Jean-Claude Juncker’s a fool, but he certainly isn’t harmless
The European Commission president is rude, smug, frequently sozzled - and on a mission to create a country called Europe
You want to understand why Britain voted Leave? Here is an explanation in three words. Jean. Claude. Juncker. There he was again last week, reminding us of all the self-satisfied, antiquated and anti-British attitudes that the country rejected in 2016.
Though commentators focused on president of the European Council Donald Tusk’s “special place in hell” remarks, it was in reality far more obnoxious to watch Juncker cooing with Republic of Ireland leader Leo Varadkar over a card from a Dublin woman asserting that “Britain does not care about peace in Northern Ireland”.
That the president of the European Commission thought it right to release the text is proof, if proof were needed, that his resentment against Britain outweighs his interest in the prosperity of the EU’s remaining members.
Britain reacted wearily, almost resignedly. Its people have reached the point where their blazing rows have given way to quiet contempt. The tipsy Luxembourger embodies everything Britain was voting against in 2016. If you want a perfect symbol of the remote, smug, entitled Brussels bureaucracy, look no further.
Consider, first, the sheer number of occasions on which Juncker appears out of control in public. YouTube is full of scenes in which the apparently sozzled Eurocrat staggers around, slaps national leaders, grins stupidly at the cameras and ruffles women's hair. The official line is that Juncker is suffering from sciatica, but watch the footage for yourself and see if that looks like only sciatica.
Or consider his chronic rudeness to British prime minister Theresa May, from the leaking of their conversation at a private dinner in Downing Street to the way he responds to every proposal she makes, however politely, with a haughty demand for further clarity.
If he were a harmless fool, it wouldn't matter. But Juncker's personal failings are matched by a burning ambition. He wants to be the man who created a country called Europe. Juncker has never hidden his belief that European integration matters more than anything else. More than following the dots and commas of the law. More than the ancient freedoms of Europe's nations. More than democracy.
His refusal to come to terms with the British referendum result is hardly surprising. When France was about to vote on the European Constitution in 2005, Juncker, then prime minister of Luxembourg, did not bother to hide his contempt for the whole process.
“If it’s a Yes, we will say ‘on we go’, and if it’s a No, we will say ‘we continue’,” he declared. France voted No and, sure enough, the EU continued along the road to federalism, swatting that result aside as if it hadn’t happened.
Perhaps Juncker’s dislike of the ballot box reflects his own experience. Luxembourg elected him as its leader for a remarkable 19 years. OK, in population terms, that’s like being leader of a suburban council; still, it was a lengthy stretch. As time passed, though, Luxembourg's prosperous and peaceable inhabitants began to tire of his autocratic behaviour, and there was a sense of relief after he fell from office in a scandal involving the tapping of politicians’ phones and the keeping of secret files.
It later turned out, though, that a far more serious scandal had taken place under his supervision. Big companies had been offered secret tax sweeteners to relocate to Luxembourg, in apparent contravention of EU rules. In 2017, we learnt that, even as he was publicly demanding a common EU tax policy, he was working in Luxembourg to get around Brussels rules in order to persuade some big multinationals to register in the Grand Duchy.
Luckily for him, by the time that scandal broke, there was a reluctance in Brussels to pursue it. Why? Possibly because the European Commission was by then run by ... Jean-Claude Juncker.
The Eurocrat's Eurocrat, Juncker was delighted when he was promoted from Luxembourg to Brussels in 2014. And it was a promotion, no question. Theresa May is paid £150,000 a year, Emmanuel Macron £160,000, Angela Merkel £190,000, Donald Trump £327,000. But Jean-Claude Juncker? As president of the European Commission, he earns £353,000 – and, unlike the national leaders, doesn't pay national taxes on it.
The shocking thing, though, is not the dosh (all Eurocrats are well looked after). It’s not the public tousling, kissing, slapping and staggering. It’s not even the political scandals. No, the truly outrageous thing is the way in which, far from disguising his dislike of democracy, Juncker seems to revel in it.
“When it becomes serious, you have to lie,” he cheerfully declared in 2011. He was talking about Greece’s economic crisis but, frankly, those words could apply to much of the European project.
Accused of being hostile to public opinion, he replied with extraordinary flagrancy: “I’m ready to be insulted as being insufficiently democratic, but I want to be serious. I am for secret, dark debates.”
Yet this was the man EU leaders voted to make president of the European Commission by 26 votes to two – the only No votes coming from Hungary and Britain, David Cameron being well aware of the catastrophic impact Juncker was likely to have on the Remain campaign.
Sure enough, Juncker became an unwitting Leave asset. Shortly before the vote, for example, he took it into his head to threaten Britain, describing Leavers as “deserters” who “will have to face the consequences”. The word “deserters”, of course, is a military term, and the “consequences” of desertion are, typically, to be court-martialled and shot. It didn’t go down well.
Since the vote, he has shown no interest in trying to get the best deal for the 27, because that would mean also having a good deal for Britain. The prosperity of each side is tied up with the other, which is why most EU national leaders want a no-nonsense trade deal with the UK that protects their own interests. But Juncker doesn’t want a mutually advantageous outcome. He would rather see all sides suffer than watch a post-EU Britain succeed.
And yet, in a funny way, he has done Britain a favour. Remember – he won by 26 votes to two. He is not some bizarre aberration, some unique federalist throwback. He is the candidate whom the rest of the EU saw as the most suitable leader for the bloc.
Look at him. Ponder those numbers. Can you still doubt that Britain is dealing with a dysfunctional organisation? The sooner Britain is out, the better.
- © The Sunday Telegraph