Legacy. That’s the word that is on your mind when you arrange an interview for a politician who is about to finish a five-year term as Europe’s top politician. But coming out of Jean-Claude Juncker’s 13th floor office at the European Commission’s headquarters known as the Berlaymont, the feeling was that the man still has much to offer the European Union in its most turbulent times.
As I entered his office, the President sat at his desk, focused, flipping through pages of news, before moving to a briefing note. I approached, his first meeting of the day. He welcomed me and stood up behind his desk to greet me, but the long desk made it difficult. I reached for a handshake, but the President pulled me in. It was a stretch, but the kiss on the head he has gone viral for so many times, felt more than ceremonial. It was a rite of passage. With the greeting and blessing out of the way, I sat at the table where we would spend the better part of the next hour discussing with me, waiting for him to come over.
The last time I interviewed President Juncker was ten years ago, but I was about to find out that other than putting a few miles on the engine, and being conferred 200 leadership awards, the qualities that make him a political Leader with a capital ‘L’, had not changed. The ethos, candidness, and persistence for doing what is right, that set him apart, have only become more pronounced.
From growing up in Luxembourg to President of the European Commission
Juncker was born in the years when what is today the European Union, was in an embryonic stage. For Luxembourg, the union brought with it security.
“Luxembourg used to be a very open country even before the foundation of the European Union. And so we had less difficulties – the Luxembourgers I mean – than others, because we were used to this,” Juncker said, talking about the changes his own country went through. Germany had invaded Luxembourg twice in the 20th century, and Juncker explained what the establishment of the Union meant. “We no longer felt threatened by Germany, because Germany was part of the founding members of [what is today] the EU.”
So how does the son of a steel worker grow up to become the longest serving head of state of any EU country, and then onto the President of the European Commission? Juncker attributes his passion for politics to the home he grew up in, in Luxembourg. His father, a steel worker and a trade unionist, would host meetings in his kitchen.
“I was listening carefully when they were discussing the practical problems they had … I became used to the life and working conditions of workers. This has impressed me until now,” Juncker told me.
Juncker explained that what drew him to this life of service was that ultimately, the goal of politics is to help people.
As he reflected on his political career, he divulged that it was not being Prime Minister of Luxembourg, or President of the European Commission, that he enjoyed most. “The best period of my life, was the 17 years when I was Labour Minister, because there you have to deal with daily problems of those who are working.”
From his first steps as a young deputy minister in 1982, Juncker climbed the political ladder step by step. From Minister of Employment, and Minister of Finance, to Minister for the Treasury, to Prime Minister. During this time, Juncker served as the first permanent President of the Eurogroup between 2005 and 2013. Just one year later in 2014, Juncker transitioned from being a politician that was very much part of the backbone that helped the European Union develop, to being the President of the European Commission – the beating heart of the Union.
Juncker was the first European Commission president to be appointed through the spitzenkandidaten system, which tied the European election result to the person who would become president; the first time every single European citizen’s vote would also be a vote for their European Party’s spitzenkandidat. While most Europeans were not aware of this, Juncker was a large step towards an even more democratic functioning of the European Union.
There’s a new sheriff in town – Juncker builds his own Commission
Juncker’s first task was to put together the new College of Commissioners. This meant taking in the proposals from each head of state of the EU, and assigning portfolios. Or at least this is what heads of state thought would happen.
“In the first meeting after my appointment as President of the Commission … all the Prime Ministers were telling me what kind of portfolio they would like to have for their country,” Juncker confirmed.
Past President José Manuel Barroso had tried to plead with some heads of state to send more women, with varying success. But Juncker put his foot down, and rejected six candidates submitted to him without discussion.
“I never said this publicly and I will not detail this … [but] when I was starting … I refused six Commissioners”, Juncker said, shocking me. The unheard of move, not previously known by the public, sparked some outrage of national governments.
