Words matter, and the European Union shows just how much. In the years since 1979, when direct elections to the European Parliament were first held, European leaders started to issue increasingly wordy and imprecise communiques, which may have lessened the peoples’ trust in the grand vision – and gritty reality – of ever closer union.
The problem is apparent from the report on decades of European Council communiques, issued by Jim Cloos, who retired in January as the head of general and institutional policy in the Council.
Mr Cloos embarked on his study in 2008, issuing an updated report in 2014 and then, just before his retirement, speaking to Politico about the lamentable rise in verbosity among European leaders.
“In the 80s, the language is generally sober, clear, understandable,” according to Mr Cloos’ report. “The European Council notes, exposes, requests, and decides. Each paragraph contains a message, announces a decision or direction, or calls for action. The launch of the European Monetary System in March 1979 is spelled out in exactly 63 words.”
But then, came verbal diarrhoea.
“The conclusions began to be used to glorify the actions of the [Council] Presidency,” Mr Cloos writes. “The ‘welcomes, notes with satisfaction, takes note of’ are increasing (40 times in the Nice conclusions in 2000, 46 times in Brussels in December 2003!)” By 2006, he says, European leaders had started to add random bits of purple prose, such as “the need to join forces to combat rare diseases such as epidermolysis bullosa.”
The wordiness had consequences, mostly unreadability – and thereby inaccessibility. As also, possibly a rising sense that Europe didn’t really say what it meant, mean what it said and was generally unrepresentative of the views and idiom of the man or woman on the street.
Mr Cloos says the communiques are important for reasons that go beyond their issuance. “I have always been obsessed with shortening the conclusions and making them a bit more readable, and on the whole they have become better,” he told Politico. “Of course there are always moments when we consciously resort to bad English to make everybody happy, but it should not be overdone.”