20th Mar 2018

Polish minister learning French amid speculation on EU top jobs

  • Sikorski: 'When making an order in a restaurant in France, for once I got what I wanted' (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski has taken an intensive French language course amid talk he might be the next EU foreign relations chief.

His office told EUobserver he did it during the summer holidays at the Millefeuille-Provence academy near Avignon, in France.

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Sikorski himself, who already speaks English, Russian and some Dari (a Persian dialect, from his time as a photo reporter in Afghanistan in the 1980s), joked: "After the course, when making an order in a restaurant in France, for once I got what I wanted."

When asked if he wants the EU job when it comes up next year, he did not rule it out, saying only that he is "flattered" by the question.

The Millefeuille-Provence school made headlines in 2010 after a French minister invited the current EU foreign relations chief, British politician Catherine Ashton, to take one of its courses.

She did not do it and rarely speaks French in public.

Her predecessor, Spanish politician Javier Solana, also spoke mainly in English, despite having some French.

The Ashton and Solana precedents do not mean Sikorski's efforts are in vain in terms of potential French support, however.

"It is, of course, key that every top job in the EU should be manned by someone having a good command of French, and all the more so in the foreign affairs field considering the importance of the French language in international relations," a French diplomat told this website.

"French is one of the official EU languages. It is important that this is maintained and that French continues to be used," Dominique Rogues, the director of the Millefeuille-Provence academy, added.

She said her "immersion" courses last one or two weeks and cost between €3,500 and €7,000.

She noted that many "high-level officials" use the school. They stay at its 18th century manor house and do six one-hour-long French lessons each day. They also use French at mealtimes and during social activities in the evening.

On past form, candidates who emerge at an early stage in the EU appointments process rarely get jobs in the end.

Meanwhile, jobs are not awarded on merit alone: it depends how the candidates' political factions do in EU elections and whether EU capitals want a big personality in the EU institutions to compete with national ministers.

But for her part, Judy Dempsey, an analyst at the Carnegie Europe think tank in Brussels, is a Sikorski fan.

She believes Germany would back him, but is less sure on France and the UK.

"I think he would made a very good HRVP [high representative for foreign affairs]. He has an intrinsic understanding of what Europe is, what it needs and what it must become … And, very important, he is willing to change his mind," she said, referring to his new Russia-friendly profile, after years of Russia-hostile remarks.

Charles Grant, the director of the London-based think tank, the Centre for European Reform, noted that Sikorski, as well as Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt, are "extremely well qualified" for the EU post.

But he warned they speak too "frankly" for some EU countries' tastes.

"Now that the EEAS [European External Action Service] is up and running and everybody understands the role of the HRVP, I hope we will see someone with a big profile who can lead EU foreign policy rather than acting as a spokesman for EU foreign ministries," Grant said.

On Sikorski's joke about French restaurants, Grant added: "He speaks English better than most English people, having attended Oxford University, so he should have no problem applying those skills to learning French."

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