“‘No. Do your business and I will do mine. You are proposing, and I am deciding,’” Juncker recalled telling the EU leaders at that first meeting. Juncker continued, detailing the critical moment that followed in front of all the EU’s heads of state: “The then Greek Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras, who is a good friend of mine, after a first round of debates and after having listened carefully to me when I was saying ‘I’m doing my business, do yours,’ said, ‘Colleagues, there is a new sheriff in town,’” Juncker finished the story smiling, and then in a playful tone admitted: “I liked that.”
“The next president will have to compose the Commission themselves,” Juncker said of what is to come, “not giving in to the recommendation suggestions by national governments.”
But Juncker didn’t stop with his Commission at just putting in place the College of European Commissioners that he felt would best serve Europe, he made sure they would work together. As soft as Juncker seems to be around the edges, he is equally tough when the circumstances require.
After the 2012 debacle with European Health Commissioner John Dalli, who was ousted by then President José Manuel Barroso after a whistleblower said he was asked for a bribe of 60 million Euro to alter tobacco legislation, and the public relations nightmare that followed, Juncker didn’t want to leave anything to chance. The Lisbon Treaty gave the European Commission President new powers to force any Commissioner to resign, but rather than risk a political clash at a time of crisis, Juncker secured a commitment from all that they would resign if asked.
Juncker’s vision for Europe
Juncker has seen his face on the cover of countless newspapers. Many wrongly portraying him as the embodiment of the arch-federalist looking to eradicate all semblance of individual countries and mould Europe into a single superstate.
Juncker’s reaction shows me he’s fed up of this: “I’ve said it repeatedly. I’m not a convinced federalist … I don’t think that the European Union can be built up against nations. Nations are not a temporary invention of history. They are permanent, and I don’t want the European Union becoming a kind of ‘United States of Europe’, because people don’t like that. They want to be Greeks, they want to be Belgians, Flemish, Walloons, French, Britons, Germans, Bavarians … so don’t try to put these things together in a way that the differences between nations and regions disappear.”
Juncker continued with conviction: “I never use the words ‘United States of Europe’. Never. I did so until the age of 16, and then I stopped. Because I was approaching slowly, and it’s an unfinished process…” Juncker paused as if nearly tempted to giggle, “…maturity. So when I’m described in Britain and elsewhere as a ‘stupid fanatic federalist’, I don’t recognise myself in that description, which is a very superficial one, presented to publics in order to destroy the European Union.”
A last chance Commission? The successes
In his speech to the European Parliament in October of 2014 where the Juncker Commission was confirmed, Juncker told the chamber that he was convinced that this will be the ‘last chance’ Commission. “Either we succeed, in bringing the European citizens closer to Europe, or we will fail,” he told deputies.
“A last chance Commission; have you succeeded?” I asked.
Juncker’s first instinct was to let history tell his story. “It’s up to others to assess the performance of this Commission.” But after a brief pause, Juncker explained what he had set out to accomplish in 2014: to bring the European Union jobs, growth, and investment.
“On these three major points we delivered. During our mandate 13.4 million jobs were created. The investments have reached a level they were at in the pre-crisis year of 2007, and growth has arrived everywhere in Europe including Greece, and Italy for the time being.”
Juncker returned to the initial question, to explain his words. “I said this was the European Commission of the last chance. I wanted to say ‘This is the European Union having to take into its hands, the last chance.’” His statement to the Parliament was not a plea, but a warning as much to them, as to the EU’s politicians, and the over 500 million citizens of the 28 member states, that the Union was in troubled waters.
“Unemployment was rising in 2014. Investments were down below the levels of 2007, and growth was not really there. You have to remember that in 2014, twenty-one member states of the European Union were in an excessive deficit procedure. Now there is not a single country in the excessive deficit procedure. This is due to the economic recovery [and] this is due to the fact that we inserted into the interpretation of the Stability and Growth Pact some elements of flexibility. If we had not done so,” something which Juncker said member states did not like, “growth would have been weaker, and unemployment would be higher.”
