In February the German president, Joachim Gauck, called for English to be adopted as the official EU language, partly to make the UK feel more loved now that David Cameron’s committed himself to an in-out referendum. Another candidate might be Latin, Europe’s lingua franca for over a millennium, but the ancient Romans are not thinking of leaving the union. This has its serious side, as the EU’s 23 languages (to become 24 when Croatia joins) contribute to a democratic deficit; as with Belgium, in some ways the EU in microcosm, failure of accountability is often put down to the lack of a common language.
Gauck’s suggestion predictably pissed off the French. At an early meeting of the European Political Science consortium in the 1970s, when the president began his address in English, the French delegation walked out. But there’s less for the French to be annoyed about this time than they might think. Eurenglish is already well established in the EU. Germans, for example, are good at inventing English-looking words that the English themselves never use, as in: ‘Dear Clients! Please switch out your Handys in the Wellness-Gym!’ My French-language version of Word offers to check my spelling against not only the usual ex-colonial versions of English, but also ‘EU English’. In some of the most egregious examples of Eurenglish, readers confront the textual equivalent of Gérard Depardieu kitted out with a token bowler and brolly.
The process is sufficiently far-advanced for the EU, in a characteristic bout of autophagy, to have issued guidelines for de-Eurifying its prose. Among the monstrosities its author, Jeremy Gardner, targets is the patently gallic ‘planification’, for English ‘planning’ – and doubtless before long, if not already, the back-formed ‘planify’. The by-blow of a world of indefinitely prolonged bureaucratic foreplay, ‘planification’ suggests that anything so vulgarly concrete as a plan itself requires planning, which in turn calls for a pilot project, preceded by a feasibility study…. Similarly ‘in frame of’ (dans le cadre de), ‘delay’ to mean ‘deadline’ (délai), ‘eventual’ to mean ‘possible’ (éventuel) and ‘reflection group’ (groupe de réflexion), whose English meaning the dictionary gives as ‘a discrete group which is generated by a set of reflections of a finite-dimensional Euclidean space’.
Turning Eurenglish back into sense feels a bit like the Laputan project of reducing human excrement to its original food. Some words are just made up. A case in point is ‘comitology’ which, as Gardner notes, doesn’t exist outside the EU and ‘is formed from a misspelt stem (committee has two “m”s and two “t”s)’. The word seems to mean something like ‘the study of committees’ and ‘the structure of committees set up by the EU to review its own legislation’.
With such langue de bois no wonder everyone’s confused. Take for example the phrase ‘budget line’, apparently widespread in EU texts, which Gardner says ‘does not exist in English’. He goes on to note that there is no agreement about what ‘budget line’ means anyway. Maybe this goes some way to explaining why auditors fail to sign off the EU’s accounts.