EU's Juncker Says English Language Is Losing Clout in Europe

Updated on
  • Comments unlikely to further endear Juncker to May’s Britain
  • EU Commission president comments at conference in Florence

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European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker further risked his reputation in the U.K. with a comment questioning the relevance of the English language.

Polyglot Juncker, who was at the center of a clash with Prime Minister Theresa May this week, won applause for his remarks to a conference in Florence on Friday. 

“I’m hesitating between English and French. But I’ve made my choice,” he said. “I will express myself in French because slowly but surely English is losing importance in Europe.”

Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, gestures while delivering a speech at the The State Of The Union 2017 conference in Florence, Italy, on Friday, May 5, 2017. Juncker further risked his reputation in the U.K. with a comment questioning the relevance of the English language. Photographer: Giulio Napolitano/Bloomberg

Jean-Claude Juncker in Florence, May 5.

Photographer: Giulio Napolitano/Bloomberg

Juncker was speaking as the European Union prepares for negotiations on the terms for the U.K’s withdrawal from the bloc, to commence after the British general election on June 8. May this week accused “some in Brussels” of trying to interfere in the U.K. election, after remarks reportedly made at a dinner she hosted in Downing Street with EU officials, including Juncker, was leaked to a German newspaper.

“Despite the successes and despite the growth, our British friends have decided to leave the EU, which is a tragedy,” Juncker said in Italy. “They are abandoning the European Union and this is a difference that will be felt over the next few years.”

Official Language

English gradually replaced French as the main language of communication in European institutions after 2004 with the arrival of former eastern bloc states. It is an official language in Ireland and Malta, meaning that it will still be used after the U.K. withdraws in 2019, though Juncker, who is also fluent in French, German and Luxembourgish, signaled half-jokingly on Friday that French will be used more after Brexit.

Juncker, explaining his choice of French, referred to France’s presidential election on Sunday, adding that “I would like them to understand what I’m saying.”

Addressing the same conference later in the day, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, preferred to speak in English. While wanting to be understood in France “before this crucial election,” Barnier said it was “equally important for me to be understood by the British people.”

— With assistance by Jones Hayden, and Lorenzo Totaro

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