There are, of course, many stories about linguistic misunderstandings in the European Parliament. Trying to tell a joke in the chamber is always risky: one group (if you’re lucky) will laugh immediately, others may laugh ten seconds later and by the time you’ve moved on to make a serious point, while the last interpretation of your previous remarks is coming through, you find a group of people the other side of the room suddenly laughing at you. It’s quite perplexing.
La sagesse normande
One classic story is about a debate when a member from Normandy came up with just the right compromise at the right time. One of the French MEPs, using an old French expression, said that this was thanks to “la sagesse normande” (the wisdom of the people from Normandy). The English interpretation rendered this as being “all thanks to Norman Wisdom”. No one of any other nationality could quite understand why the British and Irish members were in stitches!
Interpreters can’t be expected to know all the latest fad expressions in all the languages. That’s why a German MEP never quite understood why British member Michael Cashman seemed to call him a “waterproof coat”: he had actually called him an “anorak”. Nor can translation errors be avoided by new “machine translation” computer technology. It’s liable to translate withot reference to the context. The expression “out of sight, out of mind” was once rendered by a computer as “invisible lunatic”.
Imyself was once going up in the lift when a young French lady came in. I knew she had just started working as an assistant to four German MEPs. I asked her, “Comment ca va avec tes allemends?” (‘how is it going with your Germans?’). She thought I said, “Comment ca va avec tes amants?” (‘how is it going with your lovers?’). She replied, “What do you mean? I don’t have any!”. I said, “I thought you had four”. Looking shocked, she asked where I had got that idea. I replied, “You told me – you said you had four of them. You were looking forward to the challenge. Two of them you didn’t know before, but you had heard they were quite nice…”
Linguistic confusion can arise even without translation between languages, not least thanks to jargon. The EU is no worse than most in the acronyms it generates, but sometimes, in legal texts that have been translated back and forth a few times, simple terms can reappear as quite a mouthful. Far from calling a spade a spade, in the EU it’s a “single-bladed mono-handled digging instrument”! Digging further, a rear view mirror is rendered as a “supplementary instrument for indirect vision”, and if you get a job as a shelf-stacker in a supermarket, you’re classified as an “ambient replenishment assistant”. And don’t panic if you’re questioned on the “interoperability of intermodal transport systems” – it’s only about whether train and bus timetables are synchronized!
Politicians in Europe often try to speak eachother’s languages, with mixed results. English is the most widely spoken lingua franca, but has its pitfalls. For instance, the letter “J” can be pronounced as in ‘jam’ or as in ‘jugoslavia’. Perhaps this explains why the Swedish Prime Minister announced his priorities for the Swedish Presidency of the EU Council as “Yobs, Yobs, Yobs”? Not to mention the MEP who said, when it was time to leave a meeting, “Alors, c’est l’heure”, only to find that one of the British MEPs thought he said “Hello sailor”!
Even monoglots can make linguistic cock-ups. Brian Simpson MEP, debating the proposed “open skies” air travel agreement with the USA at a time of embarrassing revelations about the US President, referred to Mr Clinton’s support for an “open flies agreement”.
Then there is the peculiarly British phenomenon of people like Roy Jenkins, who pronounce their ‘r’s like ‘w’s (as in “wadical but wealistic weform”). This led to some unfortunate misunderstandings when he announced he was leaving the House of Commons without rancour. But the top prize in this category goes to a former Labour MEP who pointed out that in a list-system of proportional representation, everything depended on the order in which you were ranked.
Roy Jenkins, of course, became President of the European Commission — still the only Brit to have done so. He was known in Brussels at that time as “King John 15th”, because of the way his name is pronounced in French.
It’s a common myth that adopting the metric system in the UK is all the EU’s idea – in fact, the UK government established the Metrication Board in 1969, four years before joining the EEC, and the first British government report recommending metrication was written in the nineteenth century!
Anyway, metrication is now rather well established in our green and pleasant land, and in that respect the USA lags behind us somewhat. Will the Indy 500 ever be the Indy 804.67? Will an American football field ever be referred to as 91.44 metres long? Would Jules Verne have written 96,561 Kilometers Under the Sea? Will a 9-pound hammer ever be known as a 4.0823-kilogram hammer? Should Peter Piper have picked 7570.8 cubic centimeters of pickled peppers? Will top fuel drag racers ever admit to doing the 0.40234 kilometer in under 5 seconds? Probably not. But remember, if you give a proponent of the metric system 2.54 centimeters, he’ll take 1.6093 kilometers.
The European Parliament is a wonderful place for meeting well-known political personalities – and for hearing stories about them!
A question of timing
One story is from my colleague Michel Rocard MEP. When he was French Prime Minister, he had a summit meeting with Mrs Thatcher as British Prime Minister. He raised the issue of the single currency. Thatcher responded, “Not in a thousand years”. Rocard said,”I’m delighted to hear you say that! You’re not opposed to the principle – it’s just a question of the timing!”
Otto von Habsburg, son of the last emperor of Austria-Hungary, was also an MEP from 1979 to 1999. In fact, for the last ten years, he was the oldest member. He was in the chair when I took my seat following my by-election and he had welcomed me has having been “appointed” to the house. I was therefore able to start immediately with a point of order pointing out that I was elected, not appointed. Once, when Austria played against Hungary at football, I was curious to see his reaction and asked whether he had seen the match. “What match?” He asked. “Austria-Hungary” I replied. “Oh,” he said, “who against?”
Quantity, not quality
Helmut Kohl was German chancellor for sixteen years, inevitably playing a major part in European affairs. He used to meet his party’s MEPs regularly, coming four times a year to Strasbourg to do so. When I inquired why he came to Strasbourg, rather than Brussels, which was much nearer to Bonn, I was told that it was because of food. When I pointed out that Brussels has more three star restaurants than Strasbourg, one of my German colleagues explained, “Yes, the food is just as good in Brussels, but the serving sizes are better in Strasbourg!”.
