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The paper mountain

Posted by Helen Saturday, May 29, 2004

Let us face it, the two flourishing industries in the EU are paper and food and drink catering for the institutions. We don’t know what is happening to the catering but recently the Commission ordered an enquiry into the paper industry. We await with some interest its outcome.

Two days after the enquiry was ordered, the Commission has also told its officials to cut down on lengthy documents. This does not apply to the ever growing Constitution that will, theoretically, be decided by the heads of state and government on June 17-18. Nor does it apply to the ever more complicated agenda for the June Summit that the Foreign Ministers will have to agree on three days before it on June 14-15.

Presumably, there will be an attempt made to translate all the necessary documents, including the new(ish) version of the Constitution into the necessary twenty languages. But you cannot expect translators to cope with everything. They cannot keep up with the avalanche of legislation, regulation, decision, instruction etc that pours out of Brussels on a daily basis.

Not only does everything have to be translated into twenty languages the material has expanded as well. Translators have seen their work increase by an annual 5.3 per cent in the last five years. There is already a backlog of 60,000 pages and the Commission fears that it may turn into 300,000.

According to the Commission, its translators dealt with 1.48 million pages in 2003 in preparation for enlargement. At present there are 2,400 translators but the plan is to have 3,000 – 4,000 by 2010. Presumably, that is not so much to cope with the number of new languages but to cope with the ever increasing legislation that will flow out of the Constitution, should it be adopted by the European Council and by the individual member states.

The EU is tackling the paper mountain crisis with a pincer movement. On the one hand, officials have been told not to produce documents that are longer than 15 pages (except for directives, regulations and constitutions, presumably) and, in a Stalinist stakhanovite fashion, the translators have been told to increase their productivity by 40 per cent. That way, we are told, the backlog will be reduced (though not cleared) by the end of 2006. The only problem with that calculation is that the backlog is likely to increase. Even at 15 pages per document a great deal may be produced by those ingenious Brussels shock workers.