After discussions in Bonn last Thursday, Finland, which has just assumed the presidency of the EU, refused to offer full German translation facilities at this weekend's informal meeting of culture ministers. As a result Michael Naumann, Germany's Culture Minister, has withdrawn from the event, which was timed to coincide with the world-renowned Savonlinna opera festival.
Weeks after President Martti Artisaari helped to broker peace in the Balkans, Finland finds itself at the heart of a simmering linguistic war. Its plans to offer only three languages - English, French and Finnish - at four of its informal ministerial meetings have already produced one boycott by German and Austrian industry ministers. They have also stirred up one of the oldest and bitterest disputes among EU states and raised questions about how the institutions will cope with the language demands of enlargement to the East.
The row pits a newly assertive Germany against a smaller, but stubborn opponent in Finland. German is the language of the most powerful EU member state and of Austria, and one of Belgium's three official tongues. "German", said one official last week, "is the biggest language group in Europe with around 92 million speakers. This situation is impossible. We have to solve it because this is a major problem in the reforms to come".
From Helsinki comes an equally uncompromising reply: "We have to respect the precedents. If someone wants to extend translation to German, then the Spanish will weigh in for their language, followed by the Italians and then the Dutch. If the Dutch get their way, then ask the Swedes what they think of that. And if you make Swedish translation generally available, even we Finns will start asking questions."
The root of the dispute lies in the lack of precise rules. The presidency of the EU is held for six months by each EU country in rotation and confers the right to chair formal meetings in Brussels and Luxembourg and to host informal talks (as well as summits) in the member state. Whereas formal meetings offer translation of all 11 EU tongues, the regime for the informal meetings (which do not take official decisions) is based on precedent.
Originally the idea was that, for example, foreign ministers could be expected to work in English or French, whereas agriculture ministers might not be top linguists and would need more translators. But this strictly practical approach is being turned into a row over principles and the relative importance of specific languages.
On the basis of past informal meetings, languages can sometimes be restricted to three: the language of the presidency, plus English and French. The problem is that, during the past two years, precedent has appeared to enshrine the place of German, which was offered by the last four presidencies. Germany and Austria automatically offered their tongue, and the previous British presidency was able to offer English, French and German. Before that, Luxembourg, which has many German-speakers, also offered all three languages.
In organising its first ever presidency, Finland has broken a cardinal rule by failing to settle this highly sensitive issue through quiet diplomacy. But its problems are not unique.
When the British presidency called a special meeting to discuss enlargement, and including a host of East European leaders, it offered to translate all the languages spoken into English, French and German. That provoked objections that the Spanish premier, Jose Maria Aznar, would be left incommunicado. An offer of a "whispering interpreter" to sit beside Mr Aznar was rejected on the grounds that it would make him stand out, and Britain ended up having to offer full translation of 22 languages.
Such disputes show that the EU needs to address its language question before expansion boosts the number of tongues to as many as 25.
One diplomat said last week: "I am rather pleased this issue has been raised, because it is the issue no one wants to address, but which needs to be tackled before enlargement. People have shied away from the language problem because it is a question of identity."
Germany's assertive Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, is unashamedly pushing its claims. Uwe-Karsten Heye, a senior German spokesman, argued recently: "It is par for the course that alongside English, French and the language of the country holding the EU presidency, the language of the most populous country is also a working language." This has stirred fears that Germany is trying to get it established as one of three ever-present working languages of the EU, before enlargement takes place.
Other countries have told Helsinki that if it gives in to the Germans, further language demands will come flooding in.
None of which helps the hapless Finns, whose carefully planned weekend meeting will be overshadowed by the language row. Even the choice of opera has done little to soothe German sensitivities. "It's Faust by Gounod", said one Finnish official, "and the libretto is in French".