Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Thursday, 20 May 2004

Language Regime in COSAC Meetings.

The next item on the agenda is the language regime in COSAC meetings. I wish to correct replies to the questionnaire. The Estonian reply is down as "No" and should be "Yes". That will be changed in the official record. As of Friday, 14 May 2004, the COSAC secretariat had received 17 replies to the questionnaire on possible changes to the interpretation regime of COSAC. Ten parliaments have expressed their willingness to consider a reduced interpretation regime for COSAC meetings, while seven have replied that they wish to maintain the present system that provides interpretation from and into all EU languages. However, there are big differences between the views of the ten parliaments that are willing to consider amending the present interpretation regime. Five of them suggest that it should still be possible for COSAC participants to speak in their own languages, but the access to interpretation could be limited to a reduced number of languages. The remaining five find it sufficient that interpretation is provided to and from two to five of the languages of the European Union.

The Presidency can draw only one conclusion from the survey of parliaments on this question and that is that there is no consensus. I propose that the working group of Chairmen should again address this matter and inform itself of the conclusions of the July meeting of the conference of speakers, which I understand will also address this issue. The following speakers wish to make contributions on this issue: Mr. Cunha from Portugal and Mr. Hatzigakis from Greece.

Mr. Henrique Campos Cunha

We see that there are a variety of different answers to the questionnaire. Portugal supports maintaining the regime as it stands. As we believe it is difficult to provide documents in all languages sufficiently early, we would like to maintain documents translated into English and French. However, during the meetings it is vital for all delegations to participate actively and we do not feel it is logical to limit participation to only two languages, as not everybody understands English or French. In such circumstances, we would end up with less participation in our meetings. The preamble to the COSAC rules of procedure states that the idea is to facilitate the work of our conferences. We do not think we can improve and facilitate our work if, at the outset, a number of delegations feel excluded because they do not have simultaneous interpretation. There will be problems if such services are limited to English and French.

I have mentioned a practical issue, but other issues are also at stake. We are concerned about the fact that Europe is a group of nations, each of which has its own language and culture. We must not forget that. Difficulties have been evident in most of our meetings so far because people are unable to speak their own languages. The language and culture of our people are fundamental to each of our countries. Portuguese is the third most spoken language in the world. It is spoken at meetings of Mercosur and it is the second language of southern Africa. Portuguese is very important. It is fine if documents are sent out in just two languages — we do not object to that — but we want everyone to be able to participate in meetings. We do not want our languages to disappear over time. We feel that we must maintain the language regime that is in place at present.

Mr. Sotirios Hatzigakis

The Greek delegation believes that the maintenance of equality between languages in the European Union will help us to preserve national identities and cultures and to safeguard the history of member states. We simultaneously maintain unity and diversity through our languages. It seems that the maintenance of unity and diversity is one of the goals of the European Union. It is very important that members of national parliaments should continue to be able to speak in their mother tongues. Given that we want delegations to have a harmonious composition or membership and to be representative, it is important for us to find solutions to all the technical or organisational problems that might arise if we are to operate efficiently.

The European Parliament, which functions well and has important and efficient meetings, relies on simultaneous interpretation using 20 languages. Why should we not take our lead from the example of the European Parliament? Obstacles such as technical or cost problems relating to translation and interpretation should not prevent us from continuing the modus operandi we have used so far. We should continue to work as we have so far.

The principle of equality between all languages is a fundamental one. I would like to make a proposal in respect of costs. Perhaps every country could shoulder the cost of interpretation for its language.

Mr. Michel Vandeborne

I will be brief because I agree with the argument of my colleague from Portugal. I think I need to go to Portugal on holiday because we understand each other very well. It is no coincidence that as somebody from Flanders, I am keen to use European languages during official meetings.

Dutch, which is the language of six million people in Flanders and 15 million Dutch people, was treated as a Cinderella language in Belgium for a long time. People in Flanders achieved cultural recognition and political rights, such as the right to use our language. Dutch is an official language in Belgium and in Europe. The Flemish community would not understand the suggestion to limit the use of languages in any way.

