Multilingualism in the European Parliament
In the European Parliament, all official languages are equally important: all parliamentary documents are published in all the official languages of the European Union (EU) and all Members of the European Parliament (MEP) have the right to speak in the official language of their choice. It also ensures everyone is able to follow and access the Parliament’s work.
The European Union has always seen its great diversity of cultures and languages as an asset. Firmly rooted in the European treaties, multilingualism is the reflection of this cultural and linguistic diversity. It also makes the European institutions more accessible and transparent for all citizens of the Union, which is essential for the success of the EU’s democratic system.
The European Parliament differs from the other EU institutions in its obligation to ensure the highest possible degree of multilingualism. Every European citizen has the right to stand for election to the European Parliament. It would be unreasonable to require MEPs to have a perfect command of one of the more frequently used languages, such as French or English. The right of each Member to read and write parliamentary documents, follow debates and speak in his or her own language is expressly recognised in Parliament’s Rules of Procedure. All EU citizens must be able to read legislation affecting them in the language of their own country. As a co-legislator, the European Parliament also has a duty to ensure that the linguistic quality of all laws it adopts is flawless in all official languages.
Europeans are entitled to follow the Parliament’s work, ask questions and receive replies in their own language, under European legislation.
Languages used in the European Parliament
What a long way we have come since the end of the 1950s, when four languages only were spoken in the institutions of the European Communities! Today, no fewer than 24 official languages are used in the European Parliament, which is an immense linguistic challenge.
Each time new Member States have joined the EU, they have added to the number of official languages.
Official EU language since…
- Dutch, French, German, Italian: 1958
- Danish, English: 1973
- Greek: 1981
- Portuguese, Spanish: 1986
- Finnish, Swedish: 1995
- Czech, Estonian, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Slovak, Slovene: 2004
- Bulgarian, Irish, Romanian: 2007
- Croatian: 2013
EU official languages are set out in a regulation, which is amended after each accession to add the new official languages. All official languages enjoy equal status.
The 24 official languages make a total of 552 possible combinations, since each language can be translated into 23 others. In order to meet this challenge, the European Parliament has set up highly efficient interpreting, translation and legal text verification services. Very strict rules have been put in place to ensure that these services function smoothly and that the costs remain reasonable.
In order to produce the different language versions of its written documents and correspond with EU citizens in all the official languages, the European Parliament maintains an in-house translation service able to meet its quality requirements and work to the tight deadlines imposed by parliamentary procedures.
Parliament’s translators work primarily on the EU legislation which is discussed, voted on, adopted or rejected by the committees and plenary. Under the Lisbon Treaty texts adopted by Parliament following agreement with the Council at first reading become law and translation is thus more or less the last actor in the process, which involves an additional and heavy responsibility.
Translators also work on a wide variety of texts, such as:
- EP resolutions on topical issues, the violation of human rights and the rule of law anywhere in the world;
- adoption of the annual EU budget and the discharge procedure;
- parliamentary questions;
- documents of other political bodies, such as the joint parliamentary assemblies consisting of Members of the European
- Parliament and national MPs or elected representatives of non-EU countries;
- decisions by the European Ombudsman;
- information for citizens and for Member States;
- decisions of Parliament’s governing bodies (Bureau, Conference of Presidents, Quaestors).
The main task of the European Parliament’s interpreters is to render orally the speeches given by MEPs faithfully and in real time into all the official languages. Interpreting services are provided for all multilingual meetings organised by the official bodies of the institution.
The European Parliament’s Directorate-General for Logistics and Interpretation for Conferences employs approximately 270 staff interpreters and has at its disposal a reserve of some 1500 external accredited interpreters whom it calls on very regularly as required to cover its needs.
Multilingualism - Legislative Acts
The legislation adopted by the European Parliament affects over 500 million people in 28 countries and 24 official languages: it must be identical and as clear as possible in all the languages. Verifying the linguistic and legislative quality of the texts is the job of Parliament's lawyer-linguists.
Parliament's lawyer-linguists ensure, throughout the legislative procedure, the highest possible quality of legislative texts in all EU languages. In order to guarantee that Parliament's political will is rendered in high quality legislative texts the lawyer-linguists are involved at all stages of the legislative procedure.
The work is carried out by a team of 75 lawyer-linguists. In particular they:
- provide Members and committee secretariats with drafting and procedural advice from the initial drafting of texts up to final adoption in plenary;
- prepare and publish legislative texts for adoption by Parliament in committee and in plenary, ensuring the highest quality of all the different language versions of the amendments in the reports and the smooth course of the procedure;
- are responsible for the technical preparation of amendments tabled for the plenary and for the publication of all the texts adopted on the day of the plenary vote;
- finalise legislative acts together with the lawyer-linguists of the Council.