Jean-Claude Juncker ‘Even Pragmatists Have to Dream’

The president of the European Commission discusses Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Europe's future after Emmanuel Macron's victory in France.
The weight of Europe is on his shoulders. Picture source: DPA.

These are trying times for Europe, and Jean-Claude Juncker is smack dab in the eye of the storm.

As president of the European Commission, Mr. Juncker represents an ideal, European integration, that is under attack from all sides. Britain has outright rejected the European Union and far-right firebrand Marine Le Pen, though defeated, had a historic showing in France's presidential election on an anti-EU platform. Meanwhile, tensions are also running high with the bloc's two most important neighbors - Turkey and Russia.

But Mr. Juncker, who spoke with Handelsblatt during an event at the Bonn Academy for Research and Teaching of Practical Politics, still believes in Europe's future.

Handelsblatt: Mr. President, the anti-EU National Front lost the election in France, where a passionate European was elected as the new French president. Hundreds of European flags were flown in Europe on the evening of the election. Does this make you happy?

Mr. Juncker: I don’t see happiness as a political category. Of course, I am very pleased by the outcome of the French election, because the movement from the right was slowed down. However, this doesn't mean that Marine Le Pen has been eliminated. Eleven million French citizens voted for her. The ground is still fertile. We must not forget that.

If you had time to glance in the direction of Kiel on the evening of the French election, you witnessed the Social Democratic Party of your friend Martin Schulz chalking up another loss. Do you feel pity?

I am not responsible for the state of the SPD. If I can contribute to Mr. Schulz's well-being, I will do so.

Emmanuel Macron, a former socialist and now an independent, was more successful. What do you expect of the new French president?

I expect him to clean up France's public finances. This is urgently needed. I expect him to move the euro zone forward, and I expect him not to give any anti-European speeches in France.... And I expect him to promote a greater understanding within the European Union of Europe's responsibilities in the world. For instance, we need to pay a lot more attention to Africa than we have so far.

Is Mr. Macron your new favorite European?

When I am asked about my favorite European, I find it difficult to ignore myself.

To quote Lenin - as a Christian Democrat, no less – one has to see the things behind the things. Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission President

David Cameron and Theresa May, at any rate, do not appear to be your favorites.

I get along very well with Theresa May, contrary to what has been reported in recent days. She is a "tough lady" who has a strong understanding of politics and knows a thing or two. However, we have different views. In this sense, there are natural limits to my fondness for her.

Which brings us to your recent dinner in London. After the meeting, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung published a very detailed account of the confidential conversation between the two of you. The gist was that Ms. May doesn't understand much of what is going on, and that she has a naïve view of the pace and terms of the Brexit.

The fact that details of the conversation were reported in the media was a serious mistake.

From London back to Paris. The future master of the house at the Élysée Palace is calling for a European finance minister with executive powers and a separate parliament for the euro zone. What is your assessment of this offensive for further European consolidation, which does signify a consolidation even if it doesn't address all 28 member states of the European Union, but instead only the 19 countries of the euro zone?

I see it as a positive thing. But to quote Lenin - as a Christian Democrat, no less – one has to see the things behind the things. How will this parliament be constituted and by whom? Who will appoint the euro finance minister? Should a euro finance minister have the power to shape national budget plans in line with European rules, without consulting the national parliaments? Isn't it better to do this in the group of euro finance ministers, together with the European Commission?

Explain to me why Germany has had a debt level above 60 percent for many years now. Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission President

So you would not put the power of the purse, which is commonly viewed as the prerogative of parliamentarians, up for negotiation for the sake of the European idea?

I am not quite that much of a purist. After all, there is the Stability Pact, which is so beloved in Germany. It also tends to restrict the power of the purse, because it limits borrowing.

But is it correct to say that you aren't exactly a fan of the pact?

What makes you say that? I even wrote it myself.

But are you abiding by it?

Of course I am.

Then what about Italy and its national debt, which is now more than 130 percent of its gross domestic product? The Stability Pact permits only up to 60 percent. How do you reconcile the pact and reality?

As part of the EU treaty and the Stability Pact, the governments have agreed to align their budgetary policies with European requirements. They all do that, including Italy. Italy hasn't violated any rules yet.

You'll have to explain that to us.

Explain to me why Germany has had a debt level above 60 percent for many years now.

That too is against the rules. But there is still a difference: Germany has never ratcheted its debt up to Italian levels, and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble is reducing debt levels, whereas Italy is not.

After reunification, Germany showed excessively high deficits for years. Should the European Commission have relentlessly pursued this violation of the Stability Pact at the time, thereby stifling a unified Germany's recovery?

But is this truly comparable? There was no reunification in Italy.

But there were earthquakes.

You are very generous with our likable but, when it comes to money, somewhat unrestrained neighbors.

Italy is not as well-positioned as Germany in terms of economic policy. The country needs structural reforms, some of which have already been initiated, in the labor market, for example. To this end, the Italian government needs to make a substantial effort. We take this into account by interpreting the Stability Pact in a flexible manner. It helps Italy, and it helps Europe.

Even for European Central Bank President Mario Draghi, the reforms in southern Europe, including France, are not progressing quickly enough. He says that he has bought these governments time with his ultra-relaxed monetary policy, but not everyone has taken advantage of that time.

I never comment on statements by the president of the central bank, which is something I learned in Germany. The independence of the central bank tolerates neither praise nor reproach by those with political responsibilities.

We are not out of the woods yet, but we are beginning to see the light. Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission President

This brings us to two other European leaders with whom the European Union also has its problems: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin. You said recently that, in reference to these two men, you had lost two friends. What went wrong there?

Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdoğan have changed a lot. They seem to think that we have arrived in a post-Western world. That is a misunderstanding on their part. The concept of the West does not describe a geographic space, but rather a principle and an idea. That idea is not dead. We will continue to fight for a Europe with firm principles. But there are also times when we must put ourselves in the other person's shoes, which is something these two men are not doing. But we should do it.

And what does that mean?

Turkey has taken in 3.5 million refugees, and it is abiding by the terms of its refugee agreement with us. It bears by far the biggest burden of the refugee crisis, although Jordan also bears a very substantial load. All of this deserves our respect.

At the same time, Mr. Erdoğan's Turkey blatantly violates the core values of the European Union. And yet the accession negotiations continue. Why?

There are many people in Turkey who want to join the EU and many who do not. And there are also people in Turkey who would like to blame the European Union for a failure of the accession talks. For some people in Turkey, it's too hot in the kitchen.

Where do you see the red line?

The absolute red line is the reintroduction of the death penalty. This is incompatible with European standards and European values, not just those of the European Union but also of the Council of Europe. That would result in the immediate termination of accession talks.

And what would that mean for Turkey's NATO membership?

Let me answer that with a question: Did Handelsblatt call for the removal from NATO of the Greek, Portuguese and Spanish dictators at the time? Did anyone call for that? Let me answer this question: No. No one did that.

In both cases, the West may not be as innocent as it claims when it comes to the difficult relationship. For a long time, Mr. Erdoğan was betting on quick accession to the EU – and he was staved off with a "privileged partnership." Mr. Putin campaigned in the German Bundestag for a free-trade zone stretching from Vladivostok to Crete – and no one reacted. Has the West made mistakes?

It is unacceptable, at the beginning of the 21st century, for someone to arbitrarily alter Europe's borders, annex Crimea and bring war to eastern Ukraine. We say this clearly, but we also need to deal respectfully and on an equal footing with Russia. The Russians are a very proud people, one that has not just done bad things but also many good things throughout history.

The West has ignored this insight and is trying to humiliate Russia. Correct?

One cannot simply dismiss a major power like Russia as a regional power, even if it is ailing. We need channels of communication with Moscow, and I have those.

The sanctions regime has caused economic damage to both the Russians and the EU member states. What is your assessment of the current economic state of the European Union?

