German fury at language ban

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A LINGUISTIC battle is being fought out this weekend on the mosquito- infested Finnish tundra, pitting the most powerful country in Europe against one of the smallest. At issue is whether German, the first language of 90 million people, should be accorded the same status in the European Union as English and French.

The Finns, hosting the EU presidency for the next six months, have said "nein". This has so infuriated the custodians of Goethe's tongue that they are threatening to boycott all informal meetings held by the Finnish presidency.

Yesterday was Day One, and so the town of Oula, just this side of the Arctic Circle, was abuzz with all kinds of languages but Hochdeutsch as a meeting of EU industry ministers got under way. The Austrians struggled to raise their lilting voices above the din but, without the help of their northern cousins, they were barely heard. The EU had been snubbed by 80 million Germans.

The Finns had been warned. Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, no less, had written to Helsinki demanding "working language" status for German. According to accepted practice, only English and French, as well as the tongue spoken by the host nation, are automatically accorded such treatment at informal gatherings of EU ministers, although in practice German is rarely excluded. At formal meetings in Brussels, where decisions are taken, on the other hand, the rule is that all 11 official EU languages have to be accommodated.