The UK may leave, but English will remain

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The UK may leave on the 23 June, but its language has made an indelible, lasting mark on the Brussels machine. [Shutterstock]

Britain has a history of leaving legacies. The most significant one it may leave on the EU in the event of Brexit may turn out to be the English language, writes Colin Mackay.

Colin Mackay is the managing director of the Brussels Writing Bureau.

A former colonial power, the remnants of the British Empire have led to oddities and quirks around the globe. It explains why quintessentially British sports such as rugby or cricket are played in such disparate locations around the globe.

If the UK votes to leave the European Union, will it leave a legacy of its time in the bloc? At first glance, it’s hard to see what. There have been no outstanding UK leaders of the great offices, no British towns or cities associated with the defining Treaties in same way as Rome, Lisbon, Maastricht or Schengen. Yet, the UK is likely to leave one lasting impression, one that is distinctly Orwellian in nature.

Fortunately, it is not a 1984-style dystopian Orwellian world. The citizens of the EU need not be concerned about Big Brother style mass surveillance; indeed some may argue it is now too late to worry about that.

The Orwellian legacy will be the adoption of the English language as the default within the Brussels bubble.

Admittedly, it’s a strange version of the language; almost a local dialect, encompassing a large number of loan words, Eurospeak, false friends and a unique approach to syntax. Yet it remains unmistakably English.

French was the language of Brussels, particularly of European policy. Yet inexorably, English became an invasive species, its informality pushing though like Japanese knotweed. From being frowned upon, viewed as a mark of inadequate language skills, writing in English now has tacit acceptance throughout Brussels.

As someone who arrived in Brussels at the beginning of the 21st century, this was completely unforeseen. Yet now my organisation, the Brussels Writing Bureau, spends its time helping companies and associations write clearly in English.

It may seem an unusual service in such a polyglot city, but writing and speaking English are different; in written form, you lack the non-verbal aspects of communication of eye contact or gesture and no insight into the fluency of your readers’ Brussels-speak.

There is no small degree of irony in such a legacy. The British are viewed throughout Europe as the nationality least likely to speak a second or third language, the ones with the greatest discomfort in a wider Europe. Arguably, this inability to integrate and assimilate has contributed to the momentum behind the anti-EU Leave campaign.

Yet with the vast majority of Anglophones in the Union on the verge of leaving, it is Brussels that has adapted by embracing English as its own. It may only be one of the ‘official’ languages, but in reality, it is the de facto standard, and it won’t change any time soon – without or without the British (no disrespect to the Irish and the Maltese).

In part, this is pragmatism – a form of linguistic Realpolitik. The first major expansion of the EU in the 21st century, from 15 to 25 member states, began the process. For the incoming Eastern European nations, French and German were not the favoured second languages; it was English. For casual conversation, it was a safer bet.

So in what way is this an Orwellian development? Orwell recognised that political communication was increasingly debased. Around 70 years ago, he published a famous essay; ‘Politics and the English Language’. In this, he described how political language was, “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Sadly, this remains depressingly familiar.

He argued that by applying six simple rules, political communication would become clear and accessible. What Orwell recognised was that clarity and precision are not synonymous. He argued for the elimination of metaphors, figures of speech and ‘foreign phrases’. This may deliver a rather banal form of English, with a limited vocabulary, but it is one that is highly functional; indeed it forms the basis of the Brussels lingua franca we now see.

Whether the clarity of communication is improving is open to question; however, in the nearly 15 years that I have been here, the European Commission has undoubtedly done a lot to make their output more accessible.

If the Brits go, English will stay; that is inevitable. However, despite their struggles with other languages, we hope they remain. The mother-tongue English speakers help avoid the worst excesses of Brusselsspeak (‘comitology’, ‘conditionality’, ‘externalisation’, ‘homogenise’, ‘take-aways’, ‘learnings’ or ‘modality’, anyone?) that Orwell railed against. At the same time, they enrich our language with memorable – and distinctly un-Orwellian- portmanteau words like Brexit.

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