Jean-Claude Juncker is a man of many faces.
The European Commission president is humorous at times, once greeting Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán with the words “hello, dictator!”
Mr. Juncker can be blunt, as he was when he said France wouldn’t be sanctioned for violating E.U. deficit rules - “because it is France.” And though he is the president of the E.U.’s executive arm, he is also only human: Some Monday mornings, he shows up late for work.
But it was Mr. Juncker’s cool response to a reporter’s question about Brexit that has some politicians questioning whether he is still the right man for that job. Asked whether the U.K.’s decision last month to leave the European Union was the beginning of the end of the remaining 27-nation bloc, Mr. Juncker responded with a curt “no,” before leaving the press conference.
To his critics, it appears that the European Commission president is reluctant to shoulder any responsibility for Britain’s split with Brussels. Their fear is that it will continue to be business as usual with Mr. Juncker.
Those who see a need to fundamentally reform the European project and launch a new beginning for the European Union worry that the current president of its executive body will be unable – or unwilling – to deliver, because he doesn't actually see the need for fundamental change.
“If I were in the position of the European Commission president, I would think about withdrawing,” said Clemens Fuest, head of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research in Munich. Europe, he said, doesn’t need a visionary; it needs “active crisis managers who will send the right signals.”
A likely scenario is that Mr. Juncker will serve out his term through 2019 and then not stand for re-election.
Some see Mr. Juncker’s deputy, First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, as someone who fits this description. Few dispute that he would be a solid successor if his boss were to leave his post. A far more likely scenario, however, is that Mr. Juncker will serve out his term through 2019 and then not stand for re-election.
Since recalling the Commission president would require voting the entire executive body out of office – and would require a two-thirds majority in the European Parliament, which tilts toward Mr. Juncker – those hoping for a new beginning under new leadership may have to wait.
In many ways, Mr. Juncker did embody a fresh start for the European Union back in 2014 when he took office. Whereas 28 commissioners used to wrangle over every policy point, Mr. Juncker set up a system of seven vice presidents to tackle key issues, such as currency and the economy. As his deputy, Mr. Timmermans was tasked with reining in Brussels’ regulatory tendencies, and took to screening – and often dismissing – commissioners’ new plans.
“Juncker has moved the Commission forward in the last two years,” said Elmar Brok, a German member of the European Parliament, representing Mr. Juncker’s European People’s Party, and chair of the parliament’s foreign affairs committee. “We are passing less than half as many laws each year as we did under [José Manuel] Barroso,” he said, referring to the Commission’s former president.
Those initiatives, from banning olive oil jugs in restaurants to outlawing chocolate cigarettes, subjected E.U. bureaucrats to ample ridicule, but under Mr. Juncker, they are fewer and farther between.
His career – which spans nearly two decades as Luxembourg’s head of government and eight years as president of the Eurogroup of euro-zone finance ministers – has confronted him with weightier challenges.
European Commissioner Günther Oettinger of Germany described his boss as “the Helmut Kohl of Europe,” characterizing the Europe-bashing that he seems to elicit as unfair. “A few hyenas smell blood when it comes to Mr. Juncker’s post,” he said. “I can only warn against it. Let him work in peace.”
In the wake of the Brexit vote, however, critics have accused his European Commission of setting the wrong priorities. “The day afterward, the Commission already had its legal opinion ready – which held that it alone should lead exit talks, without the [European] Council,” said Markus Ferber, vice-chair of the European Parliament’s economic and monetary affairs committee. “That was the only question they were prepared for.”
The Council, which includes the leaders and ministers from the different member states, had only wanted the Commission to handle the technical details of the negotiations with Britain. Whereas the U.K. referendum represented a vote for more autonomy from Brussels, Mr. Ferber said, Mr. Juncker’s reaction was to try and assume more responsibilities.
Since the Brexit vote, the Commission has appeared to be more preoccupied with power struggles than with taking a hard look at the E.U.’s problems. Mr. Juncker’s critics put this down to a critical lack of instinct.
As an example, they point to a dispute that emerged shortly after the June 23 vote in the United Kingdom. Brussels bureaucrats and E.U. member states disagreed over whether national parliaments should have a say over a planned trade deal between Canada and the bloc, known as CETA. Mr. Juncker, who initially deemed the topic a matter for the E.U. alone to decide, faced a backlash.