Steering Europe through crises
Though Juncker says he has delivered on the goals set ahead of his mandate, the truth is that it has not been an easy ride. Terrorism strikes, populism and the political turbulence caused by the struggle between the EU, China, the USA and Russia to set the agenda, made things incredibly difficult. But the Juncker Commission’s measurable achievements came despite having to navigate the three most difficult crises the EU has faced to date: the Greek economic crisis, the migration crisis, and United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU – Brexit.
The Greek crisis
“Greece was the most difficult case I had to face,” Juncker said, surprising me. He explained that this was “because some member states – and not the smallest – told us that this is not a matter for the Commission. Instead, they said that this Greek difficulty had to be dealt with exclusively by the member states.”
But Juncker wouldn’t stand for it: “I refused that because I think that according to the Treaty, as we are in charge of protecting the general interest of the European Union, we had to lead the game, and we did it successfully. Because in 2015, I didn’t want to eject Greece from the Euro area for a single second, although others were trying to do so.”
Juncker’s tone remained firm: “So I am proud to have kept Greece inside the sphere of solidarity named the Euro area.”
Later in the interview, talking again about preventing Greece from being ejected from the Eurozone, emphasizing the importance of the European Commission’s actions at the time: “I have to say today, because it’s less dangerous than it was during that time, that we played a major role.”
In a question that was as much rhetorical, as it was meant to be kept inside my head, I pondered: “Was it worth it?”
Juncker drew a breath, and returned to his foundations as a politician.
“Yes,” Juncker confirmed without an inkling of doubt, “because of the Greek people. I like the Greek nation for so many reasons, and I like the Greek people because though they were punished for the mistakes and errors of all the Greek governments we have had in the past decades, they never lost their dignity.”
Juncker’s standing up to fight for Greece in the face of other EU member states – for the interests of the Union as a whole as he had put it – meant that he had to have accurate knowledge of the reality on the ground. Beyond reading briefing notes and the national press, beyond talking to politicians, Juncker sought to be get first-hand accounts of what things were like on the ground.
“I was phoning at least twice per week, to friends in Athens, Thessaloniki, and the countryside, asking them to tell me what the reality is. So I knew about the dramatic aspects of the measures which were imposed on the Greek people.”
“I love Greeks; it’s like that,” Juncker said finishing his thoughts, “but nevertheless I tried to be as objective as possible”.
In a very candid moment, Juncker strayed on a tangent to talk about the prodigal former Minister of Economy of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis, whose was as quick to rise to media stardom as he was to implode politically.
“I met Varoufakis for only 10 minutes,” Juncker began, before continuing, “but this gives him the opportunity to write books, and books, and books; but he was not there. He didn’t play any role,” the President professed.
It had struck me that Juncker said the most difficult crisis of the three was Greece, and not migration. Indeed, the issue is a major cause for concern of European citizens whose European election vote will be heavily affected by it. But Juncker explained that the Commission had a very specific role to play, and that it had done so successfully despite the optics and media criticism.
“I don’t have the feeling that the Commission as an institution failed in its obligations. We made all the proposals in 2015 already,” namely a complete reform of the EU’s common asylum laws, combing measures inside and outside the EU. The EU’s first coordinated resettlement of refugees from third countries was a huge success – with over 50,000 refugees granted safe passage to the EU since 2015. Where things were more difficult was with the issue of relocation. Inside the EU, “relocation [from one EU Member State to another] was also a success, because all those who were eligible for relocation have been relocated.” Indeed, while the intra-EU solidarity programme didn’t manage to resettle the over-estimated target of 98,000 refugees in two years, it did manage to resettle all those who actually ended up being eligible under the scheme after arrivals dropped massively – about 35,000 refugees – successfully. And this despite resistance resulting from the rise of populist politicians and the result of some mainstream political parties adapting their rhetoric to take a less than solidary approach to the matter.
