FLORENCE • European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker took a swipe at Britain, saying he preferred to give a speech in French because English was becoming less significant.
"Slowly but surely English is losing importance in Europe," Mr Juncker told a conference yesterday in the Italian city of Florence, drawing laughter and applause from his audience of EU officials, local leaders and Italian students.
Mr Juncker speaks a number of European languages fluently but regularly uses English at international gatherings. He said he also wanted to speak French to be better understood in France ahead of tomorrow'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.
Mr Juncker said Britain's decision to leave was "a tragedy". "We will negotiate fairly with our British friends, but let's not forget that the EU is not abandoning the United Kingdom. It is the other way around. And that will make a difference in the years ahead," he said.
British Prime Minister Theresa May accused European politicians and officials on Wednesday of seeking to sway the outcome of the June 8 general election in Britain by issuing threats over Brexit.
A German newspaper last weekend gave a damning account of a dinner last week between Mrs May and Mr Juncker, reporting that he had told Mrs May that Brexit could not be a success.
The European Commission's chief Brexit negotiator, Frenchman Michel Barnier, was due to give a speech later in Florence focusing on the question of citizens' rights. Organisers say he is expected to speak in English.