The multilingual nature of the EU institutions is "too politically sensitive" an issue to be dramatically reformed and is thus "here to stay", according to the Commission's translation chief, Juhani Lönnroth.
The Union will "just have to cope" with increased linguistic pressures brought on by future enlargements because "no decision-maker would dare to touch the main principles" of the policy, said DG Translation Director-General Lönnroth, speaking at a debate hosted by the Centre for European Policy Studies on 22 February.
Rising costs mean EU language policy is becoming increasingly controversial. The present 23 official languages constitute 506 translation and interpreting combinations, said Lönnroth, a figure which would increase significantly if Croatia, Serbia and Turkey join the bloc.
Conceding that he is not a "language fanatic", the director-general claimed he thinks "about how to reduce [the workload] every day," stating that it was "not in the taxpayer's interest" to provide every language combination. "It would be easier if everybody accepted that English and French were the main EU languages," he said.
But Lönnroth cannot see how the Commission's language policy can change significantly as, politically, it is a "sensitive subject". Language policy is not a "supply and demand issue" because EU citizens have the right to address the bloc's institutions in their own language no matter the number of speakers, he said.
Instead, less voluminous production may be one way to reduce the workload, said Lönnroth, calling for future EU language policy to focus on "less but better" translation. Indeed, this trend is already evident, he noted, highlighting that the average length of a Commission document is now 15 pages, while prior to enlargement it was 37.
While it is "a mistake to believe that English is enough," it is "rapidly becoming the lingua franca" of the EU institutions, said Lönnroth. This is an issue of practicality, he explained, because many people work on EU draft legislation before it becomes law. If every amendment had to be translated along the way, then "costs would explode," he added. He further predicted that the EU would see a "proliferation of languages" while experiencing a "reduction of those actually in use," but admitted that finding the right mix would be a "difficult job".
72% of EU documents are originally drafted in English, 12% in French and just 3% in German. Meanwhile, 88% of the users of the Commission's Europa website speak English. Thus providing documents in English, French, German, Spanish and Italian would cover close to 100% of their linguistic needs, said the director-general.
Despite this, last year the EU institutions spent around €1 billion on translation and interpreting, said Lönnroth, representing around 1% of the EU budget or €2.50 per citizen. 2,500 staff would translate two million pages in 2008, he said, predicting that this figure would continue to rise by 5% annually.
The Commission will address the sustainability of its language policy when it proposes its new multilingualism strategy in September 2008 (see EurActiv 19/02/08).