The EU was dreamed up in French and German. That’s why the British have never fitted in

Nick Clegg apparently speaks Dutch in Cabinet when Herman Van Rompuy turns up – surely reason enough for Cameron to sack him. Who won the Second Anglo-Dutch War, anyway? (Oh, they did.)

The Deputy Prime Minister speaks five languages, the others being French, Spanish and German (and English, obviously), which must make him the most linguistically gifted Cabinet minister for over 40 years.

Clegg is half-Dutch, a quarter Russian and married to a Spaniard, and has spent five years in Brussels – he may go back, in the increasingly unlikely event that Britain remains in the EU. In so many ways he’s representative of the new global ruling class that Christopher Lasch wrote of in his prophetic Revolt of the Elites: “far more cosmopolitan, or at least more restless and migratory, than their predecessors”. In particular Clegg has a particular Euro-elite mindset, increasingly rare in Britain, one of the hallmarks of which is multilingualism.

The European project developed in the region between Paris, Brussels and the Rhineland, the heartland of the old Frankish Empire where German and French, and to a lesser extent Dutch, are commonly understood.

Robert Schuman came from Luxembourg (and his mother was an Alsatian and therefore had been both German and French), Konrad Adenauer was a Rhinelander, and Paul-Henri Spaak Belgian. Walter Hallstein, first president of the commission of the EEC, came from Cologne, and Louis Armand, another influential “founding further” came from further south along the Franco-German linguistic border, near Switzerland. Helmut Kohl and Valery d’Estaing were both Rhinelanders.

(The exception was Jean Monnet, who hailed from Cognac in western France. Like many people in that region, he had more experience with England, moving there at 16 to help satisfy our country’s insatiable thirst for France’s precious, precious booze.)

The dream, or should I say fantasy, of Europe was thought up in French and German, and language determines a great deal of politics. Otto von Bismarck remarked that the course of the 20th century would be determined by the fact that North Americans spoke English, and the old boy turned out to be right as ever. It was language that brought about the pre-war alliance system, pushing together old enemies Germany and Austria, while Tsarist Russia’s unlikely alliance with the French Republic must have been made easier by French being the first language of the Russian aristocracy.

As Britain’s post-war ruling class were drawn into the European project the population as a whole have remained stubbornly Eurosceptic, and the British people’s monolingualism perhaps played some part – and it’s a trait that has become more pronounced in recent years.

It’s sad that the keenest advocates of European unity have often neglected to impress on British people the beauty and value of European cultures. The last Labour government made it far easier for children to avoid learning foreign languages (too difficult) and so the number taking GCSEs dropped significantly. As a result many have been robbed of the chance to discover a new culture, but that seems to be less important than embracing the idea of “Europe”.

In contrast two of Britain’s most eloquent Eurosceptics, Enoch Powell and Daniel Hannan, have been keen linguists. In the week before Britain was to join the EEC Powell gave major speeches against it in French, German and Italian. In contrast Edward Heath’s French was famously bad.

Perhaps had we bothered to learn foreign languages we might have been more persuaded by the whole idea; on the other hand, had our neighbours learned more history they might have been persuaded against.

Now that it has grown beyond its Franco-German core, the EU spends a fortune on translators, which is not just expensive but makes it hard to forge a common civic identity, so that the obvious solution is to make one language official. A romantic would choose French, the old tongue of diplomacy and politics; a realist would choose English, especially as it is spoken by 41 per cent of Europeans, compared to only 19 per cent who speak French.

The malaise afflicting French rather mirrors the problems of the European Union itself, still a great power in the world and full of beautiful cities, but shrinking every decade, not a symbol of a new world but a bankrupt old people’s home. Clegg can chat away but Jeremy Hunt, with his Mandarin lessons, has his eye on the future.

This article was published at Telegraph Blogs

What do you think?