Tuesday afternoon, I went to the annual Dahrendorf Lecture in which German sociologist Ulrich Beck discussed the future of the European project. During the discussion following his talk, Beck asked the audience who among them had watched the first debate between candidates for the presidency of the European Commission, which had taken place the day before. Out of the 50+ members of the audience, four raised their hands. Considering this percentage in an auditorium full of Oxford students and faculty, who had specifically come to attend a lecture on the European Union, one can get an idea of just how strong the interest there is among the European public.
I was embarrassed that my hand had to stay down too, so that after the lecture I went home to watch the debate. Ten minutes into it, I stopped the video, took out pen and paper and began scribbling down notes for this post. For this debate revealed a unique and interesting feature of EU politics: the impact of language on political rhetoric.
The debate brought together four of the five contenders for the EU commission’s presidency: Jean-Claude Juncker (EPP), Ska Keller (EGP), Martin Schulz (PES), and Guy Verhofstadt (ALDEE) – Alexis Tsipras, the European Left’s nominee decided not to attend; Ska Keller is running together with José Bové. The Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists, which is likely to gain significantly in the upcoming elections, declared in February that it would not field a candidate for the post. It did not want “to legitimise the idea that a European executive should be chosen by a federal legislature”.
Two Germans, one Luxembourger and one Belgian thus came together to discuss the EU. In English.
Everyone who speaks a foreign language is probably familiar with the phenomenon that somehow one does not seem to be as clever in it, not to mention as funny, as accurate or as poignant. This effect varies from person to person but there are very few people who will feel equally at home in a foreign language as they do in their native one.
To be sure, the candidates were able to aptly communicate their messages. Schulz scolded a “Europe of banks and speculators”. Keller emphasised the importance of getting young people involved in European affairs. Verhofstadt argued for less regulation but more common policies. Juncker argued that the EU should not be on its knees before the US.
But this is not what televised political debates are (mainly) about. The candidates’ political programmes are available to anyone. Televised debates are crucial for giving the voter a feeling for the candidates. They help the voter to find out whether a politician is clever, whether he or she can deal with criticism and can make convincing arguments. They let us find out whether a candidate can turn a verbal attack around to make it work for them. Televised debates, if done well, should be entertaining and fun, a display of rhetorical skills.
Displaying such rhetorical skill is considerably more difficult in a foreign language. Great rhetoricians get it exactly right. Those conversing in another language, no matter how talented, are often slightly off. For the candidates of the Commission presidency, having to make their statements in English took away their wit. It deprived them of the power of political oratory, which in turn deprived the audience of the fun of watching such a debate. Considering that the art of rhetoric has its roots in Europe, this is particularly deplorable.
Also, just imagine for a moment that one of the candidates would have been British. But then, we might not have to worry about that, coming 2017.
So what can we do? We should let the candidates speak in their own language and provide simultaneous translations and – even better – subtitles. Doing this would be a strong signal for European multilingualism. It would be an enjoyable way for those learning a European language to test their knowledge. Most importantly, it would have allowed the candidates to use their rhetorical skills. To make jokes, play on words, or be sarcastic. Such a debate, one can hope, may attract more viewers.