The controversial relocation decisions were Council decisions, taken by the member states and not by the Commission alone. “We have a decision by the Council of Ministers adopting the proposals the Commission put forward. I’m reading every time [in the press] that the Commission failed because Hungary, Poland, and others didn’t follow the move. In fact, they are acting against the decision of the Council of Ministers, and not against the proposal of the Commission because these proposals were accepted by the Council.”
Juncker explained further: “To put it simply, what some leaders in central Europe are trying to say is that the Commission was dictating what to do. No. It was the Council of Ministers. So the problem is not between Hungary, Poland, and others, and the Commission. It is between Hungary, Poland, and others, and the Council of Ministers.”
Brexit: A non-surprise, lies, and regret
“I have to admit that for me, this didn’t come as a surprise.” Juncker recounted that he had told then British Prime Minister David Cameron about holding a national Brexit vote: ‘Don’t do this referendum because you will lose it,’ he had told him.
But the reason for Juncker’s prediction of the result was not just a phenomenon of observed, fleeting, anti-EU sentiment in the UK. “If you are attacking the European Union for over four decades , saying that ‘yes, we are in this group but only for economic reasons’ … then you can’t be surprised if at a certain juncture people are saying ‘No’ to what has been described in the UK as a ‘construction’. ”
Juncker toughened up his tone. “No, it’s not a construction – it’s a Union.”
The campaign in the run up to the referendum was fraught with slogans not consistent with realities. Juncker was clearer in his description; these were lies and the Commission President explained that he regrets his stance during the campaign.
“I made a major mistake,” Juncker reflected, “because I was following the advice of Prime Minister [David] Cameron not to intervene in the referendum campaign. This was a major mistake, because the Commission could have said that ‘those who are advocating a ‘No’ are lying’. We had the knowledge. We were forbidden by the UK government to present this knowledge and to argue with objective figures.”
But Juncker says he does not feel guilty about Brexit. “It’s a British problem. It is not a European problem; it is a European difficulty. But it was a British problem,” Juncker explained, “because they never felt themselves at ease in this European Union.”
“Are they ever going to leave? And if so, will they come back?” I asked.
“My working assumption is that they will leave, at the latest on the 31st October. It may be that in some years from now they will reconsider their decision, but that’s not my working assumption,” Juncker responded emotionlessly.
The college of Commissioners and the press
The entire College of European Commissioners meets every Wednesday. This is the most important regular meeting that is held under the President, and also the most secretive. I wondered if the President had any memorable anecdotes.
“Yes but the meetings of the College are secret,” he told me. “I’m the only one respecting this rule by the way. Sometimes, joking, I say at the beginning of the College meeting that ‘I had two options today – either I could give a press conference or I could chair a meeting of the [College of Commissioners]; the result is the exactly the same,’ ” Juncker said with mirth.
The work left unfinished: comitology, transparency, and the MFF
When questioned about things that Juncker didn’t manage to achieve in this five-year term, his first response was expected – by anyone who has been in the EU capital watching things unfold in the past few years: Comitology. A complex and non-transparent process by which EU law is modified or adjusted that the President believes needed to be changed. But, “the Parliament didn’t like that,” he told me.
Juncker moved next to the issue of transparency – not to talk about what he had not managed to do in the Commission, but about what he didn’t succeed in getting the European Parliament and Council to do as well: to publish records of meetings between politicians and top-level civil servants with lobbyists. For the European Commission, if you are not in the EU’s transparency register, or a journalist, you cannot meet with anyone in the upper echelon of the institution. During Juncker’s term, the register nearly doubled in size to reach about 12,000 entries.
“All these [meetings] have to be published,” Juncker said. “The Parliament doesn’t do that, and the Council is refusing that. We are often accused of having put in place a system which is lacking transparency,” Juncker said, in a slight dig at the reality that media pay more attention to the workings of the Commission than any other institution, continuing to say that “the opposite is true. I would have liked the other institutions to take the same direction.”
