An experienced statesman in European politics, Jean-Claude Juncker is recognised everywhere in Luxembourg, and for good reason. Juncker has been at the helm of this country of around 500,000 people for nearly 19 years. But today, it’s a Europe of 500 million people that he’s turned his attention to, because Juncker is a candidate for the presidency of the European Commission. It’s a good time to learn a little more about the man.
Leading the European People’s Party at the age of 59, Juncker is seen as something of a maverick in politics. He joined the Luxembourg Christian Social Party at only 20 years old and began his political career fresh out of law school. A minister by 29, he became the head of government at 40 and only left 18 years later because he was pushed out by a spy scandal .
Juncker is also one of the architects of the Maastricht Treaty – the framework for the single European currency and fittingly, was dubbed “Mr Euro” in 2005 after he took on the leadership of the Eurogroup.
Cheerful and even playful by nature, his tone becomes more serious when discussing the crisis.
He stepped down from the top job at the Eurogroup in 2013 after firefighting the crisis from summit to summit. But he is European at heart and European he remains . It’s a conviction rooted in childhood as Henri Grethen, who’s known him since the 70s, explains.
“The experience of his father, who was forced to fight in a Nazi uniform, the suffering his father’s generation were forced to submit to, all had a profound impact. His father spoke of his experiences during the second World War and transmitted this desire not to see history repeat itself on the continent”.
But even a Europe at peace is not enough to win over voters. So Jean-Claude Juncker criss-crosses the continent in an American-style campaign to raise his profile and carry his message of a more integrated Union. But, as he puts it, he wants a European Union with less bureaucracy and fuss.
“Europe has to tackle big things and stand tall on the big issues but step away from the tiny little finicky details, instead of pissing off – sorry to express myself in any old French but it’s a language anyone in the world will understand – instead of pissing people off with little rules and regulations that don’t get Europe anywhere”.
An advocate of what he calls a social market economy , Jean-Claude Juncker calls for a minimum wage across all the countries in the Union. But would he have enough leverage to impose this? Luxembourg Socialist and MEP Robert Goebbels, a long time political opponent, seriously doubts it.
“I personally think he is honest when he speaks of the need for social policy, the need for a minimum wage in all countries of the European Union. He says it and believes it, but can’t do anything about it now because he’s somehow tied down by Angela Merkel. Without Angela Merkel and the support of Germany’s CDU- CSU, he wouldn’t be the candidate of the EPP”.
But Juncker rejects the issue of any kind of ties to the German leader.
“I don’t depend on Merkel and I will never pretend that Mr Schulz (candidate of European Socialists ) depends on Mr Holland. Why is it that my motives and intentions are brought into question but not others? Quite frankly, I do not care”.
Is Jean-Claude Juncker uncompromising? Charles Goerens, a Liberal MEP and former minister in one of Junckers’ governments, certainly thinks so.
“He’s not the kind of person to want to please everyone, quite the opposite. He says what he means and if necessary is even willing to give up a position rather than capitulate to his peers”.
Defending policies, delivering speeches and spending a lot of time on the stage is the lot of all the main candidates in the European elections. This Christian Democrat candidate has an enthusiastic approach, which critics say is a bit worn now.
Henri Grethen is a former Luxembourg minister and praises the staying power of Juncker.
“In politics, 35 years is an eternity. There are very few personalities in Europe or worldwide – even in democracies, I’d like to stress – that have carried the burden for so long. So it’s natural that he’s become a bit jaded”.
During a break in his campaign tour, Jean-Claude Juncker returned to Luxembourg and his home in the small town of Capellen. A breath of fresh air for a public figure who jealously guards his privacy.
Gilberte Nerden, a resident from Capellen said the town allowed for discretion and place to escape.
“It is still important to him as a political man that he also has a corner where he can feel safe and at peace, where he won’t be bothered. So I’d say there’s a lot of respect for that”.
Jean-Claude Juncker was also the man at the helm of the ship when the euro was in turmoil. He even navigated the murky waters of the ensuing fallout, says his prior mentor and former EU Commission President Jacques Santer.
“It’s important to know where we came from. This was the first serious crisis, the most serious crisis since the Great Depression of the 30s, and we still do not have the instruments to deal with this crisis, we had no economic governance and in that context, he had to innovate to find ways to accommodate all the different directions … and he succeeded in the end”.
We catch up with Jean-Claude Juncker in Cyprus, a country in southern Europe receiving financial assistance. Today they’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of joining the European Union. But lately, with austerity, a stalling economy and rising unemployment, Europe has not been as popular. Jean-Claude Juncker had stepped down from Eurogroup before Cyprus was given its aid conditions, although he was involved in previous bailouts.
Despite the Union’s current economic sluggishness, Juncker remains optimistic.
“We may have exaggerated in terms of rigour, but the results are there to show that the programmes were ultimately successful in Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Spain as regards the banking sector. If we hadn’t reacted this way, the situation today would have been worse”.
And he believes that above all, Europe is about having shared values.
“As I approach the kind of age where one can claim the odd glimpse of maturity, I think the main virtue, the main quality of Europe is tolerance and the common interest we must have for each other. Europe, then, is also about showing love to others.