After arrival at Rotterdam, our party headed straight for Brussels and Berlaymont. We were herded directly from the coach park up to the impressive main entrance of the Parliament, with its big display saying In Varietate Concordia, which is Latin for “United in Disunity” or (as the EU has it, “United in Diversity”).
After a long wait in the lobby, with its flags and portraits and whatnot, we were shown the parliamentary chamber, where MEPs debate legislation they cannot originate, prior to engaging a fleet of trucks and shipping their offices, interpreters and wardrobes to Strasbourg, where they vote on the same legislation without being able to veto it. This pointless and costly travelling circus, which everybody in Brussels smiles awkwardly about, is the result of French insistence on having some of the EU action on its home turf. (The Germans, who bankroll the whole show but who are still privately viewed by everybody as Nazis, were not allowed to have any toys at all until the euro came along. Then, people realized it looked a bit odd having more EU institutions in Luxembourg than in the EU’s biggest and most generous member, so they put the European Central Bank in Frankfurt.)
The parliament was not in session this day. It seldom is: it only meets 12 times a year, for a total of 48 days, for which MEPs get a salary of fifteen million pounds a year plus perks or something like that. So we surveyed, from a height, a vast auditorium of empty seats. Because of the lack of democracy in action to talk about, the guide dwelt on the interpreting arrangements, which as you might expect are complex, but were of particular interest to me, as this is close to my business.
The working language of the EU is, of course, that of its least popular and most demanding member (or rather, it is among the all-white Eurocrat class, not the guys who man the security equipment and canteens, who are nearly all persons of colour who speak French). But it was interesting to note that German is still the first language on the interpreting roster, with English coming second. German is No. 1 due to Germany’s leading role in the coal and steel pact days, and because, even though the Germans are, deep down, still Nazis, it is tacitly understood they are also still Top Dogs in Europe.
A total of 24 languages are interpreted, including Irish Gaelic, because it is an official language of the Republic of Ireland (Scottish Gaelic is not, because it lacks official status in Britain). I would imagine there can only be a handful of Irish MEPs with any meaningful knowledge of Gaelic, and none without native-level English, but the EU likes this sort of symbolic gesture, an MEP with us said, because fostering regionalism helps undermine the national state. “That’s the underlying agenda. They would probably offer Cornish too if they realistically could.” (On the other hand, a number of uncovered regional languages, such as Catalan, actually have more speakers than the most recent EU member, Malta.)
Have a guess how many interpreters and translators there are at the European Parliament. Few hundred? Not even close. Two thousand? Getting there. In fact, there are 3,500, which is nearly five times the 751 MEPs. It costs 2.5 million pounds a year to keep shunting them all to Strasbourg and back (I know that sounds incredible, but it was in the Daily Telegraph so it must be true). A few can interpret among nine languages, we were told, though given the similarity of so many Slavic languages that is not quite as staggering as it sounds.
Despite the army of linguists, direct interpretation from language A to language B is not always possible, and cumbersome dog-legged renderings are common, especially with the East European MEPs, whose English can be rough and ready. Thus, if the Czech and Slovak specialists are absent from duty after a night on the slivovice, a speech by a Slovak MEP may be rendered first into Polish, which is similar to Slovak, and then the Polish team put it into English. This, the guide said, could have some amusing results. If the Slovak MEP had attempted a joke, there would be a small outbreak of sniggering in the small corner of the auditorium where Slovak was understood. When it went into Polish a few moments later — and presuming the joke had survived the translation process — the Poles would have a chortle, before it got its third and biggest airing a few moments later, when it went into English. So you got three ripples of gradually increasing laughter. This was about the only funny thing that ever happened at the European Parliament, the guide added, rather sadly. Apart from some of the UKIP speeches.
After the visit to the Parliamentary chamber, we were led into a lecture room by a nice young Danish man and given a brief overview of the general workings of the EU, which was basic, but necessary, as no matter how many times you read up on this stuff, it is so complex, you forget it all within 24 hours unless you are working within the system yourself. It is also very dull. Much more interesting were the asides from some of the British MEPs acting as sherpas to our group.
One in particular, who I shall call John Jakes, kept butting in with sneering interruptions that drew winces from the poor Dane, who had already been struggling with the Yorkshire dialect of his not-very-sympathetic audience. Jakes had the general manner of a blackguard baronet dressing down his stable-boy, but what he and a couple of other UKIP MEPs said was very interesting. Here are the key points, dressed up as a few loose paragraphs:
“One thing you should all realise is this: the European Union is not going to collapse. They will spend their last euro keeping the project going, and never mind what happens to Greece. This is basically a cult. And, make no mistake, they hate us. They might as well have ‘five-minute hates’ against the United Kingdom …. The majority sentiment here is for a United States of Europe, and an ever-growing member base, comprising regions rather than countries. The word “country” is not avoided, but “member state” is the preferred term … The consensus is, they want Turkey in, whatever they may say in public. The formal justification is that a few percent of it is actually on the European continent. Give it 10-15 years. They are already working on Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan, which are members of the eastern partnership; they are building roads and stuff for them over there with our money …
“This is an aggressive project of continual expansion. They are going at it on every possible front. At the moment, for example, they are trying to get all European shipping to carry the EU flag. Another initiative is said to be extending EU control of the seabed up to Dover … The European Union was always a political mission. The coal and steel union was explicitly political, aimed at stopping France and Germany going to war again. In the 1970s, the British government deliberately tried to conceal this political side by always talking about the Common Market, though it never was purely economic. … Yes, they are confident Remain will win the referendum …”
“Merkel’s migrant influx was really about cheap labour. Whenever the German economy slows down, they start looking southeastwards. Cheap labour. You might ask, why aren’t the British unions opposing this and fighting for the British worker? Our unions don’t give a damn about the British worker, they are fully signed up to the project …
“For the elites, it’s about vanity and fat pensions. National leaders don’t see themselves as prime ministers, but as EU statesmen. They want to leave legacies beyond their homelands. It’s about careers.”
All fascinating stuff. But it wasn’t hard to see why UKIP were unpopular in Brussels.
Taken from Mijn Vlakke Land, my travelogue of the Low Countries. For this and my other free downloadable pdf travel books on Europe and East Asia, please visit this website: https://www.itabibito.com/. The link for Mijn Vlakke Land is halfway down the page.
© Joe Slater 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file