29 April 2011

Kovács & Kováts are back – with one eye on the wedding

After a silence of a few weeks, we are back with regular articles on this blog. The first one is coming tonight.
That is after we settled our argument on whether to watch the wedding or not. (According to Reuters, 22% of British people were definitely planning to watch the event, while 23% were definitely not.)
Kováts has been following with awe the communication work surrounding the wedding. It was a masterpiece, almost perfect. How to keep the press on its toes for weeks by keeping information back and letting it out drop by drop? How to keep the fairy tale atmosphere, while keeping a low profile in times of austerity? (Kováts has been impressed by the lack of decoration on cars, the modest trees in Westminster Abbey and the shuttles (!!) driving the royal family members. No horse drawn carriages, a very different setting then he expected.)
At the same time, Kovács had been overwhelmed by his republican feelings and was wondering about fallible human nature. This has led to a lively discussion between us about the perfect form of government. Kováts was quoting David Frost’s opinion about the advantages of a constitutional monarchy, while Kovács has been firing back with the US Constitution as a perfect replacement for an unelected ceremonial head of state...
... we will try to sort this out and will be back with our next post tonight.

11 April 2011

The interpreter who started a war (...well, almost)

Photo: EP
We have been blogging repeatedly on the Brussels language regime and we can’t stop ourselves from continuing it. Even though the event described in this post happened in Strasbourg at the plenary session of the European Parliament, for the sake of the actors involved, we can make it part of our Brussels Pidgin English series (see the first, second and third post)

Last Wednesday (6th of April), Zsolt Németh, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs has replaced High Representative Ashton in the European Parliament’s debate on Bahrain, Syria and Yemen (see the EbS recording here and the EP recording here – please note that these are not official versions). As all EU geeks know, at political discussions (vis-à-vis third countries or the European Parliament) the High Representative can only be replaced by other politicians, which means someone from the presidency. Considering the heavy agenda of the High Representative lately, Hungarian politicians spend considerable time standing in for her. This was one of those events.

Our minister of state spoke in English and all went fine and smooth, a very measured language on the situation in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain. Then the members of parliament spoke and asked several questions. At the end of the debate, our minister of state rose again to react to the issues raised. Being a Hungarian politician, he switched into Hungarian this time.

This is when the story became interesting. (If you are watching the recording on EbS, watch from the 57th minute.) In the humble translation of Kovács and Kováts, our minister of state said: “But I think, that these countries cannot be put in the same basket: there are countries where military intervention was unavoidable due to the civil war [meaning Libya and Ivory Coast], and there are countries that we are discussing about now [meaning Yemen, Syria, Bahrain].*” He made a very clear distinction between the countries being the subject of the debate on the one hand and Libya and Ivory Coast on the other hand.

However the English interpretation started to wonder into a surprising direction by translating his words as follows: “But we should not throw all of these countries into the same boat. I think, because of the civil war intervention had to take place.” People listening to the debate in English must have been very confused, about who wants to intervene where.

Then Mr Németh continued with the same, measured message in Hungarian: “These authoritarian and repressive countries are dancing around and playing with the use of force, as well.**” This was the moment where the interpretation totally deviated from the meaning and translated his words as follows: “We have been discussing these three countries now, where there are authoritarian regimes which are also playing with fire and where there is a risk of intervention.” Those listening in English must have thought that they understand the meaning: the EU wants to intervene in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen!! (This is what was translated, but this was not what the minister said in Hungarian.)

The watchful Andrew Rettman of EUObserver, was listening to the debate in English and picked up what seemed to be a story. (It is not his fault that he does not speak Hungarian, so he could not realize that he was quoting the interpreter, but not the minister!) We have received a few questions on the issue and our diplomats have put out a few fires by explaining what was said in reality.We like to think that it was only our quick reaction that avoided a bigger diplomatic crisis.
Having listened to the French and the German language interpretation in the recording, we have a feeling that the text was first interpreted from Hungarian into German and the English interpreter picked it up from the German. This better explains the extreme distortion of the message. (The FR and DE versions are erroneous too, but slightly closer to reality.)

Don’t get us wrong. We know that the interpreters have a hell of a job translating in 23 languages and theirs is a remarkable achievement. They are the silent mechanics who make the EU machine function. But this raises the question, whether languages are really equal. It seems that speaking a small language will put you in a disadvantageous situation. Will such interpretation problems make politicians/diplomats less likely to use their official language? We hope not, but this is another good reason to carry on with our Brussels Pidgin English series...

