James Landale, diplomatic correspondent, BBC News, says the language used by diplomats is essential in Brexit negotiations
We live in an age where truth can be dismissed as fake news in a momentary puff of post-modern relativism. People can write any old nonsense and give it spurious credibility by typing it into the internet. Yet in diplomacy words must always matter. They are the tools of the trade, the building blocks of all those communiques and telegrams. Some of those words may not always be entirely honest – not for nothing did Sir Henry Wooton describe an ambassador as “an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” But even in deceit, the words matter: a diplomat is still sending a message that can be interpreted.
As a young reporter, precision was drummed into me by a succession of tough news editors. Woe betide any correspondent on The Times who spelt a name incorrectly. I can remember watching two sub-editors literally coming to blows over where a possessive apostrophe should be placed in a word that ends in the letter ‘s.’ (Apparently, there is no right or wrong: I choose to add the additional ‘s’ if there is a ‘sis’ sound: such as “James’s book”, and not where there isn’t, as in “Jacques Delors’ proposal”).
But if a row over words can lead to a fight between journalists, it can also lead to conflict between nations. In 1889, Italy and Ethiopia went to war over a verb. Both countries had signed a treaty. The Italian translation established Ethiopia as a protectorate of Rome, the Amharic version gave Ethiopia some autonomy. Everything hung on whether the text said Ethiopia ‘could’ or ‘must’ conduct its foreign affairs through Italy. There was disagreement, eventually war broke out and Italy suffered an ignominious defeat. People died over whether a verb was permissive or mandatory.
This illustrates how language can be both the diplomat’s friend and foe. In this case an Italian minister was hoping a little creative ambiguity in his translation might nudge the negotiations on a little further. But ultimately his linguistic legerdemain could not hide what remained a substantial point of difference.
Diplomats still use language today to finesse their messaging. When Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit chief negotiator, holds press conferences, parts of his prepared opening statements are in English, some in French. And if you read the French parts, that is where he delivers the toughest messages to Britain. A little sneaky perhaps, but a not unreasonable diplomatic tactic. Not for nothing did the French resist for years all attempts to end the domination of their tongue as the lingua franca of the EU. I can remember the former Commission President Jacques Delors repeatedly refusing to say anything in English. It was not just because he hated the British press saying he sounded like Maurice Chevalier. He also knew that with language came power.
The problems come when the translation of idiom causes confusion. The Department for Exiting the European Union assures me that the Brexit negotiations are taking place entirely in English. Yet English words can mean different things on either side of the Channel.
Theresa May insists repeatedly that she wants Brexit to be ‘a success.’ To many Britons – Remainer and Brexiteer alike – this makes sense. Now that Britain has voted to leave, we might as well make it work and get on with it. But to many on the continent, Brexit cannot be a success by definition. They believe that however good the Brexit deal may be, being outside of the EU will automatically be worse than staying in. So they interpret Britain’s desire for a “successful Brexit” as synonymous with seeking to have all the advantages of EU membership without the responsibilities. This is what the EU Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, meant when he told the Prime Minister over dinner in Downing Street in April that Brexit “cannot be a success.” One word, two meanings and yet another confusion among so many.
Perhaps more significantly, both sides are using language is to shape their arguments in the debate about how much money the UK should pay when it leaves the EU. The British talk of no longer paying their “club fees,” the inference being that these are payments that should stop once membership ends. They also talk of paying their “bar bill,” implying a willingness to pay for past debts but perhaps not future commitments.
The European Commission, naturally, uses broader metaphors to cover a wider range of payments. Take, for example, Michel Barnier again, who insists: “There is no Brexit bill. The financial settlement is only about settling the accounts.”
The problem is that this only adds to the muddle. To a French speaker, ‘settling the accounts’ means Britain paying its debts. To an English speaker, the idiom can be non-financial and imply the seeking of revenge. This was stretched to its extreme meaning, reductio ad absurdam, by the Daily Telegraph’s Allistair Heath. He claimed that by demanding billions of euros from the UK, the EU was trying to impose war reparations: “The last time this sort of idiocy was attempted was in 1919, at the Treaty of Versailles, when a defeated Germany was ordered to accept full responsibility for the war and to pay vast reparations to the allied powers.”
The conclusion, perhaps, is that the use of metaphor has reached its limit in the debate about Brexit. It has variously been described as soft, hard, grey, black, even red, white and blue; a chocolate orange, cake to eat and have, cherries to be picked; a Hotel California “where you can check out any time but you can never leave”; a divorce, a golf club to be left, a cat fight in the Conservative Party that has got out of hand; a walk in the mountains, not a walk in the park. Such is the babel of figurative contortion that one could be forgiven a whiff of nostalgia for the simplicity of “Brexit means Brexit.”
In Bernardo Bertolucci’s film, The Last Emperor, the Scottish tutor of the teenage Chinese monarch, played by Peter O’Toole, tells his charge that words matter: “If you cannot say what you mean, your majesty, you will never mean what you say and a gentleman should always mean what he says.” Delete gentleman, insert diplomat.