Laurent Fabius was an MP as well as an MEP — in fact, he was the president of the French National Assembly and a member of the European Parliament’s committee on constitutional affairs. Presidents of the National Assembly had at their disposal a wine cellar built up over many years when Chaban Delmas, who was also mayor of Bordeaux, was president. Apparently, this collection disappeared very rapidly when Fabius was president. Every weekend, he would invite a different departmental section of the French Socialist Party to send a visitors group to the assembly, personally escort them around and offer them a slap up lunch with lots of wine. This was part of his campaign to succeed Mitterrand and become the party’s candidate for president. In the end, he fell victim to the contaminated blood scandal in France and was never in a position to run for president.
I was there!
Pat Cooney, an Irish member, was on Parliament’s legal affairs committee, which happened to be meeting in Berlin the day the wall came down. Sadly, Pat had missed the night’s events, having retired early to his hotel. The following morning, the hotel had run out of English language newspapers. Still blissfully unaware of what had happened, he got on the bus to his meeting, which was in the Reichstag, right next to the wall. He wondered why everyone was peering out one side of the bus at one stage, but assumed there had been a traffic accident. Taking his seat at the committee meeting, he put his earphones to hear the chairman go on and on about this historic day in Berlin marking a new stage in European history. Realising that he was the only person in the room not to understand the significance of the chairman’s remarks, and not wishing to display his ignorance, he asked a colleague whether there had been much newspaper coverage of what had happened. Hearing that it was on the front page of every newspaper, most of which had special extra editions, he realised that something so important had happened that he could not possibly let on that he did not know what it was. He left the room to phone his wife in Dublin and asked her whether anything had happened that day in Berlin. Once she told him, he phoned every Irish radio station to give an interview; “after all,” he told me “I was there!”
The Calvinist fundamentalists in Holland always manage to win a seat in the EP. For years this was Mr van der Waal. He would, among other things, never watch television on a Sunday. Once a colleague offered him the videotape of a programme on a burning political issue that had been broadcast on a Sunday and he declined, saying “that would be cheating”!
Freddy Thielemans left Parliament in 2001 when he was elected mayor of Brussels. He was named “Freddy” because he was born the day British troops liberated Brussels in 1944. His parents resolved to name him after the first British soldier they came across, who happened to be a certain Freddy. They stayed in contact, with little Freddy visiting England and learning perfect English. When he was invested as mayor of Brussels, the English family came over (though sadly without the original Freddy who had died a couple of years before) for the ceremony.
Travel is frequently a stress for MEPs, with delays, detours and so on soon removing any vestige of the alleged glamour of jet-setting. Nonetheless, it can sometimes be a source of amusement. Glenys Kinnock was once approached by an air steward, who thought she might like to know, as a campaigner for equal rights, that that the crew, including pilots, was entirely female. Impressed, Glenys asked if she could visit the cockpit. “Oh, we don’t call it that any more,” replied the steward!
Tom Spencer MEP was leader of the UK Conservative MEPs in the 1990s. Twenty years earlier, when he was a student activist, he was known as a “man of many vices”, as he was vice-president of so many different organisations (Conservative Students, Young Federalists, etc). Little did anyone know the title would be resurrected in 1999 when Tom was caught by UK customs with a number of rather naughty items in his luggage!
Tom was first elected in 1979, but lost his seat in 1984 to Geoff Hoon, later Labour’s Defence Secretary. The Tories lost several seats to Labour that year, but Tom commented that his was the only seat to “swing to the right”!
Glyn Ford MEP was not amused when his entry in the Register of Member’s interests was mis-typed. He identified himself as a “columnist”, but this appeared as “communist”.
The MEP with the most striking address was a French conservative D’Ormesson, whose address was:
Avenue Olivier D’Ormesson
Most amusing electoral slogan award goes to former Labour MEP Clive Needle for his posters ‘Be sharp – vote Needle!’. But a special mention is earned by Stephen Hughes’s ‘Hughes your vote!’.
Keeper of the hairspray
In days gone by, more than one prominent Conservative was a self-declared European federalist. Tony Baldry MP, former minister and Chairman of the House of Commons Select Committee on International Development, was a board member of the Young Federalists at the same time when he was researcher for Mrs Thatcher when she was opposition leader – a balancing act that defies imagination. Perhaps he could get away with it because of the nature of his duties with Mrs T: he was commonly known as “the keeper of the hairspray”!
When he later sought election to Westminster, he was first selected to fight the Thurrock seat for the Tories. His mother informed her sister of this, saying: “Have you heard? Tony’s got Thurrock!”, whereupon she reportedly replied: “Don’t worry, my dear, they can do wonders with penicillin nowadays!”.
Off their trolleys
MEPs and Commissioners are the butt of many jokes that are, needless to say, totally unfounded. Q: What’s the difference between a Commissioner and a supermarket trolley? A: you can fit more food and drink into a Commissioner!”.
Finally, there’s the alleged comment by Irish Minister Ray Burke when his party leader asked him to stand for election to the European Parliament: “Oh, no! My liver isn’t up to being an MEP!”
Richard Corbett is a Labour Member of the European Parliament. First elected in 1996 (in a by-election in Merseyside). Since 1999, have represented the region of Yorkshire and the Humber. In 2009, narrowly lost parliamentary seat to a British National Party MEP, and won it back in 2014.
Prior to being an MEP, he worked in the voluntary sector and then as a civil servant, after having gained a BA at Oxford and a PhD at Hull.