Commission accused of ‘language discrimination’

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The European Ombudsman says a refusal by the EU executive to conduct its external assistance work in all 23 official EU languages constitutes maladministration. But the Commission argues that doing so would simply not be feasible.

European Ombudsman P. Nikiforos Diamandouros yesterday criticised the Commission’s failure “to accept applications for an external assistance project in [all] EU languages”. What’s more, its “refusal to comply with this legal obligation constitutes maladministration,” he stated.

The case highlights the practical difficulties and cost constraints experienced by the EU institutions in implementing their ambitious language policies. 

The issue concerns the EU executive’s call for proposals for a rehabilitation project for torture victims under its ‘European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights’, for which it required that applications be submitted in English, French or Spanish. 

Back in 2004 a German NGO providing psychological and social support to refugee victims of torture and their families decided to complain the Ombudsman after being asked by the Commission to provide translations of documents related to its tender application, arguing that doing so would be “very costly and time-consuming”. 

The NGO argued that the EU executive was legally obliged to accept the documents in German as it is an official EU language, complaining of “language discrimination”. 

But the Commission countered that using all EU languages in external assistance projects with third countries is not practical due to cost and time constraints and thus it had the right to adopt a “pragmatic approach with a restricted use of languages”. 

Despite conceding that cost considerations are “important”, the Ombudsman said they are not sufficient “to entitle the Commission to disregard its legal obligation to accept all official languages” and asked the EU executive to “avoid this kind of discrimination in the future”.  

The Commission is set to publish its new strategy on multilingualism in September 2008 (see EURACTIV 19/02/08), while the EU institutions are currently reviewing their translation and interpreting regimes as part of a wider debate over the scope and cost of multilingualism policy – currently worth €1.1bn or 1% of the EU budget. 

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