Former Luxembourg prime minister and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker sat down for an interview with Delano’s sister publication Paperjam, speaking about the pandemic, governing and staying out of party politics.
You always pleaded for solidarity in Europe, but this seems to be regularly undermined. Do you share this impression?
Yes, this was the case during the banking crisis, before 2010, then after 2010. Notably in 2015 and the aftermath of the Greek crisis. I pleaded at the time for the need in Europe to all remain united, which we have been able to, notwithstanding some tumultuous events. At the start of the pandemic, this solidarity was again tested: borders were closed, we saw unfriendly behaviour and comments between countries ... But in the end, everything was restored.
What is this due to? Is it that some people at some point bang their fist on the table? Is it because common sense takes over?
It's because there is a need. Necessity is a powerful driving force in politics. Those who were in European affairs had to manage this large debt, decided and authorised by the Commission; there was no choice. It reminded me of the ideas put forward in 2009 and 2010 and my proposal to issue eurobonds.
Did you at any point have fears for the future of Europe because the rumblings were so strong?
Yes, at the time of the Greek crisis and then when Germany suggested Greece temporarily leave the eurozone. I radically opposed this, because it would have bolstered the idea in public opinion that the euro was a good element to start with but didn't hold up when major difficulties loomed on the horizon. The big world players--China, the US…--would have seen the European currency as an ephemeral element, whereas I wanted everyone to understand that it was irreversible.
I really had great difficulties with almost the entire German political establishment and the press in that country as well. But I always wanted unwavering solidarity with Greece. It wasn’t pleasant either, for it was also necessary to ask the Greeks to change tack and make them accept major sacrifices.
Was it also a showdown between the Commission and EU member states?
They wanted me to understand that the Greek rescue was not a prerogative of the Commission but of the members. However, for me, and on reading the articles of the Treaties, it was always obvious that the Commission is in charge of the general interest of Europe. To dismiss Greece would have been to shatter the euro, with all the consequences behind it. It was harder to manage than Brexit.
And history has proven you right...
I don't like big words. I only did my duty, along with others, like François Hollande's France.
Is the Greek crisis very different from the health crisis that began in 2020?
It’s not comparable. When substantial sums of money were aligned for Greece against drastic economic policy, public opinion was not ready to accept it. At the outbreak of the pandemic everyone saw the need for European solidarity. During the Greek crisis it was necessary to convince. During the health crisis it was necessary to support. The citizens understood that even the largest member state of the European Union could not do anything on its own.
What lessons will we learn from the health crisis? That the next step is a Europe of health?
We have seen that the Commission having few instruments at its disposal, since the treaties made health in principle the responsibility of states, was not the right approach. In 2003-2004, my government proposed extending the powers of the union and the Commission to the field of health. This was rejected outright by most member states. No one would dare to take that position now. Those in support of European competences in the health field or that of public health will win.
This crisis was also a moment of awakening for Europe. Governments have seen that public opinion follows those who make solidarity the underlying argument for all future European action. Which is unique, but also both sad and interesting. Rarely does a crisis strike the same way at the same time as it did here.
Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a crisis that strikes everyone individually to realise that a priori it is the community approach that is the best.
Are vaccine orders a good example?
If each state had ordered its own vaccine, the small mess currently observed would have been complete chaos.
How did you observe the management of the crisis in Luxembourg?
As a citizen, I believe that at the start of the crisis, the government acted with restraint but with a certain enlightened pragmatism. Subsequently, there were communication errors, but they seem inevitable in a context like the one we have seen. It blurred the picture a bit, but eventually everything was back to normal.
I'm definitely not saying that I would have done something else or different. Even though we don't all have the information the government has, and the opposition was right on some points, we have done rather well.
The art is to find a balance between maintaining individual freedoms, the economy, public health...
It’s a vast mission. During my studies, I took a course on civil liberties, so this subject interests me a lot. The situation did not make it possible to develop a discourse on public freedoms that would have been understood, but neither should one have a cavalier attitude towards them. I hope that we will find the path of wisdom which is the one that explains that these violations of freedoms are only temporary and in connection with exceptional circumstances.
Should they be voted by a majority greater than a simple majority?
It would have been better, but the opposition parties don’t always have the same information as the government--which sometimes communicates weakly--and therefore are occasionally surprised. But in exceptional circumstances the art of governing becomes victim of the constraints of the moment. Moreover, very often--but not only here-- we replace the art of governing, rarely perceptible, with the profession of governing.
But is the opposition doing its job properly?
I resist the temptation to give public recommendations, certainly not to the government. And a member of an opposition party, neither to them. At a certain age and after a long political career, one must be able to abstain.
You must be asked for your opinion from time to time?
No, my party knows that I am available to gauge their choices. But I keep the curtains closed when it comes to intervening in domestic politics.
You’re done with Luxembourg politics for good?
Yes. I don't like playing mother-in-law, giving advice left and right. I have never criticised my predecessors, I do not criticise my successors ... It’s better to think 15 times before speaking.
And yet the CSV could use some advice. We know that there are internal tensions between the president, the faction... Is it a problem or just a little vanity?
A large, popular party--and the CSV is the only one left to us--is always crossed by currents given the composition of its leadership and the bigger complexity of reality than in parties with narrower lists.
The CSV is the last major popular party in Luxembourg?
Obviously, just look at the election results. We were at 26 mandates, then 23 and 21, but no one is interested since the other three parties decided to govern together before the results were even published. In 1999, I became Prime Minister when we had 19 seats and the other parties had 15 or 14 seats.
There is a huge difference between the electoral results of my party--which supports the idea that we have remained a popular party--and the historically mediocre results of the socialists and liberals. Their results do not suffer any comparison with the results obtained in previous decades.
In 1964, but who will remember it, the Socialist Party [LSAP] had more votes than the Christian Socialist Party [CSV]. We just had one more seat because of the peculiarities of the electoral system. In the long term and today, the CSV, which must be able to do better, is a party which in Luxembourg society is more influential than the other parties. Even if the other parties are not negligible forces.
Isn't there a figurehead missing from CSV?
I have never been one of those who thinks that our political system needs figureheads who run everything and impose their point of view at all times and on everyone. Even when my popularity was at 93% I never believed that 93% of Luxembourgers agreed with me. Politics is acting, reacting and thinking… as a group. This does not mean that during difficult times we must not ensure that the point of view defended by the prime minister is the one that should prevail. But these circumstances are very rare.
This interview was first published in French on Paperjam.lu and has been translated and edited for Delano.