In Germany, vice-chancellor and economics minister Sigmar Gabriel described the Commission president’s position as “unbelievably foolish.” Mr. Juncker’s answer, that he “personally couldn’t care less” whether member states’ legislatures vote on the deal, didn’t help matters. Ultimately, the Commission reversed its stance, classifying CETA as a “mixed agreement” that was subject to ratification at the national level.
But the damage had already been done. Mr. Juncker’s detractors saw the incident as further proof of Brussels’ less-than-democratic outlook. Meanwhile, though British Prime Minister David Cameron and his allies bear the brunt of the blame for Brexit, critics say that Mr. Juncker also shares responsibility for the outcome of the referendum.
The E.U.’s unpopularity is not confined to Britain. Dissatisfaction with Brussels is growing because the very freedom of movement and trade that has provided Europeans with more prosperity overall has produced losers as well, primarily among those who have lost their jobs.
Since the financial crisis, the unemployment rate in the European Union has grown from 7.2 percent to 9.4 percent. Young people have been hit especially hard, and Brussels is still searching for sure-fire ways to support those left behind by the European project.
There are calls within the E.U. bureaucracy for self-reflection, however. The vice president of the European Parliament, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff – one of Mr. Juncker’s supporters – has called for a European convention, “a meeting of national governments, European members of parliament and national parliaments.”
Mr. Lambsdorff envisions the event as an open congress, not a technical summit to be conducted behind closed doors. “We need a debate over what kind of Europe we want in the future,” he said. “There is great demand for participation and democratization.”
If he sets out visions as the political president of the Commission, there’s often a firm rejection from member states that follows, particularly from Berlin. Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, Vice President, European Parliament
Even if Mr. Juncker were to throw his backing behind such a debate, however, the most powerful member states have rejected the idea – and are the reason why it hasn’t yet been realized.
“Juncker has a dilemma,” Mr. Lambsdorff said. “If he sets out visions as the political president of the Commission, there’s often a firm rejection from member states that follows, particularly from Berlin. On the other hand, it’s his job to take the E.U. where the people expect it to go.”
Like his predecessors, Mr. Juncker finds himself with his hands tied. As has traditionally been the case, what the president of the Commission can and can’t do, and which successes he can personally claim versus what heads of government reserve for themselves, are often decided in Paris and Berlin.
It’s been no different on the issue of refugees. From the start, Mr. Juncker had called for a common European policy on asylum seekers, but the answer from Berlin was less than encouraging. The former German interior minister, Hans-Peter Friedrich, said simply, “Lampedusa is in Italy.” What he meant was clear: Rome should have to deal with the refugees landing on its shores.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2015, when refugees were waiting on the German border, that Mr. Juncker was given a mandate to hammer out a European compromise on the refugee issue. Eastern European states, which bristled at the idea, couldn’t help but notice how quickly Brussels’ position changed once Berlin was called upon to act.
In government circles, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s relationship with Mr. Juncker has been likened to her sober interactions with most other politicians. After he won the election as president of the European Commission, Ms. Merkel was keen to rein in his influence. Yet so long as he represents the German chancellor’s vision of Europe, he is left to do his job.
Most recently, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble was the one to reiterate Ms. Merkel’s thinking on the European Union, calling for an “intergovernmental approach” to key issues facing Europe. “If the Commission doesn’t join in, then we should take matters into our own hands and just solve the problems among governments,” he told a German newspaper.
As with the refugee issue, eastern European governments have felt largely excluded from key decision-making. With enough support from Eastern Europe, Mr. Juncker has the potential to override Paris and France in the European Council. But, as one European representative from the region said, “The Commission only listens to Paris, Berlin and Rome. They rarely do to us.”
Poland’s ruling party leader Jarosław Kaczyński has taken the criticism a step further, accusing Mr. Juncker of being directly responsible for the Brexit vote. Yet even his strongest detractors aren’t looking to oust the Commission president from his post. “That would only lead to further destabilization right now,” one source said.
Even his critics concede that Mr. Juncker embodies the European idea like few others – and has always fought fiercely for it.
Yet, that does not necessarily guarantee that he will be the one to lead that project in the future.
Alexander Demling and Diana Fröhlich are political reporters for Handelsblatt, Jens Münchrath leads the paper's economics and financial policy coverage, Christian Rickens heads the paper's Agenda desk, Thomas Sigmund is Berlin bureau chief. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected]