For more than three decades Jean-Claude Juncker played a key role in shaping the European Union first as Luxembourg’s prime minister, then as Eurogroup President, and finally, since 2014, as President of the European Commission.
Europe’s 65-year-old grand seignior will now leave the international stage having steered the EU through several crises. His style, coupled with the ability to respond to his interlocutors, has often been successful due to his cunning sense of humour that often drove his counterparts crazy. Many of them were more afraid of his welcome kisses than his poisonous remarks – he once greeted Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban with “Hey dictator“.
Juncker took over what he called “the Last Chance Commission” in 2014 and immediately set out win back citizens’ trust for the European project. His most important achievements since then include the instrumental role he played in keeping Greece in the Eurozone. He also has averted a looming trade dispute with the US and he has thus far prevented an unregulated Brexit, which would also cause great economic damage to Europe.
He described his role in Brexit as his “biggest mistake”, a reference to the fact that he followed the wishes of then-British Prime Minister David Cameron not to interfere in the debate on leaving the EU. Juncker has publicly cast doubt on whether or not he could have influenced the British public’s mood to stay in the EU, saying, “Would I have been able to counter the lies that were massively distributed in the UK? I don’t know.” Instead, Juncker said a Commission President needs “big ears” and a willingness to listen.
That talent, Juncker’s ability to listen, was often successful. In a dispute over Italy’s budget deficit, he first patiently listened to the demands of Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, but in the end Conte agreed with the EU’s spending cuts.
His patient demeanour also worked well when negotiating with the notoriously isolationist President Donald Trump, who repeatedly called Juncker a “brutal killer”.
Surprisingly, Juncker has a good connection with Trump largely because he also contradicted him as was able to hammer out a delay on high American tariffs on car imports from Europe. Over the years, Juncker established a trusting relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, particularly in 2015 when he sided with Merkel’s decision not to close the EU’s borders at the height of the refugee crisis.
The migration issue, however, eventually slipped away from all of the EU’s politicians. The redistribution of refugees that had already landed in Greece and Italy, which was a Juncker demand, was met with vigorous resistance in many countries, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. Though the directive often involved only a few thousand people per country, the leaders of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia refused to accept any migrants.
The Commission did not have any legal means to sanction the countries who refused to work with the rest of the bloc to find a solution to the migrant crisis. Certain proposals, including by Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger, that would have made EU funding dependent on a country’s willingness to receive migrants have found little support amongst the EU’s 28 members.
The negotiations over a multiannual financial framework for 2020 have sparked similar concerns or, as the EU’s incoming Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn out it, “The EU is misunderstood by many new member states as a kind of bank-ATM.”
Juncker has admitted that he utterly underestimated the cultural and political differences between the new and old member states. Many of the countries that were once a part of the Soviet-led Eastern Bloc are now seen as taking revenge on the older members of the EU after having felt discriminated against in the years since the joined the bloc.
There have been a few exceptions to this rule, however, including Poland’s Donald Tusk, who served as President of the European Council; former Polish President and President of the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek; and, most recently, Bulgaria’s Kristalina Georgieva, who is the new head of the International Monetary Fund. Rarely have politicians from Eastern Europe held such high positions in either EU or international committees.
In the past, the European Commission would have had to punish the behaviour of some food companies that produced lower-quality products, especially for those in the located in the EU’s newest members. In hindsight, Juncker should have travelled more often to Eastern Europe to better understand the situation on the ground.
Juncker was also often associated with having alcohol problems because of the sciatic nerve problems that he suffers from. These accusations initially angered him, but later in his term he no longer reacted. Most recently, he survived a dangerous aneurysm operation.
The medical history of the EU was known all too well by Juncker before he became the President of the Commission. In 1999, at an EU summit in Tampere, Finland, he said, “We decide something then put it in the room and wait a while to see what happens. if there is no shouting and are no uprisings, because most do not understand what has been decided, then we continue, step by step, until there is no going back.” That sort of approach could no longer work in a bloc that includes 28 members, Juncker undoubtedly knew that.
The Lisbon Treaty did not limit the responsibilities of national governments to a large extent, especially when it came sensitive asylum or tax policies. If it had, an EU initiative for a tax on financial transactions or a carbon tax would not have failed. Juncker wanted to propose that the member states choose from five options to avoid a blockade, i.e. should the EU continue as before, provide more or fewer initiatives, or become more active only in key chapters?
Juncker’s push towards direct democracy was also unsuccessful. In an EU-wide referendum, Juncker wanted to find out how to deal with the changeover to summer and winter time in the future, but the bloc could not agree on a unanimous decision.
What Juncker is particularly proud of is touting his “Strategic Investment Plan” where up to €500 billion should be raised by 2020 for new projects. However, the European Court of Auditors criticised the initiative as the fund is mainly used by the older core members of the EU and usually only replaced private financing options.
In the fight against tax privileges for large corporations, Juncker’s past as prime minister of a tax haven eventually caught up with him after investigations were launched into how multinational corporations settle in low-tax countries like Juncker’s native Luxembourg.
Juncker will, nevertheless, go down in European history as an effective Commission President. Whether his successor, Ursula von der Leyen, can continue his course remains an open question. Von der Leyen has signalled that climate protection will be a priority for her Commission. It will have to deal both with trade conflicts that are increasing worldwide and with harsher opposition to global free trade agreements. Von der Leyen will also have to deal with the immediate fallout of Britain withdrawal from the EU and, as a result, how to carve out an even more important role for Germany and France in the years to come, while also extending an olive branch to the EU’s many middle and smaller-sized countries.
Juncker always emphasized the role of the smaller EU states. The son of a steelworker, he also had a sense of social balance in his genes. Europe will miss Juncker and he will go down as an important designer and skilful geopolitical player.