Does David Davis speak German?

Nick Hubble

It’s Brexit negotiation day today. David Davis, the exiting the European Union secretary and potential prime minister in waiting, is meeting the European Union’s chief negotiator Michel “Barmy” Barnier in Brussels.

Barmy Barnier had previously warned that missing the first date would mean not seeing each other again for an entire year. Why? Supposedly he’d have to renew his mandate with the EU. That’d give the negotiations too little time.

Always remember that the negotiations can be extended past the two-year deadline by the agreement of both parties. And, as Britain’s current prime minister said, no deal is better than a bad deal. Therefore, time is in our favour, not the European Union’s.

The start of the negotiations are likely to be warm and fuzzy. Davis is considering a “generous” offer for the three million EU migrants in Britain to kick-start the lovey-dovey relationship.

This is infuriating or very clever. Stealing 3 million of Europe’s population is a coup. Making them stay is in the UK’s interest. Framing this into some sort of concession to the EU is bizarre or just clever politics.

On the other hand, giving these three million different rights to others in the UK is just the sort of disgusting, racist and protectionist EU policy that the UK should be standing up against. People in the UK should all have the same rights.

Thorny issues like the so-called divorce payment aren’t likely to come up for some time. Knowing the EU, it will take a few weeks just to iron out the schedule for future negotiations. You’d think they could do this by email beforehand…

But there’s a surprising issue which may yet pop up. One that explains why Brexit talks will be totally bizarre to you.

The EU doesn’t speak the same language as the UK. Its version of English is surprisingly odd.

Why the negotiations will fail or succeed without anyone realising which of the two

In a report prepared by the European Court of Auditors, the bizarre twisting of the English language at the hands of the EU is laid bare. The report is called “Misused English words and expressions in EU publications”, and it’s hilarious.

For example, “adequate” is barely enough to an English speaker, but the right amount to an EU official. When EU negotiators hammer out an “agenda” with Davis, they will be talking about a diary with planned appointments, not the issues to be discussed in a meeting. And they’ll be asking various people to ”assist”, meaning show up without actually assisting in anything. If Barnier starts talking about his “agents”, he means generic EU employees, not spies. And when he asks Davis to ponder over things with his “Cabinet”, he’ll have a completely different group of people in mind than the UK’s senior ministers.

I grew up in six different cultures, plus the unique culture that comes with American international schools. And my partner is Japanese. We met while working with 26 nationalities at Club Med in Thailand.

So I fully understand how language can change within an institution in bizarre ways. I also have an edge at pointing out the problems this is going to cause. I’ve lived through it every day for my whole life.

The highlight was when my Australian accounting teacher asked her mostly American students for a rubber instead of an eraser. Just yesterday I got into trouble for describing a particular dinner dish as “strange” because the direct translation into Japanese has negative connotations. I now have to say “different”.

But seriously, think about the agreement we are supposedly going to reach with the EU. Or just the negotiation process. Through no fault of their own, the negotiators are going to drive each other bananas.

When it comes time to test whatever agreement the EU and UK reach, if any, how will the courts interpret it? If the basic definition of words varies, how can there be an agreement?

It’s no wonder the EU courts and UK courts don’t agree on whether we owe a divorce bill. Words have completely different meanings to the different judicial systems.

Given all this, the answer is clear

Our negotiation team should play the language game to their advantage. You’d hope they have an edge given they speak the language fluently.

I’d like to offer Davis a specific piece of advice for his negotiation strategy: speak German.

Ever since the Brexit referendum, MEPs have been grumbling about using English – the current lingua franca of the EU. Why use a language that nobody in the EU speaks?

To start with, the complainers seem to have forgotten Ireland. Or they just didn’t realise the Irish were speaking English. Most of the complaints about using English come from France. But French is hardly as popular as Europe’s most spoken language. Italian is spoken more widely! But of course the winner is German.

I propose, as a sign of good faith and major concession to the European Union’s negotiation party, Davis conducts the negotiations with the EU’s true lingua franca – German.

That’ll remind Barmy Barnier what he’s really negotiating with the British – his own subservience to Germany as the dominant power in the EU.

American implosion

This is the third time you’ll hear about the state of Illinois from me in as many weeks. By now you’re probably wondering why it matters to you.

Well, why does Greece’s budget or subprime lending in Nevada matter to you? Because the financial system is a house of cards. You only have to find the weakest link to predict major moves in your own financial markets.

There are plenty of weak links to choose from right now. And keeping your eye on them could mean a grip on the first-mover advantage too. Whoever gets out of the burning theatre first is best off.

In Illinois, there’s certainly smoke, but not yet any fire. Two remarkable things have happened since I updated you last.

First the Multi-State Lottery Association dropped Illinois off its offerings for the Powerball lottery. The reasoning was simple – Illinois hasn’t had a state budget for two years, going on three. It hasn’t been paying out to the lottery winners. Discussions over dropping the state began in 2015. Of course, in the end, a lottery is just a tax. But that only makes things worse for the states who miss out on it.

The second thing to happen was more remarkable. The Office of Business and Workplace Diversity issued a letter to contractors telling them to stop roadworks on 1 July because they couldn’t be paid. Any fans of Ayn Rand’s books will notice the name of the government department…

There are plenty of other fun facts emerging from the state’s finances. Retirement costs now make up more than 50% of the state’s spending on higher education. The state’s universities are in disastrous financial shape.

Total unpaid bills for the state government are now over $15 billion. There are court orders forcing Illinois to pay unpaid contractors. Illinois faces being the first state in US history to be downgraded to junk status by the debt ratings agencies.

Remember, Illinois is far from alone. In fact, several states are in worse financial shape. But their politicians are doing a better job at keeping it under the carpet.

All this poses some big questions.

Why is this happening if there is an economic recovery in the US? What happens when American state governments start to default? What sort of financial position will millions of retirees be in if governments have to rationalise retirement support?

Comptroller Susana Mendoza said it best. “Once the money’s gone, the money’s gone, and I can’t print it.” Luckily, someone else can.

Until next time,

Nick Hubble
Capital & Conflict

Category: Brexit

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