Use of languages in the Council in the context of an enlarged Union (European Council)

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Brussels, 6 December 2002
The Presidency to The European Council

Use of languages in the Council in the context of an enlarged Union



1. At Seville, the European Council asked the Council “to study the question of the use of languages in the context of an enlarged Union and practical means of improving the present situation without endangering basic principles”. It also agreed that “in this context a proposal should be submitted in due course and … there should be an initial report to the European Council in December 2002”.

2. This initial report describes the formidable challenges resulting from the near doubling in the number of official languages resulting from the accession of ten new Member States. It briefly recalls the basic principles underpinning the Union’s language arrangements. Finally it outlines various approaches which have been put forward to manage the provision of interpreting in the Council.


3 . Linguistic diversity is one of the hallmarks of the European Union and a major cultural asset. The accession of ten new Member States in May 2004 will result in the number of official languages in the Union almost doubling. No other major body or institution in the world operates using such a large number of official languages. This constitutes an unprecedented administrative and logistic challenge. New translation divisions will be created inside the Council Secretariat. Recruitment procedures for additional translators and interpreters for candidate country languages are being launched

4. The current difficulties in managing the language requirements of the Council and its preparatory bodies with eleven official languages will be significantly compounded after enlargement as a result of the exponential leap in the number of possible language combinations- Limited physical, human and financial resources mean that out of necessity some flexibility has to be applied in practice in managing available linguistic resources to ensure that negotiations are conducted efficiently, without undermining the basic principles underpinning the Union’s language arrangements.


5. The basic principles governing the use of languages in the Council are set out in Article 53 TEU and Articles 21, 290 and 314 TEC, and in certain implementing acts, in particular Council Regulation No. i and the Council’s rules of procedure. At present there are twelve equally authentic Treaty languages (Irish is a Treaty language although not an official and working language of the institutions) and eleven official and working languages- Citizens may write to the Union’s institutions in any of the twelve Treaty languages and receive a reply in that language.

6. Full language arrangements will continue to be provided after enlargement for translation of documents and interpreting for official ministerial meetings. None of the suggestions set out in this report therefore call into question the current practice of providing full language interpreting for meetings of the Council and the European Council, nor the requirement enshrined in the Council’s Rules of Procedure for all legislative and policy documents before the Council for a decision to be translated into all official languages. The issues addressed in this report mainly relate to work and meetings at the preparatory level in the Council attended by officials and civil servants.


7. Some practical steps have already been taken to ensure that the Council will be able to cope with demands for translation after enlargement.

8. The current practice as regards the provision of interpreting for Council preparatory meetings has emerged over time as a result of constraints resulting from the number of suitably qualified interpreters, the provision of interpreting booths in meeting rooms and the availability of budgetary resources. The existence of these objective constraints means that it is impossible, even now with eleven official languages, to provide full interpreting arrangements for all Council preparatory bodies. After enlargement, these constraints will grow more acute.

9. The Council could consider whether it is willing to make the necessary financial commitment to achieve an across the board full interpreting regime at the preparatory level. Such a regime is unattainable in the medium term unless the Council would agree to invest heavily in the necessary logistic framework and agree a very Substantial increase in the annual interpreting budget. However, even if logistic and financial constraints of such an across the board regime could be met, the effect on the efficiency of decision-making in the Council should also be taken into account.

10. In the discussions so far, three different approaches have been explored in order to tackle the difficulty of reconciling the objective constraints described above with needs for interpreting in Council preparatory bodies after en enlargement.

(ì) Steps in order to render current practice more acceptable

This approach involves reaching an agreement on ways of rendering the current practice less discriminatory and more acceptable, taking account of the limitations described previously. This could be achieved in various ways:

– Broad support exists, on grounds of simplicity and efficiency, for extending the existing practice in certain areas of holding meetings without interpreting. This could be coupled with an understanding that all delegations would ensure that their delegates in such preparatory bodies are proficient in at least one foreign language and that they find themselves on an similar basis when communicating, taking into account the need for efficiency of proceedings. However, strong objections were also voiced to any such extension of existing practice.

– Efforts could also be made, in the light of a case by case examination, to reach an understanding to move away from full language interpreting in certain areas, without defining any particular regime for the Working Parties in question at this stage. Increased possibilities for delegates to speak their own languages without interpreting into their language (so-called “passive” availability of interpreting) could be helpful in this respect.

However, while – subject to an agreement – such an approach could yield certain improvements to render the situation manageable, many have pointed to its limitations, given that the starting point of current practice is already deeme unsatisfactory.

(ii) Introduction of some form-of “request and pay” system under the Council budget

This approach involves provision of interpreting for meetings of officials on the basis of requests made by delegations themselves. Several variants of this approach have been put forward. These approaches should be transparent, cost-effective, fair and nondiscriminatory. Efficiency of negotiations would be enhanced since they would in practice avoid unnecessary interpret on. One variant would be to take as a starting point zero interpreting for all Council preparatory bodies, and allotting each Member State an equal allocation of funds under the Council budget. Member States would then be charged on the basis of requests for interpretation on a fair basis (e.g. according to their relative share of contributions to the Council budget), with the incentive that any unused amounts would be reimbursed to the Member States in question. Any requests in excess of a national allocation would have to be funded by a top-up by the Member State in question. Another alternative would be to allocate fluids under the Council budget to each language rather than to each Member State. Member States requesting one of their own official languages would then be charged. However if no request for their official language is made, no costs would be borne by them.

Further detailed work would be required in order to determine the practicality of such a system, and whether it could be combined with any elements from the approach set out in point (i). It is generally accepted that any such system could only be considered provided it could be applied in a non-discriminatory, transparent, fair; predictable and cost-effective manner and it is compatible with basic principles.

(iii) Defining a limited standard interpreting regime


A further development might be the evolution, in the light of applying such request and pay system in practice, of a de facto limited standard interpreting regime. Once sufficient experience has been acquired with such a system, the standard interpreting regime could, in order to ensure effective planning, be foreseen for all working parties not using a full or zero interpreting regime. Additional languages would then be made available on request. This approach may be difficult to reconcile with the basic principles underlying the use of languages in the Council.

11. The Presidency considers that work should continue on the basis of all the approaches set out above, so that an agreed solution on interpreting in the Council for meetings of officials which respects basic principles is put in place as soon as possible and if possible by the end of June 2003.



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