How the EU Courts address problems of interpretation arising from such inconsistencies
To date, there are a total of twenty four languages which the European Union considers to be official languages, making the legal framework of the European Union inherently multilingual. This fact has unavoidably led to occasional inconsistencies in the drafting and therefore also in the interpretation of different language versions of supposedly identical provisions. The European Court of Justice has the crucial task of ensuring that any inconsistencies of this kind are interpreted in a manner which best reconciles the text and purpose of the law.
In a reference for a preliminary ruling requested by the Italian Corte suprema di Cassazione1Srl CILFIT and Lanificio di Gavardo SpA v Ministry of Health (C-283/81) – 6th October 1982. in the course of proceedings pending before such court, the European Court stated that “[…] it must be borne in mind that Community legislation is drafted in several languages and that the different language versions are all equally authentic. An interpretation of a provision of Community law thus involves a comparison of the different language versions.”
In the judgment in the names of Milk Marketing Board v Cricket St Thomas2Milk Marketing Board v Cricket St Thomas (C-372/88) – 27th March 1990., the Court found that “the English version […] cannot serve as the sole basis for the interpretation of that provision, or be made to override the other language versions in this regard. Such an approach would be incompatible with the requirement for the uniform application of Community law.” The understanding that interpretation needs to be consistent with that of the same provision in other languages is therefore something that has been established time and time again in European Courts. In this judgment the Court went on to quote Sociale Verzekeringsbank v Van der Vecht3Sociale Verzekeringsbank v Van der Vecht  ECR (Case 19/67) – 5th December 1967 where the court held that “The need for a uniform interpretation of Community regulations prevents the text of a provision from being considered in isolation, but in cases of doubt requires it to ‘be interpreted and applied in the light of the versions existing in the other three languages”. Therefore, even in 1967 when the number of official languages of the Community was only three, the principle that one needs to interpret such discrepancies in the light of versions of the equivalent provision in other languages, already existed.
The European Court has also stated that where inconsistencies exist in different language versions of the same law, a uniform interpretation needs to be established. In Regina v Boucbereau4Regina v Boucbereau  ECR (C-30/77) – 27th October 1977 the Court stated that “The different language versions of a Community text must be given a uniform interpretation and hence in the case of divergence between the versions the provision in question must be interpreted by reference to the purpose and general scheme of the rules of which it forms a part.”
In the relatively more recent judgment of SIA Kurcums Metal v Valsts ieņēmumu dienests5SIA Kurcums Metal v Valsts ieņēmumu dienests (C-558/11) – 15th November 2012 the Court confidently asserted that “It is settled case‑law that the wording used in one language version of a provision of European Union law cannot serve as the sole basis for the interpretation of that provision, or be made to override the other language versions in that regard. Such an approach would be incompatible with the requirement for uniform application of European Union law. Where there is a divergence between the various language versions, the provision in question must thus be interpreted by reference to the general scheme and the purpose of the rules of which it forms part.”
The two factors which increase the likelihood of encountering inconsistencies of this kind in various language versions of the same European legislative instrument are firstly, the ever-expanding body of laws of the European Union, and secondly, the accession of new Member States to the European Union which bring with them their own national language. That being said, it is evident that the issue surrounding the Courts’ interpretation in the case of such conflicts has been sufficiently handled as can be seen from the Courts’ jurisprudence.