Every elected politician should be able to participate in EU meetings in his own language if we are to guarantee the democratic nature and character of European institutions. It guarantees respect for the diversity of cultures in Europe. We experienced that with the Irish people last night. The use of interpreters and translators is a small effort when one considers the added democratic value that is created. I plead for the use of all European languages at European fora, as is common in the institutions of the European Union.

Mr. Justinas Karosas

This is a very sensitive problem for Lithuania because we lost our native tongue at certain periods in our history, along with our statehood and independence. It is an important matter in psychological and political terms. The use of language by the highest institutions of the European Union serves to preserve my nation and its identity. We have made numerous efforts to preserve our language throughout our history. If we face this problem in the EU, I would not understand it if we had to speak about the loss of a national language. It is necessary to use official languages in official forums. We will support this possibility because we would not understand the situation if we did not do so.

Mrs. Sharon Dijksma

This discussion should not be a battle between languages. We should not consider whether a certain language is more important than another. It is strange that one should depend on speaking one's language at a European platform to maintain one's identity and culture. If a country needs to speak its language to maintain its culture, it is in a poor state. A country's culture can be maintained in a number of ways. Europe is very important because of its differences and ancient cultures, which should be maintained. We are not discussing that matter, however. The Dutch delegation has not made a secret of the fact that it would like to change the language regime. We made our feelings known in February. We think that the results of the questionnaire provide good grounds for having a discussion on the matter at a later stage. If representatives of all 25 member states have an equal right to speak their own languages, we will face some serious practical and functional problems.

The interpreters are doing an excellent job today although some of them are hidden in the catacombs of this building. We cannot see them. They are somewhere downstairs as everyone cannot be accommodated in this room. Each participant is entitled to speak in his or her own language. Like my Belgian colleagues, I love my native language, which is Dutch. It should be preserved. However, while the matter should be looked at in terms of principle, considerations of effectiveness and flexibility are also important.

Given the quality of person in this room, all international politicians should speak at least two languages. I propose to the meeting that the language regime should be changed in accordance with the system in use at the Council of Europe. All delegates present have already experienced this system and, at least at the Council, agreed on it. The system is fair and impartial, which is very important given the sensitivity of this matter. Of course, it will always be possible in future to bring one's own interpreter. Those in The Hague who are afraid of getting a Dutch street need not worry as that will not be the case. It will not be possible today to decide on this proposal. As the Chairman has already suggested, it may be wise to put it to the meeting of the Chairmen which will take place at the Hague. We are very grateful that this meeting is to happen. We could try to agree in September to use the Council of Europe system at the COSAC meeting in November at the Hague. This proposal represents a way of making progress in this discussion without changing the rules of procedure, which would remain as they are.

I take this opportunity to thank Colin Cameron of the WEU assembly who facilitated us by helping us to recruit interpreters. We did not receive the same assistance from other EU institutions. We would not have interpreters if it were not for the assistance we received. I wish the Dutch Presidency well with its translation services.

Mrs. Christina Axelsson

To speak so that other people listen is difficult enough but to speak to ensure that other people not only listen but understand what one says is an even taller order. Unlike the representative from the Netherlands, I argue that it is very important for an assembly such as ours to ensure that everyone has the right to speak and listen to their own language. We should not limit our discussions because of limited linguistic knowledge. It is important to ensure that everybody has an opportunity to express his or her point of view in his or her mother tongue. If we were to reduce the number of languages, we would limit the political representatives who could take part in COSAC meetings. Whoever comes here should have the opportunity to speak in his or her language and to have it translated to allow everyone else to listen and understand.

President McAleese said at our reception yesterday evening that together we are composing a symphony and do not want a wrong note to be struck due to linguistic problems. That would not be appropriate. We want a symphony. Sweden wishes to maintain the language regime we are currently using for all COSAC meetings.

