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Double 30th birthday celebrations

July brings double celebrations, with 30 years passing since both the birth of European elections and the start of Plain English Campaign’s fight against jargon and gobbledygook.


During those 30 years, the European Union (EU) has been constantly criticised. Members of the public, as well as many representatives of European organisations, have struggled with the poor communications from the EU. A recent report from MEP Genowefa Grabowska claims to address the shortcomings in communication between the EU institutions and citizens.

There is no hard evidence to lay the guilt for the increase in poor public communications at the feet of jargon-mongers in Brussels. But media coverage and public opinion still highlight the frequently bizarre language the EU has created as a major obstruction to understanding European issues.

Comment and examples below refer to both the recent Lisbon Treaty of 2007 and its earlier counterpart, the Maastricht Treaty of 1992.

Giuliano Amato, the former Italian Prime Minister, claimed at the time of the Irish Referendum that the new European Union treaty was deliberately 'unreadable'. The lack of clarity from the drafters is such that “any Prime Minister – imagine the UK Prime Minister – can go to the Commons and say look, you see, it's absolutely unreadable, it's the typical Brussels treaty, nothing new, no need for a referendum”.

In September 2007, Plain English Campaign called for an impartial edit of the 287-page document to rid it of legalese, so that voters could make an independent judgment. To date, the European government in Brussels has not given the Campaign a direct response.

The need for clearer official documents to explain European issues was obvious back in 1992, when article 41 of the Maastricht Treaty won the Campaign's 'Golden Bull' prize. It read as follows.

‘Simplified amendment procedure

41.1. In accordance with Article 106(5) of this Treaty, Articles 5.1, 5.2, 5.3, 17, 18, 19.2, 22, 23, 24, 26, 32.2, 32.3, 32.4, 32.6, 33.1(a) and 36 of this Statute may be amended by the Council, acting either by a qualified majority on a recommendation from the ECB and after consulting the Commission, or unanimously on a proposal from the Commission and after consulting the ECB.’

Over the years, various organisations from EU countries have attempted to help voters with simplified wording. Speaking at the Foreign Press Association in 1997, where the Conservatives published the new EU Treaty in plain English, William Hague, then Shadow Foreign Secretary, said: “It has also now been revealed by key EU figures that this new Treaty was deliberately made as hard to understand as possible…”

At a presentation to the European Commission in 2004, Chrissie Maher OBE, founder of Plain English Campaign, personally demonstrated the problem with the relatively simple 'Eurocratese' example, 'It has been decided that ...' Chrissie believed that this bureaucratic language showed impersonality and arrogance.

“It makes me want to tear up the paper it’s written on!” Chrissie said. “I'm not the only one either. And there's more. 'A person whose application is refused is entitled to seek further clarification from...' I think that means 'You can ask why you were refused'. I will spare your blushes and not tell you which EC department it came from.”

In 1990, the Campaign had a special ‘Brussels Sprouts’ category for Euro-jargon at its annual ‘Golden Bull’ awards. It may be time to pick a new harvest for the awards in 2009. The Campaign has an invitation from Derbyshire MEP Bill Newton-Dunn to visit Brussels and experience the language first-hand before making further judgment. The Campaign is also planning to work with branches of the European Movement, whose remit is to assist the public with a better understanding of the EU.

Chrissie Maher says: “Much of the EU jargon that is served to our UK government ends up on the public’s plate and we just can’t stomach it without a good helping of plain English. Worse still, our businesses and public services like councils, schools and hospitals have adopted this jargon by default. People can’t exercise their democratic rights for consultations and referendums containing words that mean nothing to them, when their vote could affect everything.”

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