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Jean-Claude Juncker was in Stuttgart to address the Baden-Württemburg parliament and take part in a public forum on Tuesday.
Photo: European Union
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker was in top form during a discussion on Brexit and the EP elections in Stuttgart on Tuesday evening.
Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting with British prime minister Theresa May, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has reiterated his view that the answer to finding a Brexit deal that is acceptable to the UK parliament lies in London, not Brussels. “The UK sometimes acts as though it is the EU that is leaving it, whereas it is precisely the other way around,” he said on Tuesday evening.
Speaking at the public meeting in Stuttgart, where he also addressed the parliament of Baden-Württemburg, Juncker said he respected May for “her courage and her assertiveness, or rather her fortitude”. But he told the audience he didn’t think the two would make progress on Wednesday--“but I didn’t say that,” he joked.
Juncker was scathing of the role David Cameron played during the referendum, saying he was “the greatest destroyer of modern times” and revealing that the then-British prime minister had urged Juncker not to visit London during the referendum campaign. “He thought, rightly, that the Commission is less loved in Britain than elsewhere. Which is quite an achievement,” he said wryly.
Questions not addressed
But that meant that many of the questions that have since been raised during the Brexit negotiations were never addressed during the campaign. “There were some 800 or 900 dramatic questions that we now have to answer, but that the British didn’t want us to talk about,” Juncker said. He cited the problem of civil aviation regulations--for example, a plane won’t be able to fly from London to Brussels and then on to Rome. “It will have to return empty back to the island.” A self-professed dog lover, Juncker also cited the dilemma faced by the owners of the 250,000 household pets that travel between the UK and the European mainland every year, but which will now have to be quarantined for four days on both sides of the Channel. “And nobody will get to cuddle their dog or cat. But we are seeking solutions. The Commission has made continency planning to find answers to all these questions. But it remains a catastrophe.”
Asked whether an extension of Brexit is likely and if so whether British citizens will get to vote in the May elections for the European Parliament, Juncker was again forthright and witty. “Nobody in Europe will want to stand in the way of a request to extend Brexit. And if the UK is still a member on election day, they will have to vote. The laughable is not fatal in Europe, otherwise Brussels would be littered with corpses.”
EP not the place for traditional party politics
Speaking of the elections and recent polls that suggest the centrist parties in Strasbourg would lose significant numbers of seats, Juncker said he was of the opinion that the European Parliament is not the place for traditional party politics. He warned that under changed circumstances from 5 years ago when he was elected, Manfred Weber, the lead candidate of the EPP grouping, may not be green lighted as his successor at the Commission even if the EPP “wins” the election. “I just hope for a pro-European majority in the European Parliament, however it may be configured.”
Juncker also added his voice to those calling for Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party to be expelled from the EPP group. He even compared the party to Marine Le Pen’s and said, “there are certain votes you just don't want.”
But asked why voter turnout is low in the EP elections, Juncker said he thought that the political parties themselves did not take the EP elections seriously enough, that they were a low priority after national and communal elections. “In Luxembourg turnout was 89.9%. I don’t want to tell you that it is mandatory to vote in Luxembourg,” he joked after the former statement received a round of applause. “After all mandatory voting had resulted in me being prime minister for 19 years.”
Juncker even considered whether mandatory voting should not be introduced for the EP elections. “Because those who don’t vote are playing with the future of their children and their children’s children.”