EU's Multilingualism Commissioner Leonard Orban interviewed
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Fri Jun 8 12:19:53 UTC 2007
Orban: 'With multilingualism, I have the possibility to build something
Published: Tuesday 5 June 2007 | Updated: Thursday 7 June 2007
In an exclusive interview with EurActiv, Multilingualism Commissioner
Leonard Orban speaks of his conviction that the EU's official language tally
will continue to grow, and expresses his hopes that new translation
technologies and motivating language education will bear fruit.
Multilingualism in Europe is not just about EU institutions. When you took
up this new mandate, you stressed the importance of languages as a factor
for competitiveness. Is this the main dimension of your new ideas, and how
will you put them into practice?
It is one of the main dimensions - my priorities concerning multilingualism
in general, not only on the institutional level, are linked. You mentioned
competitiveness. Very soon, I will launch a Business Forum concerning the
link between multilingualism and competitiveness – this will be in September
2007. There will be a conference, and then a business forum. Of course,
language learning is a key priority for me. The cultural aspect of languages
and mainly the contribution of multilingualism to inter-cultural dialogue
–and last but not least, creating a space for communicating with EU
citizens. Concerning the integration of migrants, it's about increasing the
mobility of workers – which also leads to better social integration for
migrants. Concerning very concrete projects, I mentioned competitiveness.
Here, I am saying that this is very important, because immediately after I
started my work, a study was published – a study drafted by the UK National
Centre for Languages – and this clearly demonstrated that the companies who
do not have the necessary linguistic skills are losing money and losing
business. So it's a very clear conclusion here – the companies need
linguistic skills and need linguistic strategies. Of course, I'm talking
about the companies who have export activity, because I think the key
element in this is 'Which is the best language for the consumers?' It's
their mother tongue, and business has to understand this.
But in the normal workings of a business, if it has international
activities, it would be fairly common to expect languages competences, so to
what extent will business and business organisations connect this with the
Commission's policies? To what extent does business really need your
It's not a programme, it's a project. What we would like to do is to
disseminate best practice. First, to identify best practice. So, we will
invite – first of all, to the conference - companies with very good
expertise in the field, from different sectors, and then we will launch a
business plan, working together with professional people from different
fields of activity. We will hopefully create a list of concrete proposals,
recommendations and best practices, and then disseminate this information to
In the various documents issued by Commissioner Margot Wallström – the first
Action Plan and then the White Paper on Communication - there was hardly
any mention of languages, and also not about transparency. This triangle –
communication, languages, transparency – seems absent.
I've already had some discussion with Commissioner Wallström. No doubt, she
is fully aware of the importance of multilingualism. We also discussed some
concrete elements in order to work together, to help improve communication
A minimum of three or four languages, perhaps? What are you suggesting?
No, no. Once again, it will depend on the importance of the information. We
will probably differentiate, but we will see. We will divide the
information. Very important information will have to be translated into all
official languages, but less important documents or information will have to
be translated into fewer languages. But we are working on this, so we will
So will there be something practical in the Action Plan that Commissioner
Wallström will present on 4 July?
I don't know, it's too early. It's too early to discuss about this. It's too
early, because the discussions are very complicated. The website is not only
a question of the political decision. We have to take into consideration –
as you know very well – all the technical constraints, and the
But surely if you are not in the Action Plan in July, by the time it is
implemented in budgetary resources and so on, you will not have an impact
before the 2009 European Parliament elections?
No, no. In this case, I think that if we decide on some concrete rules, the
implementation will start immediately, so we will not need any additional
money to invest, but we will take…it's too early to discuss a very concrete
solution. But no doubt that when we decide, the implementation will start
immediately, so we will not be obliged to wait for additional budgetary
As far as language learning is concerned, Commissioner, there are certain
member states that trail behind their counterparts in terms of learning
other languages, the UK being a particular example. As far as I understand,
70% of the UK population only speak one language. Obviously, the Commission
doesn't have the power to exercise authority over member states' specific
policies, but young people between the ages of 14-16 are due to be tested on
their language skills in 2009. In the follow-up to this, will there be
specific initiatives in place to encourage member states such as the UK to
follow-up on your commitments?
There are difficulties there. There are difficulties in some member states,
and you know, I recently visited the UK, especially for this reason, because
now the UK authorities are working on some very concrete proposals
concerning the educational system, but also concerning language learning. I
went there to encourage them to find the best solution. I also went there to
discuss the concrete terms of their proposals. Do you know what the most
difficult issue in the UK is? Finding the motivation to learn foreign
languages. I've visited many countries, and I've most recently visited
Bulgaria. The people there are really keen to learn a foreign language. To
go there and to find the motivation to learn a foreign language is no use,
because almost everybody (there) wants to learn a foreign language.
Do you think that connecting languages and the EU is the best way of
convincing the UK public?
