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A rhetorical question or two


Monday 21 January 2013

When did you last hear a speech about the European Union that interested you? Or, if you were not present at the speech's delivery, when did you read the text of a speech about the European Union that grabbed your interest and kept it to the end?

One perhaps fairly obvious reason for asking is a much talked-about speech that has not yet happened - the speech that British Prime Minister David Cameron was supposed to give last Friday (18 January) but postponed because of the hostage crisis in Algeria. But what put the question into my head was reading an analysis of Jodie Foster's acceptance speech at the Golden Globes award ceremony at the beginning of last week.

The author, Sam Leith, has written a book about rhetoric and the art of speech-making. Writing for The Guardian newspaper, he looks at how Foster engaged the attention and sympathies of her listeners and then got her point across. Leith's assessment of the rhetorical techniques that Foster had employed started me wondering about the extent to which today's politicians (and their speechwriters) are trained in the craft of the rhetoricians.

My guess is that a lot depends on their national culture. In some European countries, rhetoric is still taught and studied in schools and universities. In others, it is consigned to the refuse bin of history.

The European Commission's press office puts out the texts of numerous speeches made by European commissioners. (Scroll to the bottom of this link to the Commission's daily despatch and you will usually find a few.)

How many of those speeches, do you think, would repay an appraisal of their rhetorical techniques? Very few, by my count, but then the possibly more important question is, why not?

What I found interesting about the Foster analysis was its emphasis on taking risks, on living dangerously. European commissioners, particularly those presided over by José Manuel Barroso, are discouraged from taking risks. And in speechmaking they rarely have to, because the audience is often favourably disposed to them (this is particularly a danger for European commissioners because they are often speaking to non-political audiences, for instance of business people or academics).

They do not need to take risks because they do not feel the need to persuade. Without the obligation to argue and persuade, the EU's senior ranks allow the gap between insiders and outsiders to grow and with it the EU's democratic deficit.

It does not have to be like that. The EU's leaders could take some risks and attempt persuasion. Here, for example, is a speech that Radek Sikorski, Poland's foreign minister, made in September, on a subject not so far removed from that of Cameron, whose Britain-in-Europe speech has now been re-scheduled for Wednesday. Do share other examples.

If they are incapable of making more interesting and persuasive speeches, the alternative is for commissioners to put a moratorium on their speechmaking. A month limited to listening and to conducting question-and-answer sessions might be a worthwhile experiment.

It is worth noting in passing that both Foster and Sikorski were at pains at the outset of their speeches to engage the attention of those listening. One of the curiosities of the much-trailed and much-postponed Cameron speech will be to see who is in the audience. The location has been shifted from The Hague to Amsterdam and now to central London (on 23 January), which suggests that the audience in the room hardly matters.

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