Brussels and Eurospeak
The reason for going to Brussels was to assess grant applications for the European Research Council. Eighteen months ago when I did this for the first time I was a bit ‘iffy’ about the whole show. That wasn’t because of the quality of the applicants or of my colleagues, or anything like that. It was largely because the Euro Research Council didn’t entirely seem to have its act together – whether that was in getting you your expenses or providing internet access in their HQ.
This time, all has been much smoother (well, the on-line bit was spotlessly organised and I’m optimistic about the expenses). And I leave Brussels a newly invigorated Europhile.
Well, 25 years ago when I was starting out in the academic game, I could not have imagined sitting round a table, discussing with historians from a wide range of Euro-countries how we might spend a substantial amount of money promoting European research,
Partly I didn’t think that I’d ever be senior enough to be doing that kind of thing. Partly the idea of a European grant making body (stretching from Ireland to Israel – this is the Eurovision not the EU version of “Europe”) was simply inconceivable.
Now, at my second round of this, I’m beginning to get the point of the Euro project. I also enjoy -- and feel somewhat humbled by -- the expertise and skills of my Euro colleagues, and enlightened by the discussion we have had about the different projects over the last few days.
We are chaired by a wonderfully multilingual (and very smart) French professor who manages to get the best out of everyone. And in the intermissions between grading the applications we share doubts, ambiguities, good meals and good humour. Is it OK to joke about Communism with a Pole or a Hungarian? Yes, but on what terms? How do you deal with different research priorities and objectives across Europe? And how can you be fair to young scholars across the continent when the average age of a recently graduated PhD is 25 in the UK and 33 in Germany?
I am left with two reactions. First this is a Euro-world that my parents never experienced; that it’s a privilege to be part of it and to deal with clever people from the ‘old’ and ‘new’ continent.
Second, I am gobsmacked at the expertise and fluency of our administrators. These extremely able young people communicate in all those languages I choose to read rather than speak. They slip easily from English to French/German/Italian… etc. They make Euro-citizenship seem a reality.
I am shocked and embarrassed to confess to them that the majority of kids in British schools don’t study any foreign language after age 13. Even more embarrassed to confess (as I did to a Swiss colleague last night) that Cambridge no longer requires, as a standard qualification, a foreign language at GCSE.
It’s writing our kids out of a European future. It’s short-sighted, philistine and counter productive.