Furious Italians tell Blair to mind his language

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The Independent Online
BICKERING over languages is threatening chaos at a summit of 26 European leaders to be hosted by Tony Blair in London next week.

Italian national pride, barely recovered from the shock of seeing Italy represented on the British EU presidency's logo by a pizza, was wounded to the core this week when it emerged that Britain was planning to provide interpretation at the event into English, French, German and Spanish, but not Italian.

"Tony Blair banishes the language of Dante from the EU" ran headlines in Italian newspapers. Mr Blair, they reminded readers, was not averse to spending his holidays in Tuscany, yet considered the language of Shakespeare superior when it came to EU business. It would be the first summit in EU history which did not accommodate all 11 official languages.

The problem, say British officials, is that there is not enough space at Lancaster House, the summit venue, for 21 interpretation booths. And that is what would be needed to accommodate the 21 languages spoken when the EU expands to admit 10 East European countries and Cyprus. If the Turkish part of Cyprus is included, the total will be 22.

"We could not cover all the language combinations unless we had booths all around the room with dozens of people stacked into each one" said a Foreign Office spokesperson.

Diplomatic efforts to find a solution were continuing last night. An apparent attempt to appease the Italians in the latest British plan would cut Spanish out of the equation. But Mr Blair now risks attack from Madrid for snubbing the language of Cervantes.

A lunch at Buckingham Palace to be hosted by the Queen will have no direct interpretation. "They will have to make sure they sit next to somebody they can converse with or else bring along a whispering interpreter of their own" said an official. The Queen will not be expected to speak Estonian or Lithuanian, the source added.