13 NOVEMBER 1999, Page 14


Daniel Hannan says that the Europhiles cannot understand the languages of their new best friends

THERE is no mistaking the champion lin- guist among Britain's MEPs. He is Dr Charles Tannock, one of London's four Conservatives. I can vouch only for his excellent Spanish and French, but I've often heard him yabbering animatedly in German, Portuguese and Italian, and he seems also to have a fair grasp of Slovak and Dutch. So it may surprise you to learn that Charles is a fervent Eurosceptic. When asked at his selection whether he intended to keep up his psychiatry prac- tice, he replied, 'Brussels is full of people who need my help.' And, since arriving there, he has launched a multi-vernacular assault on federalism.

One of the more curious features of the European Parliament is the correlation, at least among the British, between linguistic ability and opposition to closer integration. It is not an exact correlation: several Euro- philes have taught themselves French, and a few — especially, for some reason, among the Liberal Democrats — are accomplished in several European tongues. But the sceptics do, nonetheless, enjoy an identifiable lead.

A similar tendency can be seen in our domestic politics. Many of the hardest ene- mies of Brussels are people who are not only fluent in other languages, but are plain- ly comfortable with other cultures. One thinks of James Goldsmith, or Michael Por- tillo in this generation, or Anthony Eden in the last. My survey of Daily Telegraph leader writers — arguably the most Eurosceptic life-form in discovered space — reveals an impressive average of three-and-a-half lan- guages per head.

Through the ages, the defence of our national independence has tended to come from people who got on conspicu- ously well with foreigners. Wellington attended a French school in Ireland before completing his studies on the Con- tinent. Disraeli, like Churchill, could never resist an opportunity to speak French: when he attended the Congress of Berlin, the British ambassador had to talk him out of showing off his language skills by insisting that the other heads of gov- ernment would be disappointed not to hear his famous English oratory. Of all our Victorian statesmen, only Palmerston comes close to the gunboat stereotype. On one occasion, when told by his French counterpart that the English had no word for sensibilite, he replied, 'Yes we have: humbug.'

By contrast, the most unquestioning Euro-enthusiasts are often shockingly parochial. This is especially true, in my experience, of young Blairites, whose cos- mopolitanism tends to be limited to their cuisine. But the Tory wets also boast a fair number of determined monoglots — one thinks of Clarke and Hezza, who disgraced themselves at the launch of Britain In Europe — and Edward Heath's attempts to speak French are among the glories of the 20th century. I think I have worked out why this should be. It owes much to what Jungians call 'transferred guilt'. Those who always have to speak to foreigners in English worry that they may be coming across as arrogant. They are keen to show their interlocutors that they do not look down on them, and feel that they can somehow do this by stressing that, in their view, Britain is a rather feeble country which could not survive without its European neighbours.

The funny thing is that they have abso- lutely no need to he embarrassed. Foreign- ers, after all, have not learned English as a favour to us, but in order to communicate with each other. A Bolivian travelling in Bangladesh or a Chechen in Chad will generally use English. It is quite irrational to feel under any obligation simply because our idiom has become global. And yet, for some reason, we do. Even Eurosceptics are affected. As one hugely able colleague put it last week, 'I feel I'm on my back foot before we've even started. It's as though I owe them something to make up for the fact that we have to speak in my language.'

On top of this, monolingual Britons often have an exaggerated respect for our more versatile neighbours. Having never learned another language, they have little idea of how easy it is. The linguistic facil- ity of the Continentals is taken as proof of their tremendous braininess. From there, it is a short step to believing that the project they have embarked upon that of merging their countries — must be a brilliant wheeze. If it looks stupid to us, this must be because we've missed something. John Major is a good example of someone who seemed to think this way.

In fact, much of Europe's business is awesomely banal. Most EU officials and a fair sprinkling of MEPs — speak and think in clichés: 'the next stage of European construction', 'respecting the principles of subsidiary and proportionali- ty', 'bringing Europe closer to the citi- zens'. Relying on simultaneous interpretation, we British assume that what is being said cannot really be as unconvincing as it sounds. If only we could listen without the headphones, we would see that it really is.

And yet, despite all the evidence, it remains central to the Europhiles' case that it is their opponents who are ham- pered by prejudice and ignorance. Listen, for example, to this description from a recent Guardian article: 'Imagine, if you will, the kinds of people most opposed to British membership of the euro. Not diffi- cult, is it? A gin-sodden golf-club bore, a football hooligan with union-flag tattoos, a blimpish colonel or two.... '

In fact, the piece goes on to reveal that a majority of the trendy young things who log on to the Guardian's Internet edition have voted against the euro, but this will do little to shift the stereotype. Indeed, for many Euro-enthusiasts, caricaturing their opponents is not simply a useful political device; it is the very thing that brought them into the struggle. When talking to federalist friends, I am struck by a constant refrain in their argument: 'You may well have a rational case against the euro; but don't you realise that you're lining up with some truly repulsive people?' There may be some truth in that: every cause attracts some repulsive people. But I am left wondering how much of the pro-European case is based on a computation of where Britain's interests lie, and how much on an inchoate desire to be 'against nation- alism'.

There is nothing new in this. A certain studied hostility to Britain has been a minority pursuit in this country, dating back at least to Lytton Strachey and his cronies, Over the years, it has led the British Left into some pretty uncomfort- able alliances, from Soviet communism to Irish republicanism. What is new, howev- er, is the kind of person being attracted by such thinking. Until recently, those who affected to despise Britishness did at least have a veneer of cosmopolitanism. How curious that their cause is now being taken up by those who only England know.

Daniel Hannan is Conservative MEP for south-east England.

'We'll never get hint to retire now.'