*HU original: De azt gondolom, hogy nem keverhetőek össze ezek az országok, ahol elkerülhetetlenné vált a polgárháborús helyzet miatt a katonai beavatkozás, azokkal az országokkal, amelyekről most tárgyalunk.

** HU original: Noha, ezek a represszív országok, ezek az autoriter, represszív országok, ezek táncolnak és játszanak az erőszak alkalmazásával is.

8 April 2011

How the eurogroup/ECOFIN statement was finalised....

We only had the draft version at hand, so we had to update it with all the changes of the final version. And a friendly cameraman immortalized the process of "finalising the eurogroup/ECOFIN statement"..... (What did you think when you clicked on the title? That will follow later... :))

6 April 2011

Kovács & Kováts at 10,000 - we're learning to fly (but we ain't got wings...)

Today, we have reached 10,000 pageviews since the start of this blog in early February. In two months this is not a big achievement in comparison to certain fashion blogs raking in so much in one day, but not bad if you consider that we’re both wet behind the ear with a full time presidency job and we are blogging on EU issues, which most find rather naff. (We find it sexy, but we accept that this is far from the mainstream view.)
So, first of all, we would like to thank all of our faithful and occasional visitors, and share a few mid-term observations. We promised at the beginning to be transparent, so we share information and personal thoughts that most bloggers normally don’t. In exchange we only ask for strong words and harsh criticism.
  1. Challenge/Workload: Blogging is a lot of fun. We write our articles in the early morning hours, as we start in the office around 07:00 and finish close to midnight. (The support from our families during the Presidency, should be the subject of another post – which will be difficult because they wish to remain anonymous.) We have no time to write during the day, still the blogging has helped us develop a kind of “situational awareness” not to let pass by the events of a day/week but consciously make a story out of them. This helps us to see the Hungarian Presidency from a reporter’s point of view, which helps us to keep journalists better informed. We wonder how do “professional” bloggers pick their subjects and how do they work?
  2. Feedback / added-value: we receive a lot of feedback mostly from journalists and diplomats in Brussels that they read us on a regular basis. What is interesting is that these positive feedbacks we receive informally usually concern our least popular articles, while the most popular articles are rarely mentioned in personal discussions. A few examples: the Sunday Music post on ‘Dalida and Egypt’, the ‘Book that everyone should read before the European Council’ and the ‘Visual messages at summit meetings’ have been commended repeatedly at meetings/receptions, while their readership has been relatively low. At the same time, the Brussels Pidgin English series (especially the opening post and the last one, on a ‘Lingua franca for Europe’) has received some of the most hits.
  3. Two posts appear as exceptions, where both the pageviews and the personal feedback are very positive: obviously our April foolery, the ‘Hungarian Presidency extended’ and the ‘Tweet that moved the Euro’. These give us hope that we can find the right EU subjects and the right angle that are both popular and interesting from a professional point of view. The ultimate aim, as many have stated before, is to help connecting the Brussels blogging bubble with the national blogospheres and thus bring the EU closer to the Member States.
  4. Presenting everyday life in the Presidency: We are convinced that the rotating presidency is the last link that connects the Brussels Ivory Tower to the reality in the Member States. In this regard the Lisbon Treaty has made communication with the citizens more difficult by creating even more institutional players, who are all based in Brussels (while admitting all the diplomatic and practical arguments for creating the new bodies). We are doing our best to strengthen the cooperation between the rotating presidencies by meeting regularly the Polish and Danish colleagues to have joint projects and to share with them the our experiences and ideas.
  5. Copyright: What we knew „in theory” became painfully evident - copyright sucks (in its current form). It is a pain to try to locate media that’s completely safe to use. Even though we are not making any money on this, and you could argue we are bringing a tiny amount of extra public interest to the works we use, we must be careful with copyright. Sad. Any suggestions?
  6. Traffic 1: We have recieved traffic from very suprising locations (if google stats are anything to go by): we advertised it to our circle of friends around the world, but didnt expect to have thousands of visitors for example from the US. We are wondering who our readers are. Anyone willing to share how you ended up reading us?*
  7. Traffic 2: a lot of traffic seems to come from directly forwarded links, at least we dont see a match between all traffic and referral sites. In general, it would be nice to know more in depth our traffic stats than what google provides. Can anyone suggest something?
  8. Comments: we havent been able to get you to comment. We expected that part of our „payout” would be to engage with people in discussions. Maybe we are not provocative enough? But even our „stellar posts” (Pidgin English series and April’s foolery) didn’t attract much comment. We would have loved to read arguments for or against French, or people saying that it is a Hungarian trait not to be able to let go of a presidency, but it didnt happen. (It did happen in email to a limited extent, but that keeps them hidden from the wider public.) What’s the secret to get you to comment?
* a few statistics

