Beyond reasonable doubt?: Proposal for #simplification of the #acceptance of #publicdocuments in the #EU and #publicprocurement

The European Commission has recently launched a Proposal for a Regulation on promoting the free movement of citizens and businesses by simplifying the acceptance of certain public documents in the EU [COM(2013) 228 final], which advances: 1) the abolition of the formalities of 'legalisation' and 'Apostille' for intra-EU public documents and 2) the creation of standard multilingual forms for certain (limited) public documents. In the area of business activity, this proposal affects documents such as proof of  the legal status and representation of a company or other undertaking.

Remarkably, the Proposal  (art 4) exempts these documents from all forms of legalisation and similar formality (in particular, the use of the famous 'Apostille'). It is clear, though, that the simplification merely concerns the 'acceptance' of such intra-EU public documents (either in original form, or their certified copies, art 5). And, even in the limited context of acceptance of intra-EU public documents, the proposal includes a system whereby contracting authorities can request additional information (to the central authorities of other Member States within the Internal Market Information System, under Regulation 1024/2012) when they have reasonable doubts as to the authenticity of such public documents (art 7)--which simply shows that the system is not really based on mutual acceptance of documents and that security / anti-forgery devices are still not there.

Furthermore, beyond mandatory acceptance (with all its caveats), the proposal crucially does not cover the 'recognition of the content' of the intra-EU public documents (art 2)--which may significantly diminish the effectiveness of the Proposal, since it falls short from ensuring full operability of the use of (non-translated) public documents in countries other than that of origin (or one sharing the language). 

In that regard, the Proposal is well-intended but not necessarily definitive in the treatment of non-certified translations (art 6), since it establishes that "Authorities shall accept non-certified translations of public documents issued by the authorities of other Member States [BUT] where an authority has reasonable doubt as to the correctness or quality of the translation of a public document presented to it in an individual case, it may require a certified translation of that public document. In such a case, the authority shall accept certified translations established in other Member States". 

'Reasonable doubt' may (again) be a faulty standard here, since it can either leave this safeguard void of content, or give it excessive amplitude. Generally, contracting authorities will have a hard time justifying that they have grounds to (reasonably) suspect the improper translation from languages that are arcane to the public servants involved--and, hence, a strict interpretation of the standard of 'reasonable doubt' may result in an absolute requirement of acceptance (particularly if it is couple with an increasingly demanding duty of good administration as a matter of EU law).

Reversely, and probably adopting a pragmatic approach, review courts may be too lenient and determine that 'reasonable doubt' covers almost any case in which a (well-intended) public servant is distrustful of the non-certified translation provided by the EU citizen / business--in which case, the virtuality of the system envisaged in the Proposal of the Commission can be doubted. One way or the other, the standard of 'reasonable doubt' seems faulty and will lead to either improper and excessive recognition of documents badly translated, or the improper and excessive rejection of well-translated documents (or both). Surely, the situation seems far from ideal.

Trying to avoid these obstacles, the Proposal also establishes Union multilingual standard forms that are aimed to completely harmonise and provide 'automatic / implicit' translations of the affected documents (Annex V details the multilingual standard form concerning the legal status and representation of a company or other undertaking).

So far, the list of multilingual standard forms is very short and, to no one's surprise, it is hard to see how it can be satisfactorily extended to more complicated legal (public) documents without actually creating more problems than it would solve.

All these proposals are reminiscent of the 'European Procurement Passport' that the European Commission proposed creating in December 2011 and that the Council was quick to scrap from the current agenda for the revision of public procurement rules concerned with business formalities. One may wonder if the newest Proposal by the Commission will not meet the same faith, at least as business / commercial documents are concerned.

In general, it seems that the issue of cross-border use of public documents will remain intractable until we realise the massive elephant in the room: language disparity. It seems impossible to attain an effective unified (or, at least, a smooth functioning) public administration if English is not finally adopted as the single language across the EU for all official matters with a cross-border dimension. However, this debate seems beyond political will, beyond potential agreement, and beyond tractability.