Jean-Claude Juncker, who rose from modest origins to become the ultimate Eurocrat, has a key role in the battle to save Greece from itself or, according to taste, impose impossibly cruel conditions for salvation on a struggling nation. Here's my profile* of the steelworker's son for whom the need to tell the truth is open to debate ...
With a friend like Jean-Claude Juncker, it might be asked, what possible need does Europe have of enemies?
The question reflects a harsh assessment of the career Luxembourgish politician who, as president of the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, is a central figure in the desperate battle to stop Greece sliding out of the euro zone. But it rests, in large part, on his own record of astonishing declarations.
For many observers of Europe’s torn political landscape, it is hardly a wild exaggeration to suggest that Juncker is a man who not only regards economy with the truth as some kind of badge of office, but also has a well-honed knack of offending people.
After a testy telephone conversation with Greece’s left-wing prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, he said he felt “a little betrayed”. Urging a Yes vote in Sunday’s referendum on a new bailout deal despite the tough conditions attached, he said: “I will tell the Greeks, who I love deeply, that you shouldn’t choose suicide just because you are afraid of death.”
In a sharp riposte to the charge of betrayal, Tsipras cast doubt on Juncker’s sincerity. As if to reinforce the message of defiance to what Juncker is seen in Athens to represent, the Greek newspaper I Avgi (The Dawn), close to Tsipras’s left-wing coalition Syriza, offered shrill advice to voters: “No to blackmail, no to ultimatums, no to social bankruptcy, no to memorandums and austerity.”
Despite mass demonstrations in support of the government’s resistance of Brussels, Juncker is hoping a combination of realism, and fear of the unknown, will produce a Yes vote if no late deal is stitched together to make the plebiscite unnecessary.
But if any Eurocrat seems capable of driving Greeks onto the side of opponents of the bailout conditions, or undecided British voters into the arms of Eurosceptics ahead of their promised referendum on EU membership, it is Jean-Claude. He may have begun his term with the blessing of Europe’s strongest and probably most respected political leader, the German chancellor Angela Merkel, but he personifies a Europe that stands against the changes many demand.
In an unflattering profile in London’s Daily Telegraph, published soon after Juncker took office as commissioner last November, he was portrayed as the face of “old Europe”, one of the last believers in a federal Europe and a practitioner of the “wheeling and dealing that led to the flawed euro and EU constitution”.
Juncker dismisses such criticism. “Despite what you may read in the British press, I do not want a United States of Europe,” he told Euro MPs. “I do not believe Europe can be constructed against the nation state.”
Yet the Greek complaint of insincerity is one Juncker has made it hard to shrug off. While it may be naive to believe that men and women of power and influence never resort to half-truths, Juncker must be a rarity in publicly presenting the necessity to lie as a virtue.
In an earlier stage of the long-running Greek debt crisis, he offered the thought: “When it becomes serious, you have to lie.”
Juncker, who turned 60 five weeks after the European parliament elected him to the presidency, was born close to Luxembourg’s Belgian border, in the small town of Redange-sur-Attert. His background is working class. He attended a boarding school run by apostolic priests in Clairefontaine, Belgium, before returning to Luxembourg to take the Baccalaureate. He then studied law, reportedly without distinction, in Strasbourg, France, where it is believed he met his future wife, Christiane Frising.
Rather than practise in the legal profession, Juncker – by then a member of the centre-right Christian Social People’s Party (CSV) – went straight into politics. Initially a parliamentary secretary, he was elected to the chamber of deputies in 1984 and, still only 29, handed a cabinet post as employment minister.
Ministers of other EU-member nations were quick to note his staunchly pro-Europe philosophy as he chaired meetings of the council of European communities. Already identified as a man being groomed as a successor to the prime minister, Jacques Santer, he rose impressively in public life.
A serious road accident in 1989 put him in a coma for two weeks, but he recovered to become finance minister, Luxembourg’s member of the board of governors of the World Bank and a principal architect of the Maastricht Treaty that created the EU. He played a major role in pushing through the treaty’s clauses on economic and monetary union, paving the way for the launch of the euro, now used by 19 of the 28 EU members.
He finally became his country’s prime minister in 1995 when his political mentor, Santer, moved to Brussels to assume the EC presidential role that Juncker occupies today. His international profile rising again, he scored a notable success in 1996 by brokering agreement between France and Germany, then headed by Jacques Chirac and Helmut Kohl, on a monetary policy dispute.
In all, Juncker served for more than 18 years as prime minister, following a smooth first term by winning a second and then a third election. He also had two spells as European Council president and was the first permanent president of the Eurogroup of single currency finance ministers.
Controversies, plentiful and varied, have punctuated his public life, however. In 2004, he faced embarrassment at an EU summit after prematurely announcing the death of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He blamed a misunderstanding.
Eight years later, he was caught up in a scandal over wire-tapping by the Luxembourg state intelligence agency. Although he denied wrongdoing, Juncker was criticised in the parliamentary inquiry report that found he had been deficient in his control of the service and bore political responsibility. Losing the support of his coalition partners, he resigned, called a snap election and – though winning the largest number of seats – lost out to an opposition coalition.
Days after he began his EC presidency, further damaging allegations surfaced, claiming that Luxembourg had become a major centre of tax avoidance while he was prime minister. This sat uneasily with a declaration he made earlier in the same year that he wanted to “put some morality, some ethics into the European tax landscape”. But Euro MPs rejected a motion of censure by a large majority.
Juncker has also raised eyebrows with occasional eccentricity, as he showed at an EU summit in Latvia in May. There, he suggested the Greek prime minister, who favours casual dress, should wear a tie – and offered him his own. He patted the stomach of a Belgian politician after commenting on his weight, kissed the head of the Belgian prime minister Charles Michel and greeted the right-wing Hungarian premier Viktor Orban by addressing him as “dictator”, slapping his cheek for good measure.
For Juncker’s spokesman, the gestures summed up his “informal style”. Not for the first time, however, others suggested he may have been drinking. This time it was mischief-making websites; more than a year earlier a Dutch minister had described him as a heavy drinker, prompting Juncker to deny having an alcohol problem.
He lives in an unremarkable house and, according to Britain’s Daily Mail, “pootles about the suburbs with his wife in a Volvo estate, and dresses like a low-grade bank clerk”. The Mail, implacably hostile to the sort of Europe Juncker defines, also repeated German media claims that his father-in-law had wartime Nazi links as a “propaganda commissar” aiding the “Germanification” of Luxembourg.
This weekend, if the EU’s will prevails over Greek rebelliousness, Juncker will be able to claim some of the credit for helping to make Athens see the Brussels definition of good sense.
Alexis Tsipras, the man with the impossible task of squaring the circle of Greece’s debt with Greek hostility to austerity, has been urging his compatriots to vote No.
In doing so, he may have been pondering another of Juncker’s infamous quotations, also applied to economic reforms of the sort Greece is resisting: “We all know what to do. We just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.”
* See this at the website of The National, Abu Dhabi at https://www.thenational.ae/arts-lifestyle/jean-claude-juncker-mr-honestly-dishonest#full. My fuller portfolio can be seen at https://www.thenational.ae/authors/colin-randall.