There are twenty-four official languages in the European Union and its institutions (mainly the Parliament) may work in any of them at any time. That is why the EU’s translators and interpreters are an important cog in the wheel. Nevertheless, most of them are not EU civil servants. For instance, the Parliament’s own records show that it has a staff of about 270 interpreters on permanent contracts, but uses up to 1,500 freelance contractors throughout the year. The Covid pandemic has slowed down the work pace of the European institutions and has also had an effect on these professionals. It is freelance interpreters who have been worst hit, as their status meant they were more vulnerable to begin with: their contracts have been cancelled and they cannot apply for any financial relief.
This newspaper has learnt that last March the European institutions began to inform their freelance interpreters that their contracts were being cancelled as of the end of May. Parliamentary sources have confirmed that much. Any jobs that had been commissioned until then were paid up, even if they weren’t done. But from then onwards the EU cancelled the vast majority of contracts because the pandemic had disrupted its work routine. For example, the European Parliament’s legislative activity is down to a bare minimum and MEPs no longer convene in Strasbourg.
Interpreters have complained that their situation is particularly problematic. As they work for EU institutions and under their legal, employment and tax regimes, they pay the same EU tax as civil servants, officials and MEPs but do not contribute to their own country’s tax kitty for the work done in Europe, as they are exempt. This makes it difficult for them to apply for many benefits back at home, especially if the bulk of their work was done for EU institutions. Silvia Puit Vögelin, a spokesperson for the collective’s negotiating team, explains that in Belgium and Spain they cannot benefit from the relief packages that the governments have set up [for freelance professionals] because they cannot prove that their income has dropped significantly: the tax office back home has no record of their revenue.
The response from the institutions
This newspaper has obtained a letter dated 22 April from Valdis Dombrovskis, the vice president of the European Commission, addressed to Johannes Hahn, the Budget Commissioner, where Dombrovskis admits that “freelance interpreters are stuck in a difficult situation” because they have been “left out without any benefits” and he asks Hahn to bear this in mind so that a solution can be worked into the next EU budget.
“We are not asking to be paid what we would have received if there had been no coronavirus; we want contracts to be carried through and a basic income similar to what member states are offering”, says Puit, a professional who has been working for EU institutions almost exclusively for the past 15 years and has no hope of receiving any income in June and July. Another interpreter who prefers not to be named estimates that cancellations and prospective contracts that will not materialise amount to €4,000 worth of lost income through August, although he does not work for the EU exclusively. After three meetings, on 26 May both the European Parliament and the Commission agreed to pay interpreters €1,327, roughly the equivalent of three working days (actual remuneration depends on how experienced an interpreter is), provided they work those days some time before the end of 2020. However, that was the extent of what was offered.
The collective finds the proposal underwhelming because they feel it neither meets the going rates nor amounts to the bare minimum needed to survive. Free-lance interpreters estimate that over 80 per cent of them work “mainly” for the European institutions and, therefore, are dependent on them. In contrast, parliament sources have indicated that only 3 per cent of the 1,500 interpreters work for the chamber more than eight days a month and 63 per cent work in the Parliament less than three days a month. The European Parliament justifies the difficulty of finding a legal answer to their situation because it cannot pay for services that haven’t been rendered. However, it claims to be willing to “look into options” later on in order to address the issue, such as hiring interpreters for training purposes or other services, if regular work is scarce. For their part interpreters explain that some civil servants have set up a solidarity fund to help their workmates financially and provide them with a basic income.