5 April 2011

A lingua franca for Europe? (Brussels Pidgin English III)

Gen 11:7 Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.

(As you will see from the text, there is a deep disagreement between Kovács and Kováts on language use, one of the few subjects where we can end up with accusations flying in the air.)

One can argue that a common public sphere requires a lingua franca to function well – and in the case of the EU, English seems to be emerging as one. (For a discussion of what happens when it is not the case, see Matthew Lowry’s funny take on the Belgian language and other barriers here.) “The most serious problem for the European Union is that it has so many languages, this preventing real integration and development of the Union”*. Kováts finds this misleading and a very Americanized view of Europe, while Kovács wholeheartedly agrees.

Whatever our views are, for the time being nothing seems to be able to stop the tide of (pidgin) English. At press conferences and especially at background briefings in the Council, English clearly dominates. (Although French is kept alive by some journalists who insist on officials answering in French.) Politicians are different again. Except for the multilingual Belgians last year, they will typically speak their own language and/or English. As for Commissioners, this should be the subject of another post.

In the institutions, most documents are first drawn up in English, drafting at informal meetings is done in English, national delegates and Council officials will speak English during work and the relay language of choice for interpretation is usually English. (To see how it works in practice, here is a discussion between Bloggingportal editors and the Hungarian Presidency coordinator on the nitty-gritty of interpretation in the Council.)

Since the 2004 enlargement the reality is that most diplomats speak English when they arrive to Brussels and they simply don’t understand French. If there is one person in the room who does not speak French then the meeting will be conducted in English. Kovács vividly remembers feeling very uncomfortable back in 2005 for having to ask a Deputy Director General at his first EC job to switch to English at a meeting in order to be able to respond to the DDG’s questions. Fast forward to 2011, and there seem to be only a few people who would still speak French out of principle.

Some commentators describe this as an Anglophone culture taking over the “outdated” Francophone world of international diplomacy. While this may indeed herald a new dawn in international diplomacy, is seems to hurt UK interests when it comes to securing posts for their nationals in international institutions, as British blogger Veronica Collins summarizes here.

It’s also interesting to look at the level of effort to maintain a multilingual or at least bilingual working environment, which differs hugely among the institutions. It’s enlightening to compare the list of Council Press Officers and the list of Commission Spokespeople. At the Commission, English native speakers clearly dominate, Council Press Officers are more tilted towards French (either as native speaker or as dominant first foreign language) while the European Parliament is the champion of multilingualism with a list of press officers by language.

There are still a few mythical, old-school British officials in the administration who make a case not to speak English, but speak the language of their partner in conversation. But it is far from the current reality.

Kováts believes that this multilingual approach should be a sort of ideal for European civil servants and diplomats. He believes that without a multilingual working culture we are not credible in designing common policies for a multicultural European Union. Pushing for the use of French is only the first step – all European civil servants should be “life-long learning” and constantly picking up new languages and thus understanding better the complex nature of Europe.

Kovács does not dispute that in general, and does not deny the value of being able to speak each others’ language. But he believes that we are multilingual by definition if we speak English as a first foreign language, and for the rest it should be either all or nothing. Consequently, Kovács finds that drawing the line at “EN& FR” is not a tiny bit less problematic than drawing it at EN only, or “EN&FR&DE” or “EN&HU” for that matter.

*(Mr. Elton, ambassador of the USA to Denmark, 1997, quoted by Robert Phillipson. More on this in his book: English-only Europe? Challenging language policy)

4 April 2011

Mumsnet beats Brussels – and everyone else

(Updated 05/04/2011)

Kovács & Kováts faced strong competition on the 1st of April, so we decided to look into some of this year's april foolery (which pale in comparison to the all time bests, of course.). After several EU institutions were targeted by cyber attacks recently, Jerzy Buzek’s spokesman, Robert Golanski, said on Friday that effective of Monday, all communication between the president's press office and journalists would be carried out by fax. The press conference statement has been well reported (see here for DPA – we wonder if they really believed it, or they just didn’t care to mention it was a hoax.)

