Articles > EU State of the Union address reading ease

by Alexis Ulrich  LinkedIn

The European Union State of the Union address is the annual speech addressed by the President of the European Commission to the European Parliament plenary session in September. This speech takes stock of the action of the EU executive while outlining future proposals from the European Commission for the coming year. In a sense, it is a copycat from the US State of the Union address given by the American president.
Like any political discourse, it must remain understandable. This text readability, which evolves with the style of each president, can be compared from one year to the other, the most recent being Ursula von der Leyen’s on September, 13 2023.
In this interactive infographics, I have used the Flesch Kincaid reading ease index: the higher this index, the easier the readability. The circles size depends on the number of words in that year speech.

Presidents in order of reading level

The president of the European Commission has a five-year mandate. Three presidents have been appointed since 2010, the year of the first State of the Union address: José Manuel Durão Barroso from November, 22 2004 to November, 3rd 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker, from November, 1st 2014 to November, 30 2019, and Ursula von der Leyen since December, 1st 2019. If the first two were members of the European People’s Party, a conservative and center-right European political party, Ursula von der Leyen is a member of the CDU, the Christian Democratic Union of Germany, a liberal-conservative political party of Germany. As Ursula von der Leyen took her function on December, 1st 2019, there was no State of the Union address that year, such as when Jean-Claude Juncker took his on November 2014.
The Portuguese José Manuel Durão Barroso had a slightly lower reading ease for his addresses than the Luxembourgish Juncker. They were also shorter than Juncker’s in average: about 5,300 words compared with about 6,820 words. The German Ursula von der Leyen does not have the longest discourse this year again with her only 6,800 words, as Juncker beat her up with his 10,037 words address of September 2015. Her reading ease is going lower and lower year after year, scoring a medium 61.15 on the Flesch Kincaid index for her four addresses, slightly above the latest three addresses by Juncker. Her readability is thus of the same level as the Reader’s Digest or Sports Illustrated, but closing on Time: she’s now understandable by late teenagers it seems.

José Manuel Durão Barroso
José Manuel Durão Barroso
Average reading ease: 54

“We will match monetary union with true economic union.”
Jean-Claude Juncker
Jean-Claude Juncker
Average reading ease: 57.5

“Our proposals are there for all to see. They need to be adopted and implemented.”
Ursula von der Leyen
Ursula von der Leyen
Average reading ease: 61.1
“But we cannot – and we should not – wait for Treaty change to move ahead with enlargement.”

Treaty of Lisbon

The annex IV(5) of the Treaty of Lisbon, which came into force on December, 1 2009, states that:
“Each year in the first part-session of September, a State of the Union debate will be held in which the President of the Commission shall deliver an address, taking stock of the current year and looking ahead to priorities for the following years. To that end, the President of the Commission will in parallel set out in writing to Parliament the main elements guiding the preparation of the Commission Work Programme for the following year.”

Readability measures

There are many different formulas to measure the readability of an English text. The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease index takes into account the number of words per sentence and the number of syllables per word. The longer the sentences and the longer the words, the lower the resulting index.

Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score and meaning
90 to 100easily understood by an average 11-year-old student
70 to 90fairly easy to easy
Consumer ads in magazines
60 to 70easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students
Reader’s Digest, Sports Illustrated
50 to 60fairly difficult
New York Daily News, Atlantic Monthly, Time
30 to 50difficult
Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Harvard Law Review
Less than 30best understood by university graduates

Plain English has a reading ease score of 60. A text scoring between 50 and 60 is considered difficult (the Time has a score of 52).

Source: European Union