Many European Commission documents are only published in English or a limited number of languages but multilingualism is essential for citizens to exercise their right to participate - writes the European Ombudsman
The Lisbon Treaty provides for a transparent and open dialogue between European Union institutions and citizens, as well as for increased citizens' participation. These are crucial steps forward on the long road to strengthening the right of citizens to participate in the democratic life of the EU. In the current economic and political crisis, dialogue and citizen participation become even more important. If European institutions do not do their utmost to take citizens' concerns, opinions and suggestions into account - trust in the EU will decrease further.
The European Commission is devoting significant resources to its public consultations with a view to enhancing the capacity of citizens, associations and other stakeholders to participate more fully in the EU's decision-making process. All public consultation documents are listed on its Your Voice in Europe w
However, in October 2010, a Spanish lawyer turned to us at the European Ombudsman's office, complaining that many public consultations are only published in English. These include consultations concerning a new partnership to help small and medium-sized enterprises but also the freedom of movement of workers. The complainant argued that the commission's language policy was arbitrary and contrary to the principles of openness, good administration and non-discrimination.
We shared the complainant's view that citizens cannot be expected to participate in a consultation which they are unable to understand it. Multilingualism is essential for citizens to exercise their right to participate in the democratic life of the EU, which is guaranteed by the Lisbon Treaty. My inquiry revealed that very few public consultations were issued in all EU languages. Moreover, there was no consistent language pattern. Several consultations aimed at the general public were issued in only one or in a very limited number of languages.
We concluded that the commission's restrictive language policy constitutes maladministration and called on the institution to publish its public consultation documents in all 23 EU languages or, alternatively, to provide translations upon request. We also recommended that the commission draft clear guidelines concerning the use of the EU languages in its public consultations and suggested that it make these known to citizens.
The commission refused to accept our recommendations. It argued that the principle of multilingualism depends on time constraints and the available resources. According to the commission, there is no legal right for citizens to have access to consultation papers in all EU languages. In response, I stated: "I am aware that multilingualism puts a heavy burden on the EU administration and its limited resources. However, I am persuaded that it forms an essential part of the EU's ability to engage in a fruitful dialogue with its citizens. If the EU institutions want to be seen as engaging in a sincere dialogue with citizens and civil society, they have no choice but to take this important principle into account."
Because this issue touches upon an important matter of principle concerning the democratic functioning of the union, which is guaranteed by the Lisbon Treaty, we considered submitting a 'special report' to the European Parliament. We noted, however that, in June 2012, the EP adopted a resolution urging the commission to review its restrictive language policy for public consultations. Since this resolution covers the scope of the Ombudsman's recommendations, we concluded that a special report is not necessary. Now the commission must act.
P. Nikiforos Diamandouros is European Ombudsman, his full report is available here