A similar statement, only a bit longer and probably typed, came from DG DIGIT of the Commission claiming to phase out all personal computers by the end of 2011 and returning to typewriters. (you could "See here a copy of the statement we received" if we could figure out how to upload a pdf on blogger.com. anyone?) We of course had some fun putting together a press release on the extension of the Hungarian Presidency. In exchange for the extension, we made it clear that ”Poland and Denmark could take our slot in 2025 and 2038. Negotiations with Cyprus are still ongoing to make sure that they don’t collide with the Turkish presidency in 2054.” (read the whole text here) But this all was amateurish ”bricolage” compared to the Mumsnet/BBC hoax titled ”Dads launch class action against Mumsnet”. The BBC even had to officially clarify that this was not a BBC article, and we are convinced that many have fallen for the trick.

Why do we think that the Mumsnet hoax should carry the April’s Fools’ prize?

  1. We love the NGO called ’Men Can Be Mothers Too’ and the picture of men protesting with the banner „Let’s share child care” and „Men are more than success objects”

  2. We love the style. "Just as Oscar Wilde once suffered for his sexuality, and Hamlet is not Hamlet without the Prince, these men are paying the price of a cruel twist of genetic fate."

  3. We love the professional execution – we commend Mumsnet (or whoever did it) for going the extra mile and setting up a fake BBC Website, with a domain name not immediately obviously fake to the uninitiated and with links pointing to the real BBC website.
It has not only beaten the Brussels bubble which is ultimately coolness challenged, but also main stream media, like the Intependent’s funny story of ‘Portugal selling Ronaldo to Spain’ to pay a part of the national debt.

Alors, chapeau pour Mumsnet!*

Update (05/04/2011)
We missed a rather funny take by the ever-active Bruxelles2 on the resignation of HR Ashton (read here). Some of our sources said that some actually believed the news thus creating quite an excitement!

*Le a kalappal, Mumsnet!

3 April 2011

Happy Birthday, Marshall Plan!

On the 3rd of April 1948, President Truman signed the Economic Cooperation Act into law, which launched the Marshall Plan for Europe. The whole Eastern block, including Hungary, refused participation under orders from Stalin. A report by the Communist Party claimed "the bosses of Wall Street" were taking over the role of Nazi Germany and spoke of "the American plan for the enslavement of Europe". (A paler shade of hyperbole was on display by trade unions last week during the European Council as we blogged about it here. Although this time staying out may not have so grave consequences, especially if you do it for different reasons.)

Non-Communist Europe welcomed the aid and the 12.5 billion US dollars kick-started the European economy and helped European integration.

The thoughts of Kovács and Kováts go to the US today and we picked the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” to pay tribute to the contribution of the USA to European integration. And we picked a rather rare version of the song, performed as a twist of fate by the Russian Red Army choir and the Leningrad Cowboys in 1993.

1 April 2011

Hungarian Presidency extended

Coreper has discussed today the extension of the mandate of the Hungarian Presidency in light of a successful first three months. Spokespersons Kovács and Kováts stated: „We have proven that we are part of the solution and not part of the problem, and we would like to continue it that way. Having carried the weight of a 6-pack and other patently heavy dossiers so far, it would be cowardice to shy away from steering the discussions on the next multiannual financial framework and on the reform of common policies. In exchange, Poland and Denmark could take our slot in 2025 and 2038. Negotiations with Cyprus are still ongoing to make sure that they don’t collide with the Turkish presidency in 2054.”
The Hungarian Presidency has convened an extraordinary meeting of Member States’ ambassadors to discuss the proposal. Some Member States are expected to voice concerns about the extraordinary workload, logistical challenges and possible international criticism that such a historical move would bring.
However, the Presidency which has put history literarily on the map in Europe is confident. “We have gotten encouraging signals from our Polish friends that they are really not so keen about this whole presidency thing, with the next multiannual financial framework and the reform of the CAP and what have you.”
Journalists and Members of the European Parliament have also welcomed the oportunity for continued scrutiny of the operation of the Hungarian media law.
Diplomats from neighbourhood countries are divided according to sources: “I mean, what has the Presidency brought to us? Sanctions against dictators, yes, trade-enhancing conventions to support our economic development, yes, and increased EIB funding for roads, education and aqueducts... but they also kept sending only Ministers and Commissioners instead of sending more tourists as the European Council has called on them.”
The President of the European Council has already started planning for an extraordinary summit on 25 April to decide on the matter.

