Jean-Claude Juncker switched to French during a speech as he said, "English is losing importance in Europe." The chief EU Brexit negotiator, however, spoke in English, as he prioritized the rights of EU citizens.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker addressed a "state of the union" meeting of EU officials, local leaders and students in Italy on Friday, taking time to choose his language: "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."
Juncker speaks French, German, English and his native Luxembourgish. In his light-hearted speech in Florence, he said his choice of French was timed for remarks ahead of Sunday's French presidential run-off vote and "I would like them to understand what I'm saying."
"Despite the successes and despite the growth, our British friends have decided to leave the EU, which is a tragedy," Juncker said, adding that while the EU has its weaknesses, the British decision to leave would have profound effects. "They are abandoning the European Union, and this is a difference that will be felt over the next few years."
Speaking in Hamburg on Friday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel repeated her commitment to conducting Brexit talks "fairly and constructively." She said Germany would push to "create clarity and planning security as quickly as possible" for EU residents in Britain, who include about 100,000 Germans.
Calling for unity, Merkel said the EU must "limit the damage that Britain's withdrawal could bring for the European Union as a whole if the withdrawal and transition did not succeed."
Brexit negotiator makes his point - in English
Participating at the same conference in Italy as Juncker, Frenchman Michel Barnier, the EU's head Brexit negotiator, said he preferred to speak in English as it was "equally important for me to be understood by the British people."
Barnier mirrored Merkel's comments as he said a priority in the Brexit talks would be to guarantee rights for the 3.2 million EU citizens living in Britain and the 1.2 million Britons living in EU member states. He gave a series of examples of the possible effects of Brexit on EU workers currently in Britain.
The EU Brexit negotiator said, "The European Council has decided that preserving the rights of EU citizens and families will be the priority, will be my priority."
Barnier made it clear the Council "will not discuss our future relationship with the UK until 27 member states are reassured that all citizens will be treated properly and humanely."
"Nevertheless we can be certain that Brexit will inevitably entail a number of negative consequences," Barnier said. "This is not a question of 'punishment.' These negative consequences simply follow logically from the choice made by the British people."
Barnier dismissed suggestions from London that the Brexit talks should be kept secret. "I will do everything in my power to ensure that information on the negotiations is made public so that an informed debate can take place," he said on Friday.
Both Barnier and Juncker attended a meeting in Downing Street with British Prime Minister Theresa May last week after which information was given to the "Frankfurt Allgemeine Sonntag" (FAS) newspaper with Juncker quoted as saying "I leave Downing Street 10 times more skeptical than before."
There are 24 officials and working languages in the EU
The inability of UK politicians and officials to speak publicly in anything other than their own language has long been an issue in the European Union - where 24 official languages have been used for the 28-member bloc.
The first official language policy of what was then the European Community in 1958 identified Dutch, French, German and Italian as the official working languages. The UK only joined in 1973, but over the years English became a main working language of EU institutions and officials in Brussels and Strasbourg and at the European Central Banks in Frankfurt. English gradually replaced French from 2004 after a number of former eastern bloc states joined the EU.
It is unclear whether English will be retained as a working language within the EU after 2019 when the UK leaves. About half of adults in Europe are believed to speak the language.
With a permanent staff of 1,750 linguists and 600 support staff, the Commission has one of the largest translation services in the world, bolstered by a further 600 full-time and 3,000 freelance interpreters.
jm/sms (Reuters, AFP)
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