A Look at EU Politics and Foreign Language Skills

With the European elections around the corner, it’s time to take a closer look at our politicians’ communication and foreign language skills. In fact, their conversations in a foreign language always manage to spark some sort of reaction in the media. When it turns out they speak another language well, it gets in the news. But if they speak it badly, it’s even bigger news and they become subject to viral videos and quotes circulating the internet.

In general, politicians have never been all too famous for their foreign language skills, often reflecting their own countries’ skills in this respect. In Spain, for example, people are lagging behind when it comes to speaking good English. Remember the last Eurobarometer, which showed that only 22% of Spaniards actually speak English, while the overall European average was 38%?

What skills does a politician need?

Politicians are expected to have a number of skills in their repertoire, including verbal and non-verbal communication skills, leadership skills, as well as the ability to manage and negotiate. There is no need for any type of degree, though. The candidate simply represents an electoral program (which is the first step towards proving their communication skills) and is then either elected or not, without any need for proof of skills.

It is essential to have citizens who are prepared to defend public interest, whether or not they have an education. But when it comes to certain positions in national or international politics, shouldn’t we expect a little more? Shouldn’t they have a range of skills, as well as proven prior experience? Let’s not forget that certain key roles in society, including education, health or safety require a whole lot of education and preparation.

In terms of foreign language skills, there’s always been a debate about how indispensible they really are. Some people believe that the above mentioned skills are enough to work in parliament and that there is no need for foreign language skills. I personally disagree on this one. Speaking another language, as well as the ability to understand other cultures, should be a key requirement for politicians. A multilingual person will always be able to communicate better and be at an advantage in negotiations compared to a monolingual person.

Real discussions happen between meetings

Anyone representing us on a political level in Europe will have to defend our interests in front of people from other countries. And many of these issues end up being discussed between politicians over a meal, in the corridor or in the cafeteria. Of course, a politician can always have an interpreter at their side, but these informal conversations flow a lot more naturally when they’re held in a one-to-one situation.  A command of the specific vocabulary in the foreign language is also necessary for these types of negotiations.

Culture is another key issue here. A Greek person doesn’t do business as an English person would. Neither, in turn, deal with things quite as a Norwegian might. Their timings, expectations and strategies are all different. Furthermore, the vocabulary used to describe cultural concepts is often difficult to translate into other languages. After all, the language we speak influences our thought process, just as our habits are closely linked to our culture and our mother tongue. For example, we could argue that the most important words for native speakers of English are “please” and “thank you”. They use them much more often than Spaniards do!

I therefore believe that anyone aiming to represent us in politics needs to have the ability to communicate well in a foreign language. Let’s not forget that these elections will serve to choose the politicians that are meant to take us out of the crisis and will define economic politics to a large extent for Spain.

Shining examples of foreign language skills

Let’s take a look at some of the candidates at the upcoming elections on May 25th. Miguel Arias Cañete, the current minister of Agriculture, Food and Environment and candidate of Spain’s Partido Popular, speaks English and French fluently, as well as Italian and German (and apparently he’s learning Chinese, too!). Elena Valenciano of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, speaks English and French. Willy Meyer (Izquierda Unida) speaks perfect German, and Francisco Sosa Wagner (UPyD) speaks English, German and French. The good news therefore seems to be that candidates for the European election do tend to have a good knowledge of foreign languages, and are exceptions to the rule.

However, let’s not forget about national, autonomous and local politicians. Despite admirable exceptions of representatives who speak one or several languages fluently (think of historical figures, such as Fraga or Pujol, or more contemporary ones such as Moratinos or Aguirre), the general tendency seems to be a lack of foreign language skills.

Should good foreign language skills become compulsory for politicians?  It’s time to open up the debate.

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