Jean-Claude Juncker has taken a fresh dig at Britain, risking an escalation of tension with Prime Minister Theresa May despite pleas from other EU officials to tone down the rhetoric and restore calm.
At the end of a week in which a bitter public row between Brussels and London raised concern that Brexit talks could fail, the European Commission president stirred the pot by saying “slowly but surely English is losing importance in Europe”.
Mr Juncker’s comments at a conference of the European University Institute in Florence were greeted with laughter and applause from his audience.
After being introduced in English, Mr Juncker said he wanted to speak French to be better understood in France ahead of the run-off vote in the presidential election on Sunday. “I would like them to understand what I am saying about Europe and nations,” Mr Juncker said.
The remarks of the former prime minister of Luxembourg, who speaks German as well as French and English, were taken as yet another sign of simmering tension between the commission and London even before the Brexit negotiation begins.
English superseded French to become the EU’s lingua franca after the bloc’s big-bang enlargement in 2004, and it is the official working language of the European Central Bank, whose operations in Frankfurt are the linchpin of the single currency.
Mr Juncker went on to argue that the UK was preparing to leave the EU at a time when the bloc’s economic growth had reached twice the US level. “And at that point — despite the success, despite the growth — our British friends decided to leave the EU, which is a tragedy,” he said.
The mood between London and Brussels became confrontational this week after an unflattering leak to the German press of a testy dinner meeting in Downing Street with Mr Juncker and top Brexit aides.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s lead Brexit negotiator, drew applause at the same event in Florence when he opened his own address by saying he would speak in English.
In spite of the row over the leak, Mr Barnier insisted on his right to ensure information on the talks was made public so “an informed debate can take place”.
Relations between the UK and Brussels were further frayed when the Financial Times revealed Britain could yet face a €100bn bill to settle outstanding EU liabilities before Brexit.
Mrs May then accused EU officials of trying to sabotage her election. European diplomats were quick to conclude that the prime minister was deliberately stoking tensions to boost her own election prospects in June.
The rancour prompted Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, to call for calm, warning that the Brexit talks could become “impossible” if there is no halt to the verbal hostilities.
Diplomats believe Mr Tusk’s call for “moderation” and “discretion” to allow Brexit talks to succeed were aimed directly at Mr Juncker, whose chief adviser Martin Selmayr is blamed in London for orchestrating the German leak.