Juncker: We are not ‘under the rule’ of English

'Three Seas Initiative Summit' at Cotroceni presidential palace in Bucharest, Romania 17 September 2018. [EPA-EFE/Romanian Presidency]

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker made a point of delivering his plenary speech at the Three Seas Initiative forum in Bucharest in French, bucking the trend of other world leaders attending the event on Tuesday (September 18).

“English is not the only official language of the European Union,” he said.

“French is a big, great, influential language and culture in the European Union and we should not forget that we are not under the rule of the only lingua franca, which is English.”

The other presidents speaking at the opening of the forum did not follow Juncker’s example and vied instead to give their speeches in English.

Parlez-vous English, French politicians?

The French are known for their laissez-faire attitude toward speaking English and political leaders are no exception to this cliché. The French presidential hopefuls’ familiarity with the language of Shakespeare also varies from the capable to the shambolic.

The Three Seas Initiative is a gathering of central and eastern European leaders from Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, aiming to create a regional dialogue on a range of relevant issues.

This year’s gathering is set to examine interconnectivity in the fields of energy, transport, and digitalisation.

Juncker’s choice of language was hardly a coincidence and was in contrast to the fact that many regard the Three Seas Initiative as a meeting that primarily attempts to play to the US gallery.

Indeed, in cutting the red ribbon on the Three Seas Initiative on Tuesday, Romanian president Klaus Iohannis highlighted the need for the European Union to forge closer links with US counterparts.

“We strongly believe that, in such a challenging global context, we need the European Union and the United States of America to stay as close together as possible, politically, economically and in the security field,” he said.

“Despite the differences on some issues, the undeniable truth is that the transatlantic link is based, above all on common values, which are the strongest possible foundations for our relationship. Our common interests rise above our differences.”

Juncker’s explicit preference for speaking French comes at a time when certain actors treading the boards of European politics are attempting to marginalise English in continental dialogue.

Top candidate Weber's EU campaign gets off on wrong foot

Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament, announced on Wednesday (5 September) his candidature for the European Commission presidency on behalf of the centre-right party. But the kick-off event left reporters displeased, who were not allowed to ask questions in English.

Most recently, as EURACTIV reported, one of the candidates to take Juncker’s job as the next Commission president following next year’s European elections, EPP’s Manfred Weber, announced his candidacy for the post to a group of press reporters and refused to take questions in English.

The French language is also ready to reassert itself in the global political arena.

Speaking at the Academie Française in Paris on the International Francophonie Day earlier this year, President Macron lauded French as a “language of Freedom” and unveiled a strategy to promote its teaching around the globe, including a multi-million funding commitment in a bid to oust English in the run-up to Brexit.

“English has probably never been as present in Brussels at the time when we are talking about Brexit,” Macron said.

“This domination is not inevitable. It’s up to us to set some rules, to be present, and make French the language with which one has access to a number of opportunities.”

Macron’s pledge in March came after a visit to Burkina Faso in November 2017. The Guardian reported that Macron had vowed to make French “the number one language in Africa and maybe even the world.”

However, he appeared to foresee the swathes of criticism that would be sparked by a French president lecturing a post-colonial nation about cultural heritage, adding that the French language should not be regarded as a “relic of a colonial power.”

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