Tuesday 12 February 2008

EU Treaty of Lisbon: Official languages

The expansion of the European Communities and later the European Union are reflected in the growing number of Treaty languages, although the Treaty of the first community, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), was drafted in an official version only in French, still the chosen language of European diplomacy during the first half of the 20th century.

The Treaties of Rome, on the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC or Euratom), were drawn up in the four languages of the six founding members: Dutch, French, German and Italian.

The successive Accession Treaties have been concluded in new languages, leading to corresponding adaptations of the Treaty languages.

The Lisbon Treaty reflects the linguistic diversity of the European Union, and it adapts the Treaties to take account of 23 equally authentic Treaty languages. In addition, the reform treaty encourages official translations by the member states of the Treaties into other official languages, i.e. regional and minority languages.


Speaking about languages: You can use natural, human language, or you can form part of an august body such as an intergovernmental conference and distance yourself from humanity. The IGC 2007 communicated its agreement like this in Article 53 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) (OJ 17.12.2007 C 306/40):

61) Article 53 shall be amended as follows:

(a) the first paragraph shall be numbered 1, the languages listed in the second paragraph of the current Article 53 of the Treaty on European Union shall be added to the list in this paragraph and the second paragraph shall be deleted;

(b) the following new paragraph 2 shall be added:

‘2. This Treaty may also be translated into any other languages as determined by Member States among those which, in accordance with their constitutional order, enjoy official status in all or part of their territory. A certified copy of such translations shall be provided by the Member States concerned to be deposited in the archives of the Council.’.


The language regime of the European Union is hardly a secret, or a novelty, so why not let a reader of the Treaty of Lisbon understand the contents at one go?

RESOLVED to speak a little closer to the citizen, I

HAVE DECIDED to present the readable and consolidated text of Article 53 TEU here:

Article 53

1. This Treaty, drawn up in a single original in the Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish and Swedish languages, the texts in each of these languages being equally authentic, shall be deposited in the archives of the Government of the Italian Republic, which will transmit a certified copy to each of the governments of the other signatory States.

2. This Treaty may also be translated into any other languages as determined by Member States among those which, in accordance with their constitutional order, enjoy official status in all or part of their territory. A certified copy of such translations shall be provided by the Member States concerned to be deposited in the archives of the Council.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF the undersigned Plenipotentiaries have signed this Treaty.


The corresponding provision in the Treaty establishing the European Community (TEC), to be renamed the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), is Article 314. The original Treaty languages are mentioned in the first paragraph, the languages added by the Accession Treaties in the second paragraph and the latest additions, Bulgarian and Romanian, referred to in the Appendix, when we look at the latest consolidated version of the current TEC, in OJ 29.12.2006 C 321 E/180.

The unified draft Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe naturally needed only one provision on the then 21 languages, Article IV-10 Languages, to be adjusted in accordance with the Act of Accession (OJ 18.7.2003 C 169/93).

In the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe Article IV-448 Authentic texts and translations included the same 21 languages, in a numbered paragraph 1, and added a paragraph 2 on the translation of the Treaty into other official languages of the member states (OJ 16.12.2004 C 310/191).

The other novelty of the Constitutional Treaty was Declaration number 29 on linguistic diversity.

Looking at Article 53 TEU and Article 314 TFEU, to be adapted by the Treaty of Lisbon, we can see that the novelties of the Constitutional Treaty have been adopted, adding Bulgarian and Romanian.


The Declaration, too, has been adopted, with the number 16 (OJ 17.12.2007 C 306/254):

16. Declaration on Article 53(2) of the Treaty on European Union

The Conference considers that the possibility of producing translations of the Treaties in the languages mentioned in Article 53(2) contributes to fulfilling the objective of respecting the Union's rich cultural and linguistic diversity as set forth in the fourth subparagraph of Article 2(3). In this context, the Conference confirms the attachment of the Union to the cultural diversity of Europe and the special attention it will continue to pay to these and other languages.

The Conference recommends that those Member States wishing to avail themselves of the possibility
recognised in Article 53(2) communicate to the Council, within six months from the date of the signature of the Treaty of Lisbon, the language or languages into which translations of the Treaties will be made.


To complete the presentation of authentic Treaty languages, we turn our attention to Article 7 of the intergovernmental conference (IGC 2007), which states that the Treaty of Lisbon itself has been drawn up in the 23 languages mentioned above (OJ 17.12.2007 C 306/134).


The Treaty languages have both symbolic and practical importance, but the everyday use of these languages is crucial for the citizens of the European Union. The existing Article 290 TEC offers us the barest outline:

Article 290 TEC

The rules governing the languages of the institutions of the Community shall, without prejudice to the provisions contained in the Statute of the Court of Justice, be determined by the Council, acting unanimously.

The IGC 2007 adds the words ‘by means of regulations’ and adapts the names of the institutions, leading to the following new wording in the Lisbon Treaty:

Article 290 TFEU

The rules governing the languages of the institutions of the Union shall, without prejudice to the provisions contained in the Statute of the Court of Justice of the European Union, be determined by the Council, acting unanimously by the means of regulations.


Here are some hints for further reading:

For the official language regime of the EU, go to Regulation No 1 determining the languages to be used by the European Economic Community (originally OJ L 17, 6.10.1958, p. 385, but with several amendments and therefore best read in the consolidated version):


Wikipedia offers an overview (in need of some updating) in the article Languages of the European Union:



The European Union is unique among international organisations in involving not only states but directly applicable legislation concerning private firms and individuals, as well as offering incipient democratic rules of governance and citizenship. In my view, the language regime of the European Union has to reflect the linguistic diversity of the EU and its citizens, including the novelties introduced by the Lisbon Treaty to accommodate the regional and minority languages.

Ralf Grahn


  1. To achieve the complete avoidance of doubt legislators should rectrict themselves to one language used as plainly as possible.

    Anything else transfers too much interpretive freedom to the non-elected judiciary at the expense of the normally (not in the EU's case of course)democratically elected legislators.

    Anything smacking of democracy is, as usual, avoided at all costs by the present EU, thus the more languages the better for the greatest confusion and the maximum transfer of power away from ordinary people.

    The EU Justice Forum launched on 5th February, makes this intent clear, with the following statement in the EU press release of that date:

    The Forum will comprise of practitioners, including judges at various levels, civil and criminal lawyers, prosecutors and other practitioners working in the justice systems of the Member States. Importantly, other relevant parties, such as academics and representatives of NGOs working in this field will also be involved. The individuals will be stakeholders from Member States providing their views and experience but not representing Member States.

    There will thus be no democratically elected representatives whatsoever!

  2. Martin, I think the marginal imperfections of the translations of treaties and legislation can be handled mainly by comparing different versions and by means of legal interpretation.

    These problems are small compared to the fundamental importance for individuals and firms to find the EU acts int their own language, to follow the legislation process in their own language, to be able to address the institutions in their language and receive answers in their own language.

    In addition the EU (at least the Commission and the European Parliament) communicates about its activities in the working languages of the EU.

    I don't know how one language, would make the EU more open to its citizens. Which language would it be? German with the most native speakers? A neutral one like Esperanto?

    Would you be as suspicious if judicial authorities in, say, Great Britain or the Law Society convened a meeting of lawyers to discuss topical issues?

    Are you contemplating the compulsory introduction of political officers?


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