Here it's very delicate. What I can say is that I think the best way of
finding motivation is to try to present the argument to them in favour of
learning languages. My 2008 Communication will detail some of the reasons
why learning languages is a good idea.
Concerning the Commission's translation services [DG Translation] it has
been suggested that it would make sense to have some translators located in
their home countries, because they would be more efficient, cheaper, and
also still working in their own language environment. Do you agree?
Let me explain to you what the present situation is. In 2002, before the
enlargement of 2004, the Council and the European Parliament – the budgetary
authorities – decided to increase the resources allocated to the whole
multilingualism policy to roughly 20%. While from 2004 until now, we have
more than doubled the number of official languages. In 2002, there were 11
official languages, now there are 23, and the additional resources allocated
are around 20%. Taking into consideration this situation, the Commission has
been obliged to take very serious decisions in order to cope with the new
situation. So, the Commission decided to launch a so-called strategy on
demand, establishing clearly what documents should be translated into all
the official languages, and what documents should only be translated into
one language or into the three procedural languages, English, French and
German. The executive decided to divide documents into two categories - the
important (and all important documents should be translated into all the
official languages) – and less important documents. A document translated
only into the procedural languages – the three procedural languages – or a
document translated only into one or two languages, for example English or
another procedural language, plus the language of the country that the
So you have worked mainly on the need for translations as opposed to the
productivity of how to deliver them?
In the past, the rule was very clear - all the documents should be
translated into all the official languages. But now, after the 2004
enlargement, this was no longer possible. So, we established other rules.
For example, the maximum number of pages of each document could be no more
than 30. It depends on the document's importance. Directives, Regulations,
Green Papers, White Papers, and so on. Here, we need the highest quality of
translation, and we also need to take into consideration that all languages
are on an equal footing from the legal point of view – from every point of
view. We need to work together to ensure the maximum quality, and
Do you mean judicial language?
Exactly, at the Community level. And for this kind of document, I cannot see
the possibility of translating them at the national level, because it's a
working team, everybody should work together to put everything in, so that
all the versions are on an equal footing. What would happen if there were
differences between the versions of the same document in, let's say, English
and another language? Who would decide? There is no-one to decide on such
issues, so the document should be translated 100% correctly. So, for this
kind of document, I see no possibility of translating them at the national
When do you expect the new translation policy to be in place?
I will propose all the new measures in my new strategy, which will be
adopted in the second part of 2008. But please be aware that the strategy
will not, let's say, only discuss this subject – there will be many other
So you expect adoption in the second half of 2008 – when do you intend to
issue the draft?
The draft would be in the first part of next year. This will be a Commission
document, but we haven't yet decided what kind of document it will be. I
need some time to prepare it, because I need to hold discussions with all
member states, to identify their concerns and listen to their solutions, in
order to significantly improve the present situation. It is very likely -
taking into consideration that the present linguistic regime was first
defined in 1958, and there is a need for unanimity to change this decision.
I see no possibility – from the political point of view, zero possibility –
of decreasing the number of official languages. On the contrary, I foresee
Are you referring to the regional languages?
No, I'm not talking about regional languages. I'm talking about new
enlargements. I'm even talking in the context of some political developments
in some member states – I'm talking about Cyprus, for example. If there is a
political settlement there, Turkish could become an EU language…if member
states will accept it. If the Luxembourg government asks to introduce
Luxembourgeois as a new language, this could be also be considered, so I'm
not talking about regional languages, I'm talking about new enlargements.
How practical do you think that would be on a day-to-day basis? Enlarging
indefinitely, the addition of new languages – surely we would reach a
saturation point where you would have to prioritise one language over
Yes. My expectation is that from the political point of view, the member
states will not accept changing the present linguistic regime at all, so the
languages will continue to be on equal footing, and in the long term, the
only solution for sustainability of the present linguistic regime is linked
with new technologies – automatic translation, other new technologies in
interpretation. Without new technologies – long term, I'm talking about long
term – my opinion is that the present linguistic regime is not sustainable.
The link between multilingualism and education is clear. Do you intend to
launch a programme as part of Lifelong Learning 2007-2013?
We have to be very pragmatic in what we are doing. We have to take into
consideration the present situation. There have already been decisions taken
concerning the budget for 2007-2013. Of course, there will be a new
discussion in 2008-9 concerning the revision of the EU budget. We will see,
depending on the developments. But however, a first step in building a
specific programme for multilingualism is to launch a programme at the
Community level for the training of interpreters. So next month, we will
come with draft Proposals to be adopted by the Commission, and then this
will be subject to co-decision, and if the Parliament and the Council
accept, in 2009 we will have a new Community programme specially dedicated
to the training of interpreters, which is very important for us.
I'm open to concrete proposals for working on the multilingualism strategy,
and I'm very open to all ideas, so I would not hesitate at all to include
the best proposals and the best ideas in my strategy. I'm very open, and
this is an advantage of a relatively new – in fact, a new and a distinct –
portfolio, because now I have the possibility to build something new.
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