We are not in perfect shape, but all 28 member states of the European Union are growing again, and some, like Spain, are growing at a fast pace. We have reduced the average budget deficit in the euro zone from 6.1 percent in 2010 to 1.6 percent today. Unemployment is still too high, and yet five million new jobs have been created in the euro zone since I have been in office. We are not out of the woods yet, but we are beginning to see the light.

I am a pragmatist, but even pragmatists have to dream. Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission President

America is in better shape. Why has the New World dealt with the consequences of the global financial crisis more quickly than the Old World?

I don’t know about you, but I'd rather live in Europe than in the United States. When someone in Europe has cancer, he goes to his health insurance company. In America, he could be threatened with personal bankruptcy. One thing is true, though. The weather in Washington is better this spring than it is in central Europe.

"The European idea needs a new longing," Mr. Macron said. What do you intend to achieve in your remaining time in office, by 2019?

I want to expedite digitalization, advance quickly on the digital single market agenda. What is at stake here is more than €400 billion ($435 billion) in added value per year and hundreds of thousands of jobs. We have submitted 34 legislative proposals on the subject, and I would like to see us make some progress here. Copyright law is especially important to me. Authors, artists and poets have a right to their own work, even in the digital age. An electric drill has a price, and the same must apply to the written word.

That sounds very pragmatic. Do you agree with former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who said that people with visions should go to the doctor?

I am a pragmatist, but even pragmatists have to dream. Those who do not dream and do not think about the question of what will happen in 20 or 30 years are out of place. Decisions that are made today will only show their full impact in a few decades. That's why we need to talk about the Europe of the future. And in that conversation, we should admit to ourselves that we will become weaker economically. In 20 years, no European country will have more than 1 percent of the world's population, and in 30 years no European country will be sitting at the table of the G7 group of nations. A return to nations without an EU can hardly be the appropriate response to this development.

In your vision, will the nation slowly disappear?

No. We cannot pursue European integration at the expense of nations. Europe must retain its colors, and its regional and national peculiarities. Europe will only thrive if the member states thrive, and the member states will only thrive if the European Union makes some headway.

So the two things will continue to exist side-by-side for a long time to come: the Europe of nations and the nation within Europe?

I believe that modern patriotism has two dimensions: the national dimension, for ourselves and not against others, and the European dimension for all.

We are standing on the shoulders of giants, and we look ridiculous when we compare ourselves to them. Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission President

Are you still a Luxembourger? Or would it be a stretch to say that you, with your passion and your political identity, are in fact the first true European?

We were not the first Europeans. That is the generation of our parents, the war generation, the people who came home from the concentration camps and from the front to their bombed-out cities and villages, and who turned that eternal postwar prayer, "Never again war," into a political program, one that continues to have an impact today. We are standing on the shoulders of giants, and we look ridiculous when we compare ourselves to them.

You yourself have said that the European Commission is always isolated because it is criticized from all sides. Are you a lonely man?

You are never really lonely in Brussels, because you are constantly in meetings – with heads of state, commissioners, ministers, directors general, members of parliament, and so on. We do that very intensively. I have asked the commissioners not to stick around in Brussels but to get out into the world.

You have announced that you are not interested in a second term and will step down in 2019. Are you sticking with that, or will you emulate Bavarian premier and head of the Christian Social Union Horst Seehofer, who stepped back from his own resignation?

I am not Mr. Seehofer.

Can you imagine that your successor, after a long interlude, could be someone from Germany again? Perhaps a woman?

There will be plenty of candidates who will want to succeed me. It is beyond me why a German shouldn’t be part of that group. Germany has already had a president of the European Commission, Walter Hallstein.

Is German Chancellor Angela Merkel a great European?

Yes, she is. But I don't believe she wants to become another Hallstein, because she already has plenty of power as it is, which she isn't likely to give up all that readily.

Gabor Steingart is the publisher of Handelsblatt and Handelsblatt Global edition. To contact the author: [email protected]