 100 countries, is funded by its income from teaching English, testing proficiency, and educational consultancies. English is a billion dollar commodity.
That all of this will continue unchanged once Brexit has been completed is extremely unlikely. Detachment from continental Europe will affect commercial, political, educational, and cultural affairs in the UK negatively. A hard or no Brexit is a catastrophe for higher education as well as business in the UK. Much will depend on what sort of policies the British government will follow worldwide.
The Anglosphere – a policy or a chimera?
The idea of an Anglosphere was first promoted in The Anglosphere challenge. Why the English-speaking nations will lead the way in the twenty-first century, a book written by a USA industrialist, James C. Bennett, in 2004. He defines the Anglosphere as meaning ‘the sharing of fundamental customs and values at the core of English-speaking cultures: individualism; rule of law; honoring of covenants; in general the high-trust characteristics described by Francis Fukujama in Trust: the social virtues and the creation of prosperity; and the emphasis on freedom as a political and cultural value’.
With Boris Johnson in charge in the UK, trust is elusive. The idea that the rule of law and trusting others are uniquely Anglo-American traits is an insult to all other countries. The rule of law in British India served British rather than Indian interests, as described in Inglorious empire. What the British did to India, a book written by a senior UN diplomat, Shashi Tharoor.
Parliamentary systems in both the USA and the UK are less democratic than in countries with proportionate representation. They are also invidiously influenced by financial interests, by social media schemes, and by many abstaining from voting. In the EU the rule of law is a well-established key value, despite the varied historical roots and trajectories of member states. The rule of law is now monitored and reported on annually in each country.
The essential unifying bond between countries in the Anglosphere vision is the language. It is English which is the foundational glue that is seen as binding the people together, and expresses what Bennett sees as the particular virtues of ‘English-speaking countries’. English has been privileged in each of them. Major efforts were made to eliminate all other languages in these countries, using punitive legislative and educational measures, but with only partial success. The concept also occludes the reality of each country being multilingual, and English changing over time to meet local needs in each.
The myth of American exceptionalism, that the USA is a uniquely virtuous country, continues when Bennett writes ‘Increasingly during the past few centuries, the English-speaking world has been the pathfinder for all of humanity’ through the ‘first modern nation-state, the first liberal democratic state’. These are very dubious claims. Links between the UK and the USA have for centuries been close, albeit contentious, but were reinvigorated when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan orchestrated the launch of neoliberalism.
Bennett argues that the North American Free Trade Association, NAFTA, and the European Union are ‘of limited value at best, and at worst do harm when they attempt to homogenize nations with substantially different characteristics.’ His contention is that the British people have more in common with Americans than with continental Europeans, and that the media and internet are intensifying this convergence.
Detaching Britain from Europe
The idea of ‘detaching’ the UK from the EU has been pursued in several think tanks in the USA. Conferences on the Anglosphere were organised by the Hudson Institute in 1999 and 2000, with significant participation by leading British cultural conservatives. The third Anglosphere century. The English-speaking world in an era of transition is a tract written by Bennett and published by the Heritage Institute in 2007. It includes an Anglosphere agenda for the economic, political, and military integration of the UK and other ‘English-speaking countries’, possibly India and Singapore too, under USA leadership.
He advocates the merging of the United Kingdom with NAFTA and its detachment from Europe so that the British and US defence industries can integrate, and as in finance, function as a ‘seamless market’. This would strengthen the massive impact of the military expenditure of the US, and of the ‘Five eyes’ intelligence alliance that connects Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the UK to the US. Bennett propounds that ‘The past thirty years of British history have encompassed a period of political and cultural schizophrenia that has created ongoing unresolved tensions in its national life and identity’, the solution to which is an Anglosphere Network Commonwealth.
One thrust is to entrench English monolingualism.
Bennett recommends that ‘Multiculturalism and bilingualism should be abandoned, and assimilation and learning of English should become national policies’. This proposal dovetails with English-only policies that a number of states in the USA have introduced, whereas this policy has had little support at the national level. Insisting on monolingualism in the UK and Australia is a political no-brainer, even if many people in each country remain personally monolingual. Bennett seems to have forgotten the strength of French in Canada. The indigenous peoples in all these countries and their languages are ignored.
The deep historical roots in the UK of the notion of an Anglosphere are explored in depth in Shadows of empire. The Anglosphere in British politics, by Michael Kenny and Nick Pearce, published in 2018. A deep commitment to Anglo-American unity and to Anglosphere ideas can be traced across British cultural and political history in statements by Cecil Rhodes, Winston Churchill, Enoch Powell, and Margaret Thatcher.
