'English Is Losing Its Importance in Europe'

The remarks by Jean-Claude Juncker, the EC president, come amid tensions with the U.K. over Brexit.

Olivier Hoslet / Pool / Reuters

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, has said “English is losing its importance in Europe,” remarks that are certain to reignite tensions with the U.K. over its decision to leave the European Union.

Juncker, who made his remarks Friday in Florence, Italy, said he would talk in French also because “France has an election.” The French presidential runoff Sunday pits Emmanuel Macron, a pro-EU independent centrist, against Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate who has promised her own Brexit-style referendum in France if she wins the presidency. Most polls show Macron comfortably ahead, and senior EU officials and leaders have taken the unusual step of all but endorsing Macron ahead of the vote.

In his remarks Friday, Juncker called the U.K. decision to leave the bloc “a tragedy.”

“We will negotiate fairly with our British friends, but let's not forget that it is not the EU that is abandoning the U.K.,” he said, “it is the U.K. that’s abandoning the EU, and that makes a difference.”

Juncker’s view of the English language are an exaggeration. Although the U.K. might be leaving the bloc, English is an official language in both Ireland and Malta, which are both EU members. The language has also been dominant across the 28-member EU since 2004 when eastern and central European countries joined. Indeed, the language remains widely spoken across much of the EU—with more than a third of the population claiming fluency in at least 13 member states—not counting the U.K. and Ireland.

Still, Juncker’s remarks are significant given that they come a week after he met with British Prime Minister Theresa May in London and was reported as saying that he came away “10 times more skeptical” about Brexit negotiations than he previously was. May had reportedly told him she wanted Brexit a “success” for the U.K.

May’s desire for a successful Brexit might be optimistic, but it’s also understandable. She faces a general election next month: Her party is comfortably ahead in the polls, buoyed not only by the apparent inability of the opposition Labour Party to attract moderate voters, but also by May’s no-nonsense approach to talks with the EU on Brexit so her country can get the best possible deal out of a difficult situation.

Juncker’s position is also understandable. The more difficult the EU makes it for the U.K. to leave, the more other members of the bloc are dissuaded from leaving. Although majorities on most EU member states want to remain in the bloc, Juncker and other EU leaders are afraid the wave of populism that’s sweeping the West might badly damage the bloc.

“Europe is more than just money, just a market,” Juncker said Friday, an apparent rebuttal of the Euro-skeptic view that the EU is merely a trade bloc.