Juncker finally turned to the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), the seven-year framework that regulates the EU’s annual budget. The European Commission president wanted the agreement to be achieved before the elections. “This was not possible because the Council decided to do this after the European Elections … Elections are not a crisis moment in democracy. If you are approaching elections you have to show you are able to govern without having your gaze fixed on the elections.”
“There are some disappointments I have to say,” Juncker acknowledged.
The political Commission loophole
The European Commission of Jean-Claude Juncker managed to stay upright during the crises it has faced because it no longer acted as a strictly technocratic body. Juncker’s Commission became a political Commission – the most political in the Union’s history.
But will the next European Commission be as political?
“Most of the Prime Ministers don’t like this self-description of the Commission saying that ‘this is a political Commission’,” Juncker said. “This comes as a surprise to me, because day after day, I have prime ministers on the phone asking me to do this and that. And I say, ‘these are the rules’.”
The response of politicians, is ironically as you would expect: “‘But you are a political commission, you have to do something aside the rules,’” Juncker says in a frustrated tone, and continues: “I’m never doing something against the rules, but I’m interpreting the rules in a very political way, without giving in when difficult questions are submitted to my meditation.”
The first and last success of the spitzenkandidaten process?
As we turned to what comes next after the elections, the troubling state of the process by which his successor will be elected or selected, came into the conversation.
“Will the spitzenkandidaten system survive? Will the next President be one of the lead candidates?” I asked.
Juncker paused, and took me back to square one. “I am the victim of this process, because I was the spitzenkandidat of the [European People’s Party]. We made sure that this process would be observed until the very last moment although some Prime Ministers were very much objecting to this process. And I would like the next President of the European Commission to be the result of the spitzenkandidaten system together with the European Parliament.
The European Council has the right to propose the President of the Commission but he/she has to be approved by the European Parliament.
Last time, but nobody is referring to that, the European Council decided that in the future – meaning in 2019 – the system should be submitted to rediscussion. They are not submitting it to rediscussion, but there are an important number of Prime Ministers who don’t like the system.
Because they think, and they thought, that the European Parliament would dictate the roadmap to the President of the Commission,” Juncker said, bringing in a less talked about perspective on the issue, which reflects some of the challenges he himself faced five years ago.
“I said in Parliament when presenting myself that I am not a slave of the European Parliament, nor of the European Council.”
Asked about erosion of the process, with parties such as ALDE putting up a lead team of seven people, rather than a single lead candidate, Juncker was critical:
“That came as a surprise to me because [Guy] Verhofstadt, the leader of the Parliamentary Group of [ALDE], was in fact at the origin of the spitzenkandidaten system, because he was a spitzenkandidat too in 2014. And then suddenly they decided not to present a spitzenkandidat but seven [of them]. They were inventing a story. They were saying [that] ‘as long as we don’t have transnational lists, we are not in favour of the spitzenkandidat system’. They didn’t say that last time, and they knew perfectly well that it would not be possible to have transnational lists without a Treaty change. So this is a major disappointment.”
On the issue of transnational lists, Juncker said that, “this will have to be done at a certain juncture”. Asked about the EPP’s resistance to the idea, Juncker retorted that although “some of the EPP member parties were against it, … Although, many are on record, saying that the spitzenkandidaten system only makes sense if there are transnational lists. But having transnational lists implies reform of the Treaty. As it was clear in 2018-19 that there would be no Treaty change before the European Elections, transnational lists did not happen this time round.”
One single President for Commission and Council?
An idea that Juncker put into one of his acclaimed State of the European Union addresses, was to merge the position of the Presidents of the European Commission and Council. Politically not an easy feat, but possible without Treaty change, Juncker explained. “I think that it would be worth considering this, but I have noted that no one in the European Council is really ready to do this.”