The book also analyses the way Anglosphere ideas are currently impacting on the British political scene. Several influential British politicians in the Conservative party are attracted by an Anglosphere vision. The main champion of Anglosphere ideas in the build-up to a referendum vote on Brexit of 23 June 216 was Nigel Farage, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), but the Leave campaign made sure that Farage was left in the background. A lengthy book entitled All-out war. The full story of Brexit, written by Tim Shipman in 2017, never refers to the Anglosphere. The term has evidently not become established in political discourse or journalism.
There is little evidence of the Anglosphere ideas appealing to Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, and few of the other, less ‘white’ Commonwealth countries are contenders. The Anglosphere, and strengthening economic links with the UK has never been a priority in these countries, quite the opposite.
How the UK might benefit by leaving the EU was totally absent from the Brexit Leave campaign, other than fraudulent promises of financial relief and the claim that exiting would be a simple matter. The slogan ‘take back control’ is a meaningless notion in an interconnected world, as the negotiations on exiting have shown. Benefits of any kind have still not been clarified. The vision of a ‘global Britain’ is vacuous and ahistorical, but smacks of the idea of making the UK ‘great’ again.
The trio of British government Ministers appointed by Theresa May to negotiate Brexit with the EU all appear to have had neoimperial dreams: Liam Fox, the Minister for Foreign Trade, had a portrait of Cecil Rhodes in his office. David Davis had attended Anglosphere think tank events in the USA. Boris Johnson, when Foreign Secretary, had a bust of Winston Churchill in his. During a visit to Australia, he talked warmly of the Anglosphere. Later, as Prime Minister, Johnson nominated an unsuccessful former Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, as an adviser on trade relations, a hugely controversial appointment.
Creating closer trade links with the USA has figured prominently in the policies of the governments of both Theresa May and Boris Johnson. They are extremely controversial because what is at stake is less stringent regulation of food products (chlorinated chicken, hormones in beef, etc.) and the prospect of the National Health Service being sold off to US corporate interests, despite health care being vastly more expensive in the US, and failing to serve a large section of the population. From what is known about ongoing negotiations, it appears that the UK government is covertly following an Anglosphere agenda. There is virtually no parliamentary control, and the general public have not being given any insight into what is in the transatlantic pipeline. The British NGO Global Justice Now has been following these negotiations carefully and campaigning against what it sees as ‘the corporate take-over of global health’.
The British Academy organized a conference on the Anglosphere on June 15-16, 2017. It brought together academics from several countries, but mainly from the UK, British Foreign Office staff, and James Bennett. Martin Kettle of The Guardian wrote about it under the title ‘Here is Britain’s new place in the world – on the sidelines’.
The myth of the Anglosphere alternative needs nailing. These ideas have old roots. They have shaped a lot of British thinking in different ways, not just on the right of politics, for at least 150 years. In their 2017 incarnation, however, they run into two immovable facts. First, UK trade with the Anglosphere nations has massively declined from its pre-1914 peak; realistically, the US is now the UK’s only significantly large Anglosphere trading partner. Second, the US has long treated bilateral trade deals as zero-sum games, played on US terms, even before the election of an ultra-nationalist president, never mind now.
English in the EU now and in the future
At no point since the accession to the EU of the UK, along with Ireland and Denmark, in 1973 has there been any official recognition of English having a privileged or superior status in the EU. The progressive expansion of its use over nearly half a century has resulted in a downgrading of the use of French, which was primus inter pares earlier, and German, as well as the marginalisation of all other languages.
There has been speculation about whether English will remain as the dominant language in EU institutions after Brexit. Both President Macron and the former President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, are on record as wanting French to regain its former dominant role. Some increase in the use of French is possible. At present any unclear English and French texts are submitted to a language revision before they are translated into other EU languages. Nearly all new policy statements as well as texts that ultimately will have the force of law are drafted initially in English. It therefore seems safe to predict that any downgrading of English within the EU system is very unlikely to occur. Not only because the Irish and Maltese (both formerly run by the British) will continue to function almost exclusively in English, as will many from Denmark, the Netherlands, and Sweden, and individuals from other countries. The main reason is that EU employees from all parts of Europe have become accustomed to functioning in English. The hegemony of English has been internalised and accepted.
When addressing the media, senior EU staff increasingly make statements in English, even if in principle they could speak any of the other 23 official languages. This practice strengthens the idea of it being ‘natural’ to use English, even if this practice is in conflict with the principle of the EU as a multilingual organisation, and is a consequence of multiple hegemonic forces behind English.
When Ursula von der Leyen, as the incoming President of the Commission in 2019 presented her priorities to the European Parliament, her mission statement was delivered mainly in English, and made brief, token use of French and German. Her multilingual competence is impressive. Her prepared speeches in English are delivered lucidly and persuasively, whereas some of her colleagues, the other Commissioners, are incapacitated and unconvincing when they opt to use English. The same applies when Ministers from continental Europe feel an obligation to speak English even when their mother tongues are languages that are widely used internationally, such as French, Spanish and German.