Mr. Pavel Svoboda

It is the recognised EU rule that agendas are always translated into all official languages and the Czech delegation is of the opinion that COSAC should abide by it. Debates and agendas should be translated into each delegate's mother tongue. While the countries which wish to give up that right may do so, the Czech Republic is prepared to participate in the funding of simultaneous interpretation into all languages. Different approaches are possible. Each country could take responsibility for its own simultaneous interpretation facilities while the COSAC host country provided the technical facilities. Another option is for COSAC to provide the technical facilities and interpreters with the cost being borne by all delegations calling for interpretation facilities. We prefer the second solution which would prove less costly for each member state.

Mr. Jasa Zlobec Lukic

Slovenia would prefer the continued use of the current regime. We would like to be able to use the official languages of the European Union. However, if the majority of member states were to decide to change the system, we would be willing to live with two or three working languages, albeit somewhat against our will. Each delegation should be able to bring along its own interpreters. A long time ago, George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm that all animals are equal, though some are more equal than others. The same can be said about languages. A good example is our Italian friends. If Italians do not know any foreign languages it is sad, but there are 70 million of them. If Slovenians do not know a foreign language, it is a national disaster as there are only two million of us. Representatives of small nations at COSAC and other European institutions should master foreign languages to ensure that while the physical geography of their countries may remain the same, their influence will grow.

We experienced some difficulty with interpretation in a number of languages just now. I apologise to Mr. Lukic.

Mr. Michael Kretschmer

As delegates can see from contributions thus far, this is a difficult topic. This is not a matter of ranking one language or culture as more valuable than another. The European Union is changing and growing and we are trying to find ways of making our work as efficient as possible. To achieve that goal, we must consider management of the Union and its bodies, including COSAC. The institutions must move on, develop and adapt. The proposal which has been submitted is a good one. It is based on the Italian compromise and has been developed by the Presidency. It would allow us to ensure that we have a good linguistic regime. What we are suggesting is that we use the kind of language system that is used by the OSCE.

Allow me to come back to the Czech proposal made earlier. Of course every country should have the possibility to bring along its own interpreters to translate into their own language. That is a good compromise and it would help us all.

Dr. Hannes Bauer

We all appreciate the highly sensitive nature of this subject, as evidenced by the debate. It demonstrates the diversity of Europe and the need to respect the cultures and languages. That is one side of the argument. On the other side, there are other factors to be taken into account. We should draw a distinction between active mastery of languages and passive understanding of languages. Each delegation must be entitled to put questions and make contributions in their own national language. It is clear that we are representatives of national bodies. It then becomes quite apparent when we make free use of our mother tongue that this is not an international institution after all.

Then we come to the issue of costs and the whole business of the language regime. As regards documents, my German colleague mentioned that he has found an arrangement whereby it is possible to encompass language diversity but at the same time preserve efficiency and effectiveness in practical working arrangements. That ought to be our target.

However, I have sympathy for national Members of Parliament wishing to make contributions in their mother tongue. Much of what we wish to express would be lost if we were obliged to attempt to make these points in another language and people may well feel intimidated into silence because they are unable to convey their message in another language. The rule could be welcomed as an arrangement here but, on the other hand, we do not want to silence national languages in COSAC.

Mr. Denis Badré

Chairman, I compliment you on the excellent interpretation system you have arranged for this meeting. I realise we had a bit of a difficulty a moment ago but this system is very good indeed, if not perfect. I am full of admiration for the way you have organised this meeting. It is quite sophisticated. The person responsible told me that you have only got 11 booths but you are translating from 17 languages. I pay tribute to you for having organised the meeting in this way.

We are reaching the limits from a technical point of view before reaching the limits from the cost point of view. I would be grateful if it were possible to tell us how much it cost to arrange these interpretation arrangements for the meeting.

Of course COSAC needs to develop its role and do useful work on fundamental European issues. That is what mobilises our national parliaments. Moreover, we would like to continue meeting at least twice a year and we do not want the problem of costs to become insurmountable for some host countries. Therefore, we think it is reasonable to look at what the European Parliament has done. Its arrangements are excellent but I am not sure all of our national Parliaments have the same resources available to them.