Juncker had originally put this idea forward years ago, as a joint Benelux proposal when discussing the Lisbon Treaty. One rationale was that the current system will be brought to a halt if relations between the Commission President and Council President are not good.
“… if the President of the Council would instruct the President of the Commission to do [something]. And if the President of the Commission would, according to the Treaty, because he is not under instruction from the European Council, refuse to do that, we would be in a permanent crisis,” Juncker explained.
Putting it into today’s context, Juncker said that the system works because of the relationship he has with European Council President Donald Tusk: “We are twins, and we are acting together. But if in the future there would be a permanent conflict between the two presidents, the whole system would be blocked. That is the reason why I was suggesting, as we were as Benelux back then, to merge the two functions.”
Juncker also acknowledged that there would be very real challenges for a person holding the presidency of the two institutions: “As a President of the Commission you have to take initiatives, and make proposals. And as a President of the European Council, you have to invent compromises. This could be, if done, to the disadvantage of the Commission. Because then the general reflex, of the one who would be the single president, would be to make proposals which could be agreed spontaneously by the European Council.”
Though Juncker didn’t like to hog the spotlight, those behind the closed doors of the European Council meetings the past years know that many of the compromises were born of his own initiative, and negotiated under his leadership. But when asked about it, Juncker remained humble.
“It’s the duty of the President of the European Council to arrange compromises. And it’s the duty of the President of the Commission to help him in that undertaking. I was never saying after the European Council that I was making the proposals that were finally agreed.” … “The Commission is at the service of Member States and of other institutions. Nobody is the ally of the Commission but the Commission has to be the ally of the others in order to keep the system working,” Juncker said pragmatically, showing a glimpse into the philosophy which has guided him in the last years.
The lighter side of leadership, and Trump
The 64-year-old has met most world leaders, and has managed to have positive reviews by very tough personalities like Donald Trump, and even Vladimir Putin. I wondered what it was in his leadership style that made him likeable.
“I don’t want to be likeable. I have as a method of work, to listen to others, and not to lecture others … If at a European Council a Prime Minister says something, it’s interesting to listen to them – but you have to know why they are saying this. You have to know the national background.”
Juncker reads the papers of the 28 EU member states, some of them in translation. Even though the President usually often spends weekends at his home in Luxembourg, he finds himself working 12 to 14 hours days during the weekend. Reading the news, he says, is one of the things that also keeps him better connected to his home country. On whether US President Donald Trump will be reelected, Juncker was blunt: “It’s up to the Americans to decide.”
Juncker’s partners in political discourse
Time was running out. The photographer had already been ushered in, and I knew the President had better things to do than spend more time with me than it takes for Brussels to cycle through four seasons-worth of weather. So I turned to a more personal question.
“What leaders do you enjoy having philosophical discussions with?” I asked. Juncker surprised me yet again both with his candour, and the content of his response: “I have great admiration for some African leaders. [Paul] Kagame, the leader of Rwanda for example.” Juncker was hesitant to talk about current leaders in Europe, for obvious reasons, but he did not hesitate to name two past leaders he had a good relation with: Helmut Kohl, and Wim Kok.
Juncker and sport?
My penultimate question, was one that I had been tipped off about. Pinball. President Juncker’s private life is a mystery to most, yet if you would like a glimpse, here it is: Juncker enjoys playing pinball.
“That’s flipper?” he asks when I broach the subject. “Yes, yes! That’s the only sport I do,” Juncker said in jest. But the President says he never invites other politicians over to play. “Private is private, and public is public. So I’m playing flipper against myself.”
Juncker’s next steps
Juncker had so much energy, and was shown to have a broad vision for Europe during our interview, such that it did not feel like it was a proper question to ask about the future. As if I would be asking him what his plans for retirement were. In fact, I just wanted to know more, but the President seemed undecided.
“I don’t know … I don’t know,” he said, the gears in his head turning as if he was trying to work out a mathematics problem. “I know, but I don’t know.”