Charles Michel, the European Council President, reads prepared statements fluently in English but with a strong French accent. Whether he can use English spontaneously and effectively in a negotiating context one is unable to judge, but it is more than likely that he sounds more competent in French.
After a meeting of the European Council on 1 and 2 October 2020, the results were presented in an 8-minute speech delivered by Ursula von Leyen, in English. The written version was available in English, French, and German. One would have expected the presentation of results to be presented by Charles Michel, the European Council president, but it was von Leyen, the Commission president who spoke. One wonders whether this was a tactical decision, simply because she sounds more professional in English. Michel stood silently beside her. In principle these two presidents, plus the president of the European Parliament, have the same status but distinct portfolios.
On 12 September 2020, when reporting on a Brexit meeting in London, the German Minister of Finance Olaf Scholz chose to use English. He was reporting on highly sensitive issues, including the effect of the British intention to renege on the treaty signed a year earlier with the EU. Scholz sounded hesitant and unconvincing in English, and would doubtless have been vastly more effective and informative in German.
In any case it is unreasonable and unfair to expect people from 27 continental European countries to be as effective in English as in their national languages. The problem for von Leyen, Michel, and Scholz is, as the German-Danish linguist Hartmut Haberland points out, that in such contexts there is in effect no choice. ‘You are damned if you speak English and you are damned if you don’t.
This is the true triumph of English language imperialism: leaving everybody with no alternative.’
Romano Prodi, when he was President of the European Commission, was interviewed by an American journalist on many aspects of European integration, and was asked about EU language policy. The journalist is reported in Newsweek (31 May 2004) as saying: ‘A unified Europe in which English, as it turns out, is the universal language?’ Prodi replied: ‘It will be broken English, but it will be English.’
Broken English is increasingly what we hear when continental Europeans choose to address the international media and public in English. Broken English is a derogatory term for use of the language that does not conform to correct native speaker use. It is not a term that is used in scholarly analysis of the language, but it has a long pedigree. It was used by Shakespeare in a scene in the play Henry V, when the English king is wooing a French princess who is a complete beginner in English. There is a comic scene in Act III in which a lot of French is spoken, with Katherine’s lady in attendance teaching her a few basic words. In Act V the triumphal King Henry tells the princess: ‘If you will love me soundly with your French heart, I will be glad to hear you confess it brokenly with your English tongue’. What follows is playful interaction on this theme, with Katherine accusing Henry of being ‘full of deceits’. Perfidious Albion?
Broken agreements in not so broken English
Boris Johnson’s government decided in September 2020 to renege on a major agreement with the EU, one enshrined in an international treaty. The decision is in defiance of the UN Convention on International Treaties, as many legal specialists have pointed out. Philippe Sands QC, a professor of international law at University College London: ‘Every international lawyer is familiar with the Vienna convention on the law of treaties, and its article 27, which reflects a general principle: “A party may not invoke the provisions of its internal law as justification for its failure to perform a treaty” ’(cited in The Guardian 12 September 2020). Despite the draft legislation being severely criticized by senior judges and lawyers, it was approved in the House of Commons on 29 September 2020.
It thus appears possible that Johnson’s team of negotiators has been duplicitous throughout negotiations on a Brexit agreement with the EU. Have they been negotiating in good faith? Perfidious Albion once more? Their word is not their bond?
Michel Barnier, the ‘Head of Task Force for Negotiations with the United Kingdom’, has made a succession of official statements on the progress of the Brexit negotiations, and increasingly on the lack of progress. It is difficult to imagine anyone more competent than Michel Barnier to represent the EU. He is the epitome of French experience and competence, was a Commissioner in the EU for two five-year periods, with responsibility for trade and regional policies, and has held several ministerial posts in French governments, including one as Minister of Foreign Affairs.
The EU’s position has been transparently clear throughout. The multilingual website on the negotiations is fully informative, whereas nothing comparable exists in the UK. The British have repeatedly been asked to specify what their position is on key issues, among them fishing rights, a level playing field for trade, and Irish border arrangements. This has been frustrating for the EU, as its position has always been that it is in the interests of both the UK and the EU’s 27 member states that the negotiations should reach an agreement.
Since Germany has the presidency of the EU in the second half of 2020, its role is of great importance. Germany’s presidency does not entail direct responsibility for Brexit negotiations, but Germany’s excellent multilingual website has comprehensive coverage of all significant issues, including Brexit.
The EU is drawing its own conclusions. An anonymous EU representative was cited in The Guardian Weekly, on 18 September 2020: ‘People say that state aid and fisheries are the biggest stumbling blocks to a deal. It isn’t. It is trust’.
