Communication Dynamics in an Intergroup Meeting at the European Parliament


These are official meetings that occur among representatives of the different European Institutions and can include representatives from interest groups (I am not sure if they qualify as “lobbyists”). No interpretation was requested for the intergroup meeting that I was invited to attend – I understand that this is the norm. Participants in these inter-institutional group meetings decide on a language everyone knows, or can understand, or can bring along/send an assistant who does understand to provide a kind of personalized “interpretation,” or simply take notes in their stead. (I do not mean to impugn anyone’s language skills, but it seems important to preserve a distinction between trained, professional interpretation and the communication provided by someone who knows the languages involved.) In the case when no common language is available, then interpretation can be requested. If there is more than one language-combination necessary (for instance, if two Members are unable to manage in either French or English, and other Members do not know German, then negotiation ensues as to whether to provide German-French interpretation (because the Lithuanian and the Slovakian Member both have some German) requiring only one team of interpreters, or to provide both Lithuanian-French and Slovakian-French (requiring two teams of interpreters).
Have I got this more-or-less correct?
This meeting was run under Chatham House rules. The Chair announced this stipulation at the beginning of the meeting and returned to it during concluding remarks, saying how “fruitful” the meeting was under these conditions of non-attribution. Demographically, there were nine people present when I arrived and a dozen at the close, roughly two men to each woman, and a range of nationalities: French, Dutch, British, Portuguese, and Polish by accent or an identity statement, possibly a Finn too, although I am not sure. In general I had no trouble following anyone’s English. Even the Member whose grammar displayed obvious characteristics of English-as-a-Second-Language was sensible – no one asked for a repetition or clarification, and I felt confident that I understood what was meant. The range of accents did require an additional element of concentration which could become tiring after awhile. In short, I did not notice anything in this meeting that seemed like an obvious reason for having used simultaneous interpretation (SI) instead of a lingua franca.
Nothing obvious.
The non-obvious is another story. In this meeting, criticisms were laid out in direct and unequivocal terms, such as, “We agree in principle but [the enforcement] is too weak to influence [the targeted group of people].” Confrontation was sophisticated, with the logic girding one institution’s stance being de-constructed point by point in terms one would have to make an effort to misunderstand. “The will to hide a fundamental fact leads to obscure arguments.” Attention was paid to what was missing as well as to what is present in the draft framework. The notion of “simplification” was identified as a term needing definition: “No one ever stood up and said I want things to be complicated, [this does] not equal watering down. We have to solve the underlying problems.” “There is something wrong in the philosophy of the penalty,” which is what gives evidence of a “fundamental untruth” and hence makes impossible, at present, an effective way to “explain down” to the most remote person to whom the framework regulations will apply.
A linguistic question came up only once – by way of curiosity – “how do you say ‘width’ in plural?” This is quite different than the example shared with me after the meeting by one of the participants, concerning a resolution some years ago concerning Israel and Palestine, in which the English version included the phrase, “withdraw from the occupied territories.” This general statement allows ambiguity which is not possible in French, wherein it must be specified if one is referring to “all” or “some” territories. This linguistic difference, I was told, is itself a “source of conflict.” (I would argue the opposite, that this language difference exposes a point of contention – political/emotional in this case, but it can be less volatile and amenable to various forms of creativity in other situations.)
What I kept thinking to myself during this intergroup meeting was that these are the decisive factors for the contours of debate: the core disagreements and issues of concern, as perceived/agreed upon by the primary interlocutors, which the interpreters only have access to as it occurs when Members address this topic in official meetings. Of course the interpreters can prep, but the documents do not spell out these lines of confrontation, only the particular stances of each group or Member as they come to the table.
Meanwhile, I was impressed by the high level of integrity demonstrated by participants in the room. I could not detect anything identifiable as the Hawthorne Effect – when subjects change their behavior because they are under observation. I got the impression that these people are thinking hard about how to design systems that accomplish what they are intended to, and are willing to invest the time and consideration necessary to come up with the most clarity and consensus possible on what that intention should look like on the ground – and how to write it so the law enables the desired outcome rather than something else.

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