Leading Article: Europe builds a new tower of Babel

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The Independent Online
THERE are few respects in which Europe can claim to lead the world - and fewer still where its lead is widening. Language, however, is one. The European Commission's translation service, already the world's biggest, is certain to grow further with this week's agreement on the terms of admission of Sweden, Austria and Finland. Is the Union wise to allow the number of its working languages to rise from nine to 11?

Pessimists argue that Brussels is already a tower of Babel. The Commission employs one translator for every three administrators. It translates 850,000 pages of text a year. Although speeches by Commissioners can be turned around quickly, it takes an average of more than four weeks to translate even a one-page document. Adding Swedish and Finnish to the system will slow it down further.

But there are risks in trying to force the European institutions to do business in fewer languages. The most serious is that the Union is already too distant from ordinary people. Citizens would be justifiably furious if a centralising measure forced them to obey rules that they could not understand, or to send representatives to a Parliament where they were forbidden to speak their own language. Evidence of how tightly nationalism and language are tied can be seen in the current wave of resentment against the English language among French intellectuals.

With luck, though, there may be a way to balance the demands of efficiency and economy with the national pride of the Union's growing membership - by putting an official stamp on a practice that is already common in Brussels. Many internal meetings at the Commission or the Council of Ministers are conducted in only a few languages, with interpretation out of five languages but into only three.

This principle should be turned into a formal distinction between 'public working languages', in which legislation and treaties would appear, and a much smaller number of 'internal working languages' used for draft documents, public tenders and the like. The resulting cost savings could be passed on to the EU member states that agree to use other internal working languages in the form of a rebate against their budget contributions. And future entrants to the Union would be firmly told to bear the extra translation costs themselves.