It seems highly likely that the power behind Johnson’s throne is Dominic Cummings, the ‘Chief Adviser’ to the Prime Minister. He is widely seen as a modern day Svengali or Rasputin. This understanding tallies with a detailed study of the Brexit Leave campaign, which Cummings was the brain behind. The most important Leave slogan was the claim that the UK was sending 350£ million a week to Brussels. This was untrue. It was plastered on campaign buses and widely cited. This did not disturb Cummings, since what was important was ‘message discipline and consistency’. As reported in the Financial Times, Cummings had ‘a cynical understanding that it did not matter if what the campaign said was factually correct’. This is the man that many experienced political commentators see as deciding what Boris Johnson does.
Johnson’s government’s illegality has been denounced by 5 former British Prime Ministers. Many Conservative Members of Parliament, for whom the rule of law is a fundamental principle, are in despair. On the other hand, according to The Economist, and cited in Pankaj Mishra’s Bland fanatics. Liberals, race and empire, conservative politicians are people who ‘coast through life on “bluff rather than expertise”. They are mendacious, intellectually limited hustlers’ who engage in ‘egotistical and destructive behaviour’.
Mishra sees quitting the EU as similar to and as catastrophic as the British division of Ireland and Northern Ireland in 1921, and the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, in both cases with appalling loss of life as a result.
The politics of English
In complex negotiations between the EU and the UK over the terms of a Brexit divorce agreement, every word counts. This presupposes that all are using the language or languages of negotiation in an optimal, honest way. The British use English, quite possibly a sophisticated form of native speaker communication which may be difficult for others to understand fully or to see through. Since very few British politicians have attained a high level of proficiency in a foreign language, it is highly likely that they do not adjust their language so that it is easier for foreigners to understand. EU representatives probably mainly speak English, with varying levels of both precision in speaking and in understanding the English of their interlocutors.
Michel Barnier probably mostly uses French, but has spoken English in some statements to the press, and when delivering a prepared speech in Ireland. The general public can only guess at how far language issues are complicating the negotiations, but the issue would need clarification. There is research evidence from universities where students from a variety of language backgrounds are studying in programmes in which English is the language of learning. They experience that people using English with a foreign accent are often clearer and easier to understand than native speakers of English. The same is probably true of politicians and eurocrats with a high level of proficiency in English.
The increase of the use of English in EU affairs has made it easier for the British to remain monolingual, whereas the EU has for many years been committed to making all its citizens able to function multilingually. My book on European language policy, published in 2003, English-only Europe? Challenging language policy, is a lengthy plea for member states to take language policy more seriously, so as to strengthen all European languages and to avoid an excessive focus on English.
The concluding sentence is: ‘If inaction on language policy in Europe continues, at the supranational and national levels, we may be heading for an American English-only Europe. Is that really what the citizens and leaders of Europe want?’
Brexit will significantly diminish British influence on how Europe evolves. This is in the interest of the USA, as think tanks in the USA and the key architect of Anglosphere, James Bennett, have indicated and doubtless worked for.
The book was recently updated and translated into French, entitled La domination de l’anglais: un défi pour l’Europe (The domination of English: a challenge for Europe). Part of this challenge is that many EU policies have strengthened English and simultaneously weakened other languages, in processes that can be seen as constituting linguistic imperialism.
Business leaders in the UK have repeatedly pleaded with Boris Johnson to ensure that businesses are not harmed by both a lack of clarity on an agreement with the EU and on the need to ensure an agreement. They have for years had the feeling that their needs were being neglected. The BBC reported on 26 June 2018, when Johnson was Foreign Secretary: ‘Asked about corporate concerns over a so-called hard Brexit, at an event for EU diplomats in London last week, Mr Johnson is reported to have replied: “Fuck business”. When challenged over what he was overheard saying, he did not deny it. Asked about this in the Commons, he said he may have ‘expressed scepticism about some of the views of those who profess to speak up for business’.
Johnson’s outstandingly perfidious remark ought to come back to haunt him, since the uncertainty for business remains, and has already had devastating consequences. The traffic jams of thousands of lorries clogging roads in Kent symbolize the utter incompetence of the British government. This is harming businesses, the British economy, lorry drivers of all nationalities, and the residents of Kent.
The government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis has been equally incompetent. In Posh boys. How English public schools ruin Britain Robert Verkaik shows how attendance at elite schools and Oxford University cuts the elite off from the rest of British society; it ‘divides society into winners and losers’. It produces politicians who are out of touch with ordinary people and unable to provide informed leadership. These are the people who are responsible for Brexit.
Why should anyone trust them?
- Cramer, R. 2018. From oil spill to Brexit.
- Piller, I. 2016. Have we just seen the beginning of the end of English?