The EU speaking with one voice?

In our experience, public opinion does not distinguish between the European Parliament, Council, Commission, etc. The images of the institutions are not distinct of each other and citizens (rightly) look at the EU as one "organisation". Outside of Brussels, not much attention is paid to institutional infighting, or "internal coordination challenges".

These challenges have worsened since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty due to the emergence of two extra players on the scene and new competencies to some of the old players. We hope the Lisbon Treaty was an important step forward (although we sometimes wonder in which direction), but it sure raised quite a few communication challenges to be tackled.

This is how ”speaking with one voice” has become a buzzword around Rond-point Schuman (where the Commission and Council HQs are located). As usual with buzzwords, they are (ab)used to an extent that blurs their original meaning.

The voice of Europe?
Drawing by Dzsenifer Kovari for the drawing contest "My message to Europe"

Here we try to bring a few examples from our daily communication work and examine whether speaking with one voice is feasible at all and how it effects the substance of policies.

A negative example - the Novel Food case

Tuesday (29/03) morning at 7 am, following 12 hours of negotiations, the last round of conciliation on the Novel Food regulation ended in failure due to disagreement on food derived from the offspring of cloned animals (there was general agreement on a ban on clones). In our previous post, we gave detailed account of the 12-hour negotiating marathon (see here).

The reaction of the Council and the European Parliament has been very predictable: blaming each other (and the Commission) for the failure of negotiations.

The EP fired the first shot with a press release (see here) claiming: "It is deeply frustrating that Council would not listen to public opinion and support urgently needed measures to protect consumer and animal welfare interests”

Of course, the political group of the EP rapporteur (GUE/NGL) has complemented it with its own, though shorter version (see here), claiming that “Council and Commission closed their ears to MEPs and the 77% of Europeans who want a ban on food from cloned animals.” The Parliament added a press conference on the subject, where only MEPs were present.

We answered, quoting our minister in charge: “The EP chose to go down the road of political grandstanding and tried to push the Council to accept a misleading, unfeasible “solution” that in practice would have required drawing a family tree for each slice of cheese or salami” (see our masterpiece here). The Press Office at the Council General Secretariat has also prepared a press release, less straightforward, but still claiming that “The discussion failed because of European Parliament's inability to compromise…”

Commissioner Dalli has appeared at the Commission’s midday press conference on the issue, where he took a rather neutral view (see his statement here). He refrained from blaming the collapse of the talks on any of the parties, which was rather elegant, taking into account earlier criticism directed at him.

Without trying to decide who is right and who is wrong, let’s just look at it from an outside perspective. These are five press releases (and two press conferences), with opposing statements. It must be hard for any informed journalist to gather what happened and what is the truth, let alone for a citizen to follow the events. (We are not blaming anyone, because Kovács and Kováts were part of it, we are all swimming with the tide and just reacting to what the other side said.)

We are wondering, however, if we could have perhaps organized one single press conference where everyone is invited and have the chance to collide arguments? Could we not refer to each other’s opinion in the press releases (minimum option) or even try to publish joint press releases (maximum option)? This would definitely help the image of the Union and the understanding of our decision-making process.

(NB: in this case, the institutions were at least “silent with one voice”: while everyone was talking about different aspects of cloning, nobody even mentioned the issue of delegated acts vs. implementing acts, which seemed to be just as important as consumer protection.)

The positive example - press release on Libya

The Council Press people had enough of the cacophony raging in foreign policy and a few weeks ago called a meeting between the Commission, External Action Service and the Hungarian Presidency to bring some coordination into the system. They pushed us until we approved joint lines on Libya, which are being updated ever since. Thus people could read the same basic information on all websites. Although, we have to improve on updating it, but it is already a promising start. (See the Presidency's and Council’s updated version, the EEAS’s slightly outdated version here, the Commission’s very old version here.)

The point we are trying to make is that institutions represent different interests and thus have different opinions. This is democratic decision-making, where debate should be welcome. But debate is not the same as the blame-game, which will hurt us all in the long run.