We have an open mind as to what solution could be found to this problem and this is why this discussion is both important and useful. We are not the first to ask people such questions. I suggest, as have others, that we look at how other interparliamentary assemblies operate when they bring together Members of national parliaments, who, rightly, are attached to their national identity and language.

Our Dutch colleague referred to the Council of Europe and I have personal experience with the OSCE, which was mentioned by our Austrian colleague. These experiences confirm that there are situations which make it possible for these assemblies to operate effectively and efficiently in good conditions, but also respecting differences and remaining congenial for everyone while containing costs.

Mr. Kristian Thulesen Dahl

As the group of Chairmen continues this debate, it is important to underline that this is not just a debate about COSAC. It should be the speakers of parliament who continue the discussion.

Our starting point is that everybody should have access to their own language. It should be possible to participate in the political debate without having particular language knowledge. It is striking that all the delegations which wanted to change this arrangement believe that one should reduce the number of languages used apart from their own. That applies to the large countries. It is difficult to change the language regime.

I wish to comment on our Dutch friend's proposal for change at the September meeting. We would warn against that. We should keep the present regime until we have agreed a different solution.

Dr. István Szent-Iványi

The Hungarian delegation may be the only one without interpretation here. We have a good reason to accept your request, Chairman. You requested, for technical reasons, to renounce using our mother tongue and I presume you asked all other delegations. Our delegation is the only one who complied. It is not fair and not good.

In that sense, we would like to make a proposal. We basically agree and are in favour of the current regime, but we accept some modification. The modification should target reducing the cost. We can accept that the organiser provides only two or, at most, three interpretations, but the organiser should provide technical facilities for all delegations to use their own mother tongues and bring their own interpreters. In that sense, I want to support the Czech and German position. It is reasonable. Everyone can consider whether he or she needs an interpreter and if so, can bring one. The organiser would have an easier task to provide for two or, at most, three languages. We cannot accept four, five or six. That is unacceptable for us. What is important is the principle, to which I want to keep, that everyone has the right to use his or her own mother tongue. Who will give the final interpretation is another question, but the principle should be maintained that everyone can use his or her own language.

Hungary, Malta and the Netherlands decided they would not insist on having interpretation and Ireland did not insist on Irish being used as an official language.

Mr. Vytenis Povilas Andriukaitis

I want to make a few short comments. As a member of the Convention and a person who worked for the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe and other international organisations, I have to say that to speak one's own language is not a sensitive issue; it is a fundamental principle. Technical and financial issues are quite understandable and should be discussed further and we should agree on them. We should speak about costs relating to interpretation and reach agreement on that. We are ready to discuss it but the fundamental principle of equality and solidarity should remain in place. There should not be a divergence of opinion on this matter.

Mr. Giacomo Stucchi

It is a very interesting discussion. I am sure COSAC's language regime is a subject to which we will return. There are two factors we have to bring together; one is the technical and practical arrangements for looking at costs, cost containment and the cost of interpretation. We know that our citizens closely scrutinise the expenditure of our institutions. We need to have a properly co-ordinated interpretation service but there is also the political angle which calls for equal dignity to be accorded to all national languages. These factors need to be borne in mind. We are not calling into question the translation of legislation into all official languages of the EU; we are looking at the language arrangements in regard to COSAC. Currently at the meeting of Chairpersons, French, English and the language of the host is used. Others may call for interpretation if they so wish. We either do that or we follow the Council of Europe pattern. These are means of resolving the problems we have identified today and are currently discussing. Having said that, if one's own language is not one of those normally used in the working sessions, that is by no means a value judgment on that language as compared with others. All EU members and their national languages enjoy parity.

A question was asked about costs. They are high. They would probably be in the region of €350,000 and €500,000. We do not know all the costs because the Office of Public Works has borne many of the technical costs. It was necessary to carry out a great deal of technical work to facilitate so many languages.

The Presidency can only draw one conclusion. There is no consensus. We propose that the working group of chairmen should address this matter again and inform itself of the conclusions of the July meeting of the Conference of Speakers. Is that agreed? Agreed.