Interview: 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.

The EU institutions’ translation and interpreting services absorb €1.1bn or 1% of the EU budget per year. Asked why no further funding had been made available to support the new multilingualism strategy unveiled by the Commission in September (EURACTIV 19/10/08), Orban stressed the need to be “very realistic”, taking “political aspects of EU financial procedures” into consideration. 

No additional monies would be available before 2013 because the bloc’s resources have already been allocated under the current funding period, he explained. But “we are only at the beginning,” he said, expressing his hope that “more precise financial perspectives” would be decided upon at a later date. 

In any case, Commissioner Orban insisted that “no additional money does not mean that multilingualism [is] some kind of side-policy outside the mainstream.” Language issues are simultaneously linked to many other policies, he said, including employment, workers’ mobility, social cohesion and communication with citizens among others. 

Moreover, he does not believe that the cost of EU multilingualism policy is excessive. “If we divide [the €1.1bn] by population, we see that it is about €2.5 per citizen per year. I really don’t think [this is] big money, not at all.” 

The commissioner justified the outlay by pointing out that almost half of the EU population speaks only their mother tongue. “It’s the cost of democracy,” he said. “How can we ensure that citizens understand the meaning of laws, their rights and their obligations? Simply: by translating legislation into their mother tongues.” 

The EU executive’s new strategy did not seek to address the institutional side of language policy, rather focusing on boosting language learning. Asked whether the multilingual nature of the EU institutions instead serves to boost the use of English at the expense of other languages, Orban replied: “Everyone notes that English is present more and more in the EU, but at the same time, [it] is less and less sufficient,” for both economic and cultural reasons. 

Orban claimed it was “too early to discuss the final results” of his work. More initiatives should follow before the end of the current executive’s mandate in autumn 2009, he explained, including a high-level conference on cultural translation. 

Finally, asked whether he expected multilingualism would remain a separate portfolio under the new Commission, Orban expressed his conviction that the EU would continue to afford language policy “its own place”, “whether separate or in combination with other polices”. 

But “nobody knows how the next Commission president will distribute portfolios,” he conceded, while “issues like the sustainability of the current linguistic regime” would have to be taken into consideration.

To read the interview in full, please click here (English).

To read the full interview in Slovakian, please click here.   

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