One man stands between David Cameron and his hopes of persuading Conservatives, and the country at large, that Britain is better off inside the European Union than out, and that man is very likely to become the next president of the European Commission. His name is Jean-Claude Juncker.
At this week’s G7 meeting, Mr Cameron said: “I think it’s important that we have people running the institutions of Europe who understand the need for change.” Mr Juncker, by contrast, understands only the need to keep on keeping on.
The pint-sized fixer, who is increasingly likely to succeed Jose Manuel Barroso as the president of the European Commission, ticks every box. He served for nearly 20 years as the premier of a minuscule state whose prosperity – where do companies like Starbucks, Google and Amazon choose, for excellent fiscal reasons, to base their businesses? – is totally bound up with European integration and federalism, and the more of it the merrier. As a reward for being the leader of Luxembourg, the state that likes to protect the interests of the secretive bankers upon whom it relies, he was named in 2008 – the year of the Great Crash – “European Banker of the Year”.
The charge sheet continues. In the early 1990s, he was chair of the key European body, Ecofin, which drew up the Maastricht treaty, and was largely responsible for the design of economic and monetary union which gave birth in the fullness of time to the euro. What a howling success that has been, with the European Central Bank announcing this week that it will now charge for deposits instead of paying interest on them, in a desperate effort to get eurozone wealth up off its fat behind.
He was also one of the main boosters of the doomed European constitution, refusing to recognise that, having been roundly rejected by France and other countries, it was dead in the water. That says a lot about the obduracy of his euro convictions, and his stubborn belief that measures hated right across the union can nonetheless be slipped through by sleight of hand. Of referendums on the constitution he famously remarked: “If it’s a Yes, we will say ‘on we go’, and if it’s a No, we will say ‘we continue’.” When the federalist provisions of the constitution were craftily embedded in the Lisbon treaty, he told then British premier Gordon Brown: “Of course there will be transfers of sovereignty. But would I be intelligent to draw the attention of public opinion to this fact?”
His appointment as the Spitzenkandidat or lead candidate for the next commission president by the centre-right European People’s Party group in the European Parliament may appear the crowning glory of a career during which he became the longest-serving elected leader in Europe. But in fact, like so many senior Brussels mandarins before him, his pride was preceded by a fall. After 19 years running Luxembourg, population about 540,000, as his personal fiefdom, he was forced to resign for failing to prevent or crack down on a local comic-opera spy scandal. But he did not have to pad about in the wilderness for long: in the upper reaches of the EU, in the long-ago words of Bob Dylan, “there’s no success like failure”. Defenestrated by his own voters, he will doubtless soon be sauntering insouciantly through the Brussels front door.
Born to a working-class family in the industrial south of Luxembourg in December 1954, Jean-Claude Juncker has been a professional politician all his adult life. His father, who had fought for Germany in the Second World War, was a steelworker and a member of the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions. Aged 20, Jean-Claude joined the Christian Social People’s Party in which he has spent his career. He obtained a law degree at the University of Strasbourg and was sworn into the Luxembourg Bar Council, but has never practised.
Instead he rose rapidly through the ranks of his party, becoming first Parliamentary Secretary, then gaining election to the Chamber of Deputies in 1984, when he was barely 30. He was immediately favoured by Prime Minister Jacques Santer and made Minister of Labour. His enthusiasm for the European project was quick to emerge when he took chairing roles at the Council of the European Communities.
Elected to parliament for a second time in 1989, he was handed the important finance portfolio in addition to his Labour ministry role. Santer was training him up to fill his own shoes. Once Santer became President of the European Commission, after Britain vetoed the other leading candidate, Juncker became Luxembourg’s premier for the first time at the age of 42. He held the job continuously until undone by the spy scandal last year.
As a leading member of the Eurogroup, and its president from 2005, he was one of the main architects of the euro, and as such bore considerable responsibility for the flaws in its design which led to the years of economic stagnation and mass unemployment in which the union is still ensnared. He has never shown any public regret or remorse for these problems, however: he appears convinced like the true believer in some arcane faith that Europe’s “ever-closer integration” must be driven forward relentlessly, whatever the political, social and economic costs.
Juncker’s centrality in the EU’s institutions owes much to his patient ability to thrash out one compromise after another until these vastly unwieldy European bodies can be badgered and bullied into consensus. In 1997, during the early stages of monetary union, when Britain under Tony Blair was fighting to stay in the so-called Euro-X club set up to manage the single currency, he drafted 23 separate compromises to try to appease British concerns. Britain shot down each one in turn.
Last month, this insider’s insider took his candidacy for the presidency on the road. For the first time, the party groups at the European Parliament, including the European People’s Party, will have a decisive role in anointing the candidate, so to burnish his democratic image he took his US-style campaign bus around Europe to tell voters who he was and what he wanted to do. The feedback was not impressive. In Bordeaux, a campaigner handing out pro-European flyers commented: “People like voting for personalities… [Socialist candidate Martin] Schulz and Juncker are both intellectually smart and know the EU very well. But emotionally they don’t really connect with most people.”
Juncker’s abilities as a deal-maker and a master of Byzantine Brussels procedures are beyond doubt. Now, very late in the day, he is also offering himself to Europeans at large as the very model of modern European democrat. But today a very large body of opinion is hostile to his entire project. “I want to keep Britain in the European Union,” he said back in April on his campaign bus, “but if Britain wants to stay… it has to accept that we cannot kill the basic principles” of the union. Stay tuned for another dialogue of the deaf.
A life in brief
Born 9 December 1954 in Redange, Luxembourg.
Family His father was a steelworker and a member of the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions.
Education Attended Clairefontaine, a Belgian convent school, later returning to Luxembourg to obtain his baccalaureate in the Lycée Michel Rodange. In 1979, he graduated with a master of law degree.
Career At 20, he joined the Luxembourg Christian Social Party. He never practised as a lawyer, preferring politics.