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Jean-Claude Juncker gives his take on Merkel's European legacy

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By Efi Koutsokosta
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Jean-Claude Juncker gives his take on Merkel's European legacy
Copyright  euronews

The outgoing German chancellor, Angela Merkel, is by far the longest-serving political figure amongst all current EU leaders. She helped steer the bloc through the migration crisis, the euro crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. But what is her real European legacy?

To give some insight into Merkel's time as Chancellor and her role within the EU, euronews spoke to another long-serving European political leader, the former EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker.

Can you share with us some of Angela Merkel's memorable moments, things that you will never forget from the years that you worked together?

Former President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker:

"Oh, she is a person full of humour, although she's known in Germany as being down to earth, serious, she was always imitating colleagues, including myself. But she never imitated me when I was there. But she was imitating Sarkozy, Trump and others in a marvellous way. She was an artist in doing so."

Do you remember any clashes you may have had in the past during all these crises?

Former President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker:

"Well, I had clashes with her. Yes, clashes, yes, major disputes, mainly on Greece because the Germans, her own parliamentary group, the German press, did not respect the dignity of the Greek people. And so I was telling her that Greece was different from the view she had on Greece."

Could you say that you convinced her?

Former President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker:

"No, I was trying to do so. I was successful together with others, mainly and namely the French president, Francois Hollande, at that time and, yes, her own finance minister, Schäuble, who was a good friend of mine, and by the way, he was a very pro-European guy. He wanted to exclude Greece on a temporary basis from the euro area. I was a strong opponent to that idea. She never shared that idea, but she never was denying the usefulness of that idea. But by the end of the day, she's always reasoning in a perspective, she thought that this could lead us into troubled waters with Italy and some others."

What you've described and how she's generally described is as a pragmatist politician. But to you, what was her biggest achievement and what was her biggest failure?

Former President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker:

"I think her biggest failure was the reluctance she showed during the Greek crisis because of her hesitations and her reluctance, we were losing time. Greece could have been helped earlier."

Apart from Greece, in general, what was her biggest achievement? What was the biggest part of her legacy, her European legacy?

Former President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker:

"The biggest achievement in my view was the role she played during the refugee crisis back in August, September 2015. She was strictly against the idea to close the German border between Austria, Tyrol and Bavaria, Germany because there (too) her thinking was a perspective oriented way of approaching this major crisis because she told me, I had her on the phone in August, September 15 all the time, and we were meeting very often, she said: "what will be the image of the European Union to the outside world and what will be the image of Germany to the outside world if we are closing the borders, if we are putting army and policemen on the border with Austria, rejecting these poor people"? Many of them coming from Syria, others from Afghanistan coming from everywhere, poor people, desperate people. And she was doing that against a majority of the German public opinion and against a majority in her own parliamentary group CDU. A leader is someone who can say no to his own camp.

So she was a leader at this point.

Former President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker:

"Yes, she was a leader. What is the legacy of Merkel in Europe? The legacy is that she definitely anchored Germany in Europe. She made it clear to the German citizens that Europe is a part of the German 'raison d'Etat', and that's her major legacy because, after her, there will be no chancellor not being pro-European."

Will Germany keep its leadership in Europe after Merkel?

Former President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker:

"There is no German leadership in Europe. That's a German view shared by the Greeks and by all the others, but the European Union was never a Germany-led group of countries. That's not true. But Germany has played a major role, the biggest country, the strongest economy, the country with the highest number of European neighbours. So Germany has to play its role in the middle of the continent. And Germany is very close to middle and central and Eastern Europe. So Germany has a role to play independently from the one who is the chancellor in Germany. But she did it in a very careful, I have to say, wise and intelligent way because she was listening to all the countries, the big countries, medium-sized countries or smaller countries. She never, when I was a Prime Minister together with her, she never gave me the impression that she was treating me with benign neglect. No, no, no. She was giving me the impression that I was as important as the President of the United States."

And in the end, how will Europe look like in the years to come, according to your view, in a global scene that is changing?

Former President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker:

"The global scene is changing, but the European Union is not changing enough. We are not adapting to the future new world, the world as it's written in 2030, 2040(?). And I think that the international role of the European Union has to be increased, including the international role of the euro, our common currency. We shouldn't be too modest, but we should not try to lecture the entire world. This is a European non virtue that whenever we are in Africa or in Asia, we are telling them how to do things. They don't like that. And it's not the role of Europe to lecture the others, but to lead by example."

Do we have charismatic leaders to drive the train?

Former President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker:

"It has to be proved."

To watch the full interview of Jean Claude Juncker, click on the media player above.