HC Deb 06 November 2002 vol 392 cc303-6 4.33 pm
Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to make proposals to the European Council for the establishment of one language as the official language of the European Union; to provide for the development of a single European language; and to establish a date by which the language will become the official language of the United Kingdom.

I have promoted a number of ten-minute Bills over the years. My mind goes back to an occasion in 1979 when I promoted a Bill immediately before Margaret Thatcher, as she then was, moved a motion of confidence in the Government. The good news was that my Bill undoubtedly had the widest audience of any ten-minute Bill in the history of this House; many millions of people watched me live on television introducing my Bill. I did a deal with the Government: if I kept my ten-minute Bill down to three sentences, they would give me what I wanted—pensions for 25,000 service widows. This is a rather different occasion, and the audience for this Bill is more like the normal audience for such Bills.

My starting point is a concern about language differences in the European Union, which are a barrier to communication and trade. As the European Union has sought to deal with the barrier of currency between nations, so it is appropriate for it to address the barrier of language between nations.

It is in the European Union institutions that the problem is the most exposed. There are 11 recognised languages and, currently, the rules of the EU say that any citizen has the right to communicate with any European institution in any recognised language and to receive a reply in the same language. As the Commission has said, linguistic diversity is an essential aspect of the common cultural heritage; in other words, "We agree to differ."

The formula for calculating the number of language combinations within the EU is "n squared minus n" where "n" is the number of languages in question. If we have 11 languages, that is "11 squared minus 11", making 110 language combinations in the EU at the moment. The addition of one extra language would take the number of language combinations from 110 to 132.

The EU spends about £150 million on translation and interpretation; it has about 1,200 full-time interpreters, 600 support staff and about 2,000 contract staff. Their work is to translate about 1.25 million pages that go in the 40-truck convoy that makes its way monthly from Strasbourg to Brussels to Luxembourg.

That is the present situation. As the EU expands, as is planned, and if the number of official languages goes, as is expected, from 11 to 23, the number of language combinations would increase from 110 to 506. Translation and interpretation would more than double—way more. Even if relay languages were used—for instance, translating Greek into English into Estonian, or Slovakian into French into Spanish—the work would be way greater than the total translation resources would bear. We cannot go on like this. For some of the smaller countries, the number of recognised interpreters is quite small. We should be addressing ourselves to the language problem. Our search will logically start in finding the most-used language in the world and perhaps building on that.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

Tell us what that is.

Mr. Viggers

It is certainly not Welsh. It is, in fact, Mandarin Chinese, used as a first language by 874 million people. However, not even all the Chinese use Mandarin. I remember meeting a Chinaman once and greeting him "Ni hao ma"; he replied, memorably, "I am sorry. I do not speak Mandarin."

The second most popular first language in the world is Hindi, at 366 million, but that is not much help either. The third language, English—at 341 million—has the advantage of being the first language in 104 countries, which is more than twice as many as the second most popular first language. Adopting English as the official language would reduce the number of language combinations from 110 to 10 and, on expansion, would reduce the number to 22 from 506.

It would be very good if I could sit down at that point, having done my job, and say that English should be the language of the EU, but enormous issues of national pride are involved. First, it is a principle of the EU that all languages are equal and, secondly, the chances of persuading the French to give up French as the second de facto drafting language in the EU must be assessed realistically as zero.

We must look for a European solution, and here we have a precedent to guide us. The EU faced up to a similar problem with its currencies. Instead of choosing the strongest and most widely used currency, the deutschmark—as one would have thought was natural—it chose to create something new and artificial called the euro. Following that precedent, it would be logical to create a European language, which I call Eural.

To those who say that that is fanciful, I say that I agree. But is it any more fanciful than what we have now: a single currency that depends critically upon a stability and growth pact that is ignored by the leading countries and which the President of the Commission refers to as stupid? I think that I am justified in following my fancy for a moment to see where it leads us.

Eural would, of course, be created as an artificial language. If we are scrapping the language of Shakespeare, it is only reasonable to scrap the languages of Voltaire, Dante, Lorca and the rest. Before we enter Eural, however, we would have to produce five tests to decide how and when we join. Clearly, those tests would be artificial, very general and subjective to allow the Government to decide when we join the Eural. We would, of course, need a Minister to decide who should administer the five tests, and who would be better than the Deputy Prime Minister, who speaks in virtual Eural already? I could give a large number of examples, but I shall read a transcript of just one of his speeches: Our objectives are clear … The objectives remain the same and indeed it has been made clear by the Prime Minister in a speech yesterday that the objectives are clear. And the one about the removal of the Taliban is not something we have as a clear objective"— there was prolonged laughter at that point— but it is possibly a consequence that will flow from the Tallybin clearly giving protection to bin Laden and the UN resolution made it absolutely clear that anyone that finds them in that position declares themselves an enemy and that clearly is a matter for these objectives. I think we see the thrust of that. He is the man who said in a newspaper interview: The Green Belt is a Labour achievement, and we mean to build on it". Eural will have significant value when it comes to Government promises, as, again, the Deputy Prime Minister said in 1997 and repeated in 1998: I will have failed if in five years' time there are not far fewer journeys by car. It's a tall order, but I urge you to hold me to it. Similarly, a junior Minister in the Home Office who referred to a target of deporting 30,000 failed asylum seekers a year went on to say that a target is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end. It is a driver. Furthermore, when the former Secretary of State for Education was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) whether she would resign if the Government did not reach their literacy and numeracy targets by 2002, she replied: Of course I will. Indeed, I generously commit the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), too. We speak with one voice. Apparently, the time had gone when a Secretary of State would promise to resign but the rest of the team would not go too."—[Official Report, House of Commons, 2 March 1999; Vol. 326, c. 948.] Of course, not only did he not go, but he was promoted to her job.

The use of less precise language will save the Government and the nation from the humiliation of promises being broken without any shame or regret. Eural might therefore appeal to this Government if not to anyone else. My plea, of course, is for greater use of English. If that fails, however, the alternative should be considered. For all those reasons, although not with any great confidence that my Bill will become law in the short time remaining in the Session, I commend my Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Peter Viggers.