Jean-Claude Juncker has become embroiled in a row with the mayors of two Belgian seaside resorts after claiming that he speaks German on the Flemish coast because of a growing intolerance of French speakers.
The European commission president is facing demands to apologise publicly over the comments, in which he had lamented a growing division in Belgian society.
“I have noticed, over the 30 years I have been on the Belgian coast, that tolerance has been declining,” Juncker said in an interview marking the end of his time as president. “Thirty years ago, I was at the baker’s, the butcher’s, I could place my orders in French; today we no longer accept it. So I speak German – they accept Germans.”
“Belgium is no longer a model for successful cohabitation and that makes me sad,” Juncker added.
In response, the mayor of Ostend, Bart Tommelein, described Juncker’s analysis as “strange”. “Everyone is welcome here, no matter what language they are trying to speak,” he tweeted.
The mayor of Middelkerke, west of Ostend, called Juncker’s claims “insulting”.
“I think Juncker was drunk when he came here and ordered his steak. He was probably unintelligible to the shopkeeper,” Jean-Marie Dedecker said. “I think that’s a big insult. He’ll apologise.”
Belgium is a federal state with distinct regions including Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south, but there is growing support for parties advocating Flemish independence.
Juncker said he did not believe the division in Belgium was an indication of a wider problem in Europe.
He told the Dutch-language Belgian newspaper Tijd: “This is a purely Belgian phenomenon. Belgium is a state, but the communities see themselves as nations, particularly Flanders. Wallonia is not a national concept in itself, but Flanders thinks of itself and behaves like a nation. It’s incredible to see these two entities, who are actually very different, living together without actually living together.
“But I am proud of Belgium for Belgium. It is a beautiful country, with talented, resourceful people.”