In the caricature of the British press, Jean-Claude Juncker is a dangerous, drunk, anti-British, European arch-federalist, whose father was conscripted into the Wehrmacht. As European Union leaders prepare to choose Mr Juncker as the next president of the European Commission, blocking Mr Juncker has become a vital national interest for Britain’s David Cameron. The entry of such a man to the Berlaymont, Mr Cameron warns, could hasten Britain’s exit from the EU.
In the flesh, however, Mr Juncker is rather hard to dislike. At a time when politicians are bland, Luxembourg’s former prime minister is a dinosaur who loves to drink, smoke, gossip and joke. He can be disarmingly frank, such as when admitting he had to lie to save the euro. It is the nature of the commission to pursue integration. And Mr Juncker’s run-ins with Tony Blair should be kept in perspective: his bad relations with Nicolas Sarkozy scarcely make him anti-French.
Mr Juncker’s faults are of a different, less sensational variety. First, for all his experience, the 59-year-old is past his prime and offers little new to regain voters’ trust after the rise of anti-EU parties in May’s elections. He lacks the administrative skill to reform an unwieldy bureaucracy. Yet it would not be the first time that the EU has opted for unthreatening mediocrity: two previous Luxembourgers, Gaston Thorn and Jacques Santer, spring to mind.
The second, deeper problem is that Mr Juncker has been chosen by an indirect system known as Spitzenkandidaten, or “lead candidates”, which sets a bad precedent. Instead of being picked by a consensus of European leaders, the commission president has emerged via a promise from the main pan-European political parties that the candidate from the largest group would run the commission. Mr Juncker was the choice of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), which came top in May. The change shifts power from elected governments to the parliament, and endangers the commission’s many functions requiring impartiality, including competition policy.
The son of a steelworker, Mr Juncker entered Luxembourg politics soon after graduating in law from the University of Strasbourg. On the “social” wing of the Christian Democrats, he was elected to the chamber of deputies in 1984, immediately became labour minister and then finance minister in 1989. He became prime minister in 1995, succeeding Mr Santer. Mr Juncker will be the third commission president from Luxembourg, a grand duchy of just half a million souls that enjoys the EU’s highest living standards, thanks to the bounty of financial services. Such prominence is in part due to the fact that, squeezed between France and Germany, Luxembourg acts as a bridge between the two.
Mr Juncker’s life has been bound up with the euro. He negotiated the Maastricht treaty, served 18 years as prime minister and was president of the euro group of finance ministers. (His was a supporting role: phone records show that during the euro crisis the American treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, spoke to him just twice, compared with 58 calls to the European Central Bank president and 36 to the German finance minister.) In January 2013 his colleagues had had enough of his rambling late-night meetings lubricated with cognac and replaced him with a Dutchman, Jeroen Dijsselbloem. In Luxembourg a spy scandal came to a head in July 2013, forcing Mr Juncker to resign. His Christian Democrats were still the biggest party after October’s election, but his coalition partners switched sides to back the Liberals’ Xavier Bettel.
Mr Juncker thus unexpectedly became available as a Spitzenkandidat just as Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, grudgingly accepted the idea. She supported him as the EPP nominee mainly because, as a recognisable name and a fluent German-speaker, he could cross swords with Martin Schulz, the German president of the European Parliament who was lead candidate for the centre-left. But when the EPP won, Mrs Merkel found that she could not turn her back on Mr Juncker without being accused of betraying the promise of more democracy.
Suicide in Flanders field
The Spitzenkandidaten system has now acquired a force that nobody except for Mr Cameron dares challenge. At a summit on June 26th-27th, starting with a dinner in the town of Ypres, scene of carnage in the first world war, he will stage a last desperate charge against Mr Juncker. He will be almost alone. Cowardice, the prime minister will shout; suicide, the rest will respond.
Mr Cameron may well be fighting the right battle, but with the wrong tactics. He responded late to the threat of Spitzenkandidaten; he misread the political constraints on Mrs Merkel (again paying a price for pulling his Conservatives out of the EPP); and he allowed a question of principle to become a personal attack.
Mr Juncker will become an accidental president because he is most people’s second choice. He himself hoped to be president of the European Council, representing leaders, where he could have been a good backroom dealmaker. For Mrs Merkel he is better than Mr Schulz. For Mr Schulz, backing Mr Juncker is the price for increasing the power of the parliament (where he will remain president). For France and Italy, Mr Juncker is more likely to soften austerity than other conservatives. For others, support for Mr Juncker can be traded for plum jobs and other concessions. Sadly for Britain, even its closest European friends think that backing Mr Juncker is better than siding with Mr Cameron.
The odd thing is that, of the available Spitzenkandidaten, Mr Juncker is probably the least bad choice. He is neither an ultra-federalist like Guy Verhofstadt, the liberals’ man, nor a creature of the parliament like Mr Schulz. One of his main campaign pledges was to seek a “fair deal” in the renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership. Let’s see.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2014