Orban: Multilingualism ‘cost of democracy’ in EU

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Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard Orban has spoken to EURACTIV Slovakia of his conviction that the dossier will continue to be afforded “its own place” in the EU policy framework after the expiry of the European Commission’s current mandate in autumn 2009.

Romanian Leonard Orban is the EU commissioner responsible for the multilingualism portfolio. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

Commissioner: Why is having 23 official languages at Community level useful? 

If we think about 23 official languages, we need go back in history. When the European Communities were created, previous war enemies sat at one table. The core idea was to grant everybody a level playing field. And the question was: how to grant it? Simply, by accepting – among other things – the fact that everyone has the right to use his own language, his own mother tongue. 

The first ever regulation, which was adopted in 1958, defined the right for member states to ask for recognition of their official language as an official language of the European Communities. We started with six member states and four languages. Now we have 27 states and 23 languages. The main reason for that is that the Union adopts legislation at Community level: legislation applicable to every citizen. 

How can we ensure that citizens understand the meaning of laws, their rights and obligations? Simply by translating legislation into their mother tongues. If we look at the figures, almost half of the population speak only their mother tongue. 

Finally, it is a question of democracy. That’s a good reason for having 23 official languages as well. 

On the other hand, it is the EU not some kind of linguistic labyrinth? The labyrinth seems to be very expensive for taxpayers. 

Images of labyrinths or the Tower of Babel are used often. But in fact, we have to go beyond these simplified imaginations. Firstly, let me speak briefly about the cost of multilingualism. The amount of money spent by the Union’s institutions on translation and interpretation represents approximately €1.1 billion per year, which represents one percent of the EU budget. 

If we divide this by population, we will see that it is about €2.5 per citizen per year. I really don’t think it would be big money, not at all. This is one of the costs of democracy and democracy is the real value that is promoted through multilingualism. 

Multilingualism is in the genetic code of the European project. Our motto is “Unity in diversity,” so the aim is not to create single culture or to promote a single language. We celebrate diversity that means opportunity to speak, express opinions and promote [one’s] own culture in [one’s] mother tongue for everyone. It is not just the ethos, but [a] concept and philosophy as well. 

What do you think about the objection that in actual fact, multilingualism contributes to promoting one language: English? 

We have 23 official languages today, another more than 60 regional or minority ones, and finally more than 175 languages spoken by migrants. This diversity is a reality, which shows that multilingualism is a new dimension of the EU. Coming back to your question, I don’t think multilingualism contributes to the promotion of any specific language, in fact, or any ‘linguafranca’. 

Everyone notes that English is present more and more in the EU, but at the same time, English is less and less sufficient. This is caused by various reasons: culture, ability to be employed or other personal motives. While we notice the increase in learning English, at the same time we can observe that demand for studying other languages is growing. Multilingualism says: “Respect your language and respect the language of others.” In this context, English has its own important place, but it is not a unique language, not at all. 

Our new strategy for multilingualism, which was presented just a few weeks ago, in September, tells us that English is important but insufficient. Evolution in different states and regions shows that this is true and it encourages us. 

Let’s talk about one concrete example. The concept of the Single European Patent has been broadly welcomed by EU member states. On the other hand, there is one huge hurdle: choosing the language in which it would be issued. It seems like multilingualism might be an obstacle… 

Multilingualism represents no obstacle, but a real opportunity that raises many challenges. And there are many ones, including very pragmatic issues like the Single European Patent. It is connected with industry, access to the market and boosting competitiveness. My only answer is to be very creative and innovative in order to find compromise and the best solution. 

In other words, we should combine full respect for our languages with the process of learning to speak foreign languages. Multilingualism is in this case about the translation of challenges into real opportunities. 

Thanks for the diplomatic answer, but try to imagine that there are just two choices: having a Single European Patent issued in one language or not having anything at all. Taking the competitiveness of European companies into consideration, which scenario is better, in your opinion? 

I would not like to enter into this issue, because it is out of my responsibility. Other members of the European Commission are responsible for finding concrete solutions for a Single European Patent. But I would like to remind you that languages are not a burden. They are not a burden for debate on the patent either. I encourage my colleagues to find solutions that will benefit everybody. 

Commissioner, in June 2007 you told euractiv.com that multilingualism gives you the opprtunity “to build something new”. What are the results of your work a year later after those words? 

It is too early to discuss the final results of my work in the post of commissioner. There is still one year in the Commission before me. In the following weeks and months, more initiatives will be launched, including for instance a big conference dedicated to cultural translation. It means topics like free movement of artists and their cultural work throughout the EU, for example. 

Up to now, I am very satisfied with the developments and results we have achieved. For instance, we adopted a new strategy for multilingualism in September. It clearly demonstrates that multilingualism is not just about learning languages, but it links to many other policies at the same time. 

We were successful in presenting it as one of the mainstream ideas of the EU. It became the cornerstone of intercultural dialogue, it concerns employment, mobility on the labour market, social cohesion, the improvement of our judiciary, communication with citizens and many other issues. The multilingualism strategy deals with the question of competitiveness of European companies as well. 

As you can see, if we talk about multilingualism, we talk about it in a broader sense. Those are concrete results of our work. 

As I said, we presented a new strategy. Now we are looking forward to the conclusions of the Ministerial Council that is about to gather in November. Now we are also waiting for the position of the European Parliament. 

If we have all the stakeholders’ positions, we will be able to promote very important projects all around the Europe, focused not only on institutions, but mainly on the citizens. It signals that multilingualism is a policy for each human. 

In September 2008, you said there would be no additional financial resources allocated to the new strategy for multilingualism. Why? Is this not a signal that your portfolio would not be one of the most important ones? 

Yes, there will be no additional resources for multilingualism, for a few reasons. The first one is the complexity of the EU budget. The whole amount of European money has already been allocated to various policies for the period until 2013 and there is no possibility of modifying that. Any changes will happen after 2013. 

We have to be very realistic and we need to take political aspects of EU financial procedures into consideration. Discussions about financial perspectives are always very difficult. As a politician, I see no room for budgetary moves until 2013. 

The second reason is that we are at the beginning. After 2013, we could evaluate mid-term results of present projects and then we would decide on more precise financial perspectives. 

We are very realistic and we keep in mind current budgetary constraints. However, no additional money doesn’t mean that multilingualism would be some kind of side-policy outside the mainstream or that it would not be such an important one. 

Will multilingualism have its own place in the next Commission, set to start work on 1 November 2009? What about the future challenges for multilingualism? 

Yes, the new Commission will start work on 1 November 2009 or maybe later, if some delays or prolongations appear. Well, nobody knows who the next Commission President will be and how he will distribute portfolios. However, I am fully convinced that multilingualism will have its own place, whether separate or in combination with other policies. It would be very difficult to ignore such a portfolio in the future. 

There will be a few challenges for the future Commission. The new commissioner in charge of multilingualism will have to continue implementing projects we had started; at the same time, other initiatives will appear and will have to be taken into consideration. They will be connected with issues like the sustainability of the current linguistic regime. 

If there was a possibility to serve as commissioner for multilingualism in the next Commission, would you be interested in it? 

I don’t like to speculate. I can only say that I am convinced that the next Commission will continue to promote multilingualism. 

[PLEASE NOTE: This interview was prepared by EURACTIV.sk’s editor in Bratislava, during Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard Orban’s recent visit to Slovakia.] 

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