EU officials offered hotline for ‘clear writing’

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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. 

"Only if EU citizens understand the opportunities of EU integration can they realise the benefits and make it their own," EU Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard Orban told the conference. 

"Conventional wisdom has it that EU officials use special jargon and speak in code, using words like 'Lisbon', 'Bologna', 'three pillars' and 'Schengen'," Orban said, admitting that "EU-speak remains a mysterious mumbo jumbo for the rest of the population". 

However, "some complexity is inevitable," he warned, because EU legislation is the result of painstakingly crafted compromises and as such "does not lend itself to simplification". 

"All the EU institutions are in the same boat and have a common interest in promoting clear legal language," said Karl-Johan Lönnroth, director-general of the European Commission's translation directorate. 

"There has been a trade-off between time and quality since time immemorial and the right balance is very difficult to achieve," Lönnroth added. He suggested that all EU documents be submitted for compulsory editing, and that recruitment should focus more on drafting skills. 

This view was echoed by European Commission Secretary-General Catherine Day, who said "we need to make a constant effort to explain and clarify to people what we are doing in the EU institutions". 

"Creating a culture of clear thinking in the EU institutions will help to produce clear legislation," Day said, stressing the need to ensure that "texts can be understood by non-experts in the field". 

"It's the duty of every EU official to communicate the EU in clear language and in the citizen's own language," argued Paul Strickland, head of the editing unit at the European Commission's translation department. 

"No culture of quality control has really developed, with consequences for quality that we can all see. There may not be people in units competent enough to take charge of quality control. The process of quality control is a random one," Strickland said. 

"Clear writing is a way of thinking; an attitude. You have to have the citizen in mind when writing: it's a question of democracy. You need to reach out to the world outside when writing," said Anne-Marie Hasselrot, deputy director at the Swedish Ministry of Justice

Jean-François Funck, a judge in the Belgian town of Nivelles, said the goal of clear language campaigns is "not to give citizens a dictionary of judicial terms, but to encourage judges themselves to use comprehensible language when making judgements". 

"Writing clearly is not enough, because even the most simple of sentences can be ambiguous," said Gino Vesentini, head of the Italian department of the European Commission's translation service. 

"When we're drafting an act, we cannot possibly foresee the use to which it will later be put," explained William Robertson, a coordinator in the legal revisers' group of the European Commission's legal service. 

"Drafters must allow for the unforeseeable. Judges tend to look backwards at past cases, but legislative drafters look forwards to try to imagine cases," Robertson said. 

Current EU presidency holder Sweden made boosting the transparency of the European institutions one of the priorities of its six-month stint at the Union's helm. 

Meanwhile, simplifying and improving the EU regulatory environment was one of the priorities of the first Barroso Commission. It is a key element of the Lisbon Strategy and the Small Business Act. 

The EU executive is working to lower costs for SMEs by reducing the administrative burden of unnecessary regulation by 25% by 2012. In the process, it hopes to shed its long-standing reputation as an overly bureaucratic institution. 

  • March 2010: European Commission conference to launch Clear Language and Better Regulation Campaign. 

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