by Compiled from Wire Services
May 06, 2017 12:00 am
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker took a swipe at Britain on Friday, saying he preferred to give a speech in French because English was becoming less significant.
"Slowly but surely English is losing importance in Europe," Juncker told a conference in the Italian city of Florence, drawing laughter and applause from his audience of EU officials, local leaders and Italian students. Juncker speaks a number of European languages fluently but regularly speaks English at international gatherings. He said he also wanted to speak French to be better understood in France ahead of Sunday's final presidential election round.
The conference, on the state of the European Union, comes at a time of tensions between Brussels and Britain ahead of the opening of formal negotiations over Britain's withdrawal from the 28-nation bloc.
He described Brexit as a "tragedy" that had happened partly as a result of the European Union's past mistakes. "I don't want anyone to underestimate the real importance of this sovereign decision of the British people. It is not a small thing but we must and will negotiate in all ‘fairness' with our British friends.
"But I would like to recall here that there should be no doubt that it is not the EU abandoning the UK, it is the opposite. They are abandoning the EU and this is a difference of status that must and will be felt over the next few years."
In a nod to longstanding British complaints about Brussels bureaucracy and perceived meddling in national affairs, Juncker acknowledged that the EU "has some weaknesses which can partly explain the outcome of the referendum in the UK."
"In the past, the EU has done a little too much, even the Commission: too many rules, too much interference in the daily lives of our citizens."
Juncker's speech came at the end of a week which has seen Prime Minister Theresa May accuse Brussels of meddling in the British election campaign and another government minister describe the Commission as trying to "bully" London.
The spat was sparked by the leaking of details of a Downing Street dinner May hosted for Juncker which exposed frustration in Brussels about the British government's "delusions" over the divorce proceedings.
British ministers blasted the European Commission on Friday, accusing EU officials of trying to "bully" the UK ahead of two years of grueling negotiations. Rallying around PM May, Defense Secretary Michael Fallon criticized Brussels for what he described as "one-side leaking." He also told BBC radio that Brexit talks would "certainly be easier if commission officials kept their views to themselves."