As far as Committee weeks in the European Parliament go, this one was relatively interesting. I managed to get the director of Europe's anti-fraud office to admit that fraud within the EU budget is on the rise, as well as blasting the Commission for their 'Code of Conduct' which has been in place for 15 years but is so weak that even the federalist parties in the EU have a problem with it.
The Court of Auditors' scathing report on agriculture payments was also discussed. It's good to see that the Court seems to have ignored Van Rompuy's requests. Just over a year ago, he asked for more 'nuanced' reporting over matters such as fraud and poor accounting. That would, apparently, play into the hands of eurosceptics such as myself.
Quite the opposite, in fact! If these things were highlighted, debated and dealt with then maybe the public wouldn't have such little confidence in the European Union. I'm anti-EU not because I don't want reform but because the European Union is structurally unreformable.
But this week got me thinking about language. In the full Parliament, there are 24 languages. I make that 552 different combinations (24 x 23) of languages that may require instantaneous translation. Not only is it expensive, there are frequent misunderstandings. Last week in Strasbourg, an MEP (I believe, a German eurosceptic) complained that she received dozens of pages of important documents at 8pm the day before the vote. They were available only in English, a language that she doesn't speak.
I found myself at a restaurant the other day with a British MEP and a French-speaking Belgian national. We didn't speak much French, and he spoke very little English. After a while it transpired we had Spanish as a common language, so I ended up translating for my colleague. The experience reminded me that translation is a funny thing. Idiom and colloquialism doesn't translate easily. For example, some years ago I was asked to translate the Spanish phrase 'El mono, aunque se vista de seda, mono se queda'. Literally, even if a monkey dresses itself in silk it remains a monkey. But a direct translation loses the richness of language and idiom. A well-known Spanish proverb becomes little more than a simple collection of words. So I might translate it as 'a leopard can't change its spots'. The literal meaning is lost, but using an English proverb instead captures the essence of the language much better.
Meaning can be lost or gained so easily. The apocryphal story in the European Parliament is that a French MEP once claimed that a matter could only be solved through the wisdom of the traditional Normans - and that he couldn't understand why the chamber erupted in laughter when he said that only Norman Wisdom could solve the problem. I believe that we should focus on the teaching of languages in our schools - despite the constant jibes of the Left of British politics (who frequently prefer throwing insults and accusations such as 'xenophobia' to actual debate), I think communication with our neighbours is vital. In learning a foreign language I gained important skills that go beyond the fare opportunities I get to use it.
The English language is the most spoken language worldwide. It is the obvious language to teach in France, Spain, Germany and Italy. It's useful for communicating not just with people from the UK, but often it's easier - as I've noticed many times - for people from Holland and Spain to communicate in English. This gives the UK a unique advantage in some respects; we're fluent in what is arguably the most important language in the world. But it can also lead to laziness. How many tourists take the time to learn even a few simple phrases in the language of the country they're visiting? 'It's okay, they'll all speak English anyway'. It's not just the English that propagate this either - in the south of Spain for example, I've found a real reluctance to speak their own language. Once they've worked out you're a British tourist, responses will invariably be in English.
People often ask why those on the Right of British politics argue that mass immigration has more impact on the UK than other countries. Why do so many people want to come to our overcrowded island? The caricature answer - the benefits system - doesn't tell the whole story. I think a large part of it is that people already speak the language. If you were a potential immigrant who spoke English but not French, wouldn't you be likely to come to the UK not France if you were planning on living abroad?
It follows fairly naturally that the UK needs a different immigration policy to that of France, and that the current unlimited immigration from the other 27 countries of the EU is a bad thing. Free movement of workers from country A to country B doesn't work where that movement is vastly asymmetric. But we see migratory patterns within the EU from countries with low wages (for example, Bulgaria with a minimum wage around 80p per hour) to those with relatively high wages (for example, the UK and Germany). We see migratory patterns within the EU to countries that speak English (only the UK).
Unlimited immigration from the EU is not a good thing. Immigration is, according to the polling, the second most important issue in British politics today - behind only the economy. In his Conference speech Labour's Ed Miliband, the man hoping to be our next Prime Minister, 'forgot' to mention both the economy and immigration. Understandable perhaps, given Labour's record on both issues when they were in government.