The European Commission is seeking to kill off excessive legal speak by setting up a hotline that will give officials advice on how to write more clearly, it emerged at a conference in Brussels yesterday (17 November).
The Commission is currently preparing a guide to clear writing for its staff to be published in all 23 official languages of the EU, Paul Strickland, head of editing at the European Commission's translation department, told the 'Clear Writing and Better Regulation' forum in Brussels.
The guide will be complemented by a hotline providing linguistic guidance.
Communicating EU 'daunting task'
Communicating EU policies accurately and comprehensibly to European citizens is a "daunting task" given the wide variety of cultures and languages involved, Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard Orban told the conference.
Such difficulties are confounded by the "diversity and complexity" of most EU policy issues, the commissioner added.
"The sender of the message often has technically and legally complex information to convey," said Orban, explaining that "lawmaking in the EU is based on words inherited from different legal traditions and languages, so it is hardly surprising that the legislation which emerges does not relate to one particular language".
The clarity of EU directives is often compounded by the fact that they are often drafted and redrafted by officials using their second or third language, and then amended by national ministries, the commissioner added.
"Legislative acts should by definition be clear, precise and easy-to-understand on the ground, or the EU will be a collection of words rather than results," he warned.
"It's not about grammar and syntax," added European Commission Secretary-General Catherine Day, but "how to communicate the exciting things we're doing to all citizens of the EU".
Difficult legal environment
Eleanor Sharpston QC, an advocate-general at the European Court of Justice, warned that "the environment of EU judicial decision-making does not look very promising in terms of producing clear language".
"There is an increasing perception in and outside the court that all that matters is speed. In difficult cases, speed may come at the expense of quality. Making sure that rulings are explained clearly, comprehensively and succinctly takes time," she said.
Sharpston accused EU officials of "making assumptions about what is obvious" when drafting documents. "Not everyone realises that what they're writing will be translated," she said.
The advocate-general advised member states to say what they mean when drafting legislation, "because they get awfully upset when the European Court of Justice does it for them".
However, the Commission's Strickland warned that "the need for political compromise and the obligation on Commission officials to draft in a language that is not their mother tongue is not conducive at all to the highest standards of drafting".
Anne-Marie Hasselrot, deputy director at the Swedish Ministry of Justice, agrees. "It's in everybody's interest for the language to be as good as it can possibly be, but this isn't always at the forefront of people's minds in the Council working groups," she said.