Paul's Column: Learning French in the European Parliament

23 May 2017

One of the questions I was often asked when I was endeavouring to be elected to the European Parliament was whether I spoke any European languages and if not was I willing to learn one?  CSE Grade 2 German was the best I could muster all those years ago so on my successful election I took up French lessons. They have proved to be a bit tricky.

The two official languages of the Parliament are English and French but since the Eastern European countries joined the EU English has become the dominant language.

Even though I spend my working week in the largely French speaking EU capital Brussels, the reality is that trying to learn French when most people speak English is really rather difficult.  You begin your sentence, “Je voudrais …” only to have the person you are speaking to intuitively know that you are English and promptly finish your sentence for you.

When a German member of the Parliament wants to talk to a Portuguese member, or a Swede to an Italian, they communicate in English.  So you don’t need to speak any other language than English.  This state of affairs is about to put Irish MEPs in a unique position, despite the fact that Ireland is one of the smallest of the member states with a population of only four and half million and less than one per cent of the weighted vote in the European Council (the UK currently has 13%).  When the UK leaves the 11 Irish MEPs will find themselves in the communications driving seat in a parliament of 678 MEPs.

One of the most noticeable occurrences in the Parliament in recent weeks is the degree of agreement that exists amongst the remaining 27 member states.  If truth be told they don’t normally agree on much and disputes are common on migrant quotas, the tension between creditor and debtor countries and the never ending arguments over closer union.  But when it comes to Brexit they are of one view and that agreement centres on their shared understanding that the UK outside of the EU cannot have a better deal than it had inside the Union.

Meanwhile, not a week goes by when I don’t speak to someone who tells me of the downside of Brexit and often it’s very personal.  At my daughter’s school I spoke to a German parent, a professor who holds a senior role, who told me that for the first time in the ten years of his residency he was seriously thinking of leaving the UK.  He also told me of a fellow staff member who while British, has an Irish wife and they’ve just re-located their family home from Newcastle to Dublin, leaving the colleague commuting to work in the North East each week. 

Which is why Huntsman, the only multinational company that has its European headquarters in the North East of England, are worried they won’t be able to recruit the skilled staff needed for their operations at Wynyard in County Durham, Wilton on Teesside and Seal Sands at Hartlepool.  They are a USA multinational company who manufacturer chemical products including polyurethanes, paints and insulation material.  Two weeks ago they hosted a lunch in Brussels that I attended, along with staff from the Commission.  With 20 billion euro of trade into the UK from the EU and the same amount back out again they are understandably concerned about any potential trade barriers going up as a result of Brexit.  Manufacturing supply chains can be surprisingly long and complex. For instance, Huntsman’s detergents will have been backwards and forwards across the English Channel five times before they are sold, so no wonder they are keen that Brexit doesn’t disrupt their business.

“But Huntsman are nothing to do with me!” you may say.  Actually they maybe a lot closer to you than you might think, as there is an 80% chance that the clothes you are wearing contain dyes and pigments that Huntsman manufacture!  Which all goes to show that the world is indeed a small place or as the name of my favourite restaurant in Brussels is named, Le Monde est Petit.  See, I have managed to learn some French.

Do you think the North East needs its own voice in the EU exit negotiations?

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