Political missteps, personal health issues, doubts about effectiveness and rising Euroskepticism impair Commission chief’s self-declared mission to save the EU.
Toward the end of a Brussels press briefing this month, a reporter asked Jean-Claude Juncker for his take on “floating hotspots,” Italy’s controversial idea for the European Union to set up sea-based migrant processing centers.
The European Commission president drew a blank.
“Floating hotspot. Floating,” the reporter from Italian television repeated.
Juncker slowly twirled an index finger in the air as he tried to understand the question.
“Floating hotspots,” Juncker’s press aide, standing a few feet away, repeated in his direction. “Les hotspot bateaux,” the reporter shouted, attempting a French translation.
Juncker raised his eyebrows.
After consulting his aide, Juncker explained that while the Commission was open to all proposals there were legal concerns.
“I’m not saying no, I’m not saying yes. I’m reflecting,” Juncker concluded.
As the European Union confronts the worst crisis in its history, migration isn’t the only area where the Commission president is grasping for answers.
On a range of fronts, from border fences to Brexit to the economy, Juncker’s Commission has struggled to plough a path out of the malaise. Economic priorities — from Juncker’s much-touted €315 billion investment plan to a transatlantic free-trade pact — have yet to show significant impact or have been derailed.
Interviews with more than 40 EU politicians, diplomats and officials from countries across the EU — critics, supporters, and members of Juncker’s inner circle — as well as an analysis of his travel and meeting schedules, reveal a Commission president who is increasingly on the sidelines.
Juncker’s associates worry the multiple crises have left him politically paralyzed and worsened his health. They complain he has become disengaged from important debates, letting deputies and senior aides take the lead on key issues that should fall under the president’s purview. Given Europe’s troubled state, some question whether he’s still up to the task.
“I wish him the best and I hope that he’s able to be at the necessary level of the duty,” said Ingeborg Grässle, chairwoman of the European Parliament’s powerful budgetary control committee. “We cannot have political puppets put in the hands of someone else, this is not admissible.”
Grässle, who like Juncker belongs to the center-right European People’s Party, describes the Commission president as a “good friend.”
Others are less charitable. The decline in Juncker’s standing over the past 19 months has been so precipitous that the debate in some national capitals has shifted from what to do about it to whether it really even matters.
“The truth is we don’t see him,” a senior diplomat from a large EU country said. “People don’t complain here because he is not indispensable to the everyday functioning of the EU. We sometimes don’t notice his absence.”
Juncker came into office promising to act as a “consensus machine.” The first Commission president to claim a popular mandate after campaigning as his center-right party’s lead candidate, the longtime Luxembourg prime minister and head of the Eurogroup vowed to transform the EU’s executive from a colorless, technocratic committee into a force to reckon with.
Dubbing his team the “last-chance Commission,” Juncker promised to be “political,” to pursue a vision to drive Europe forward, to bury once and for all the Euroskeptics’ tenebrous narrative.
“Citizens are losing faith. Extremists on the Left and Right are nipping at our heels.… It is time we breathed a new lease on life into the European project,” Juncker told the European Parliament just days before taking office.
Far from winning back public trust, the Juncker Commission has lost it. Eurobarometer polls taken during Juncker’s time in office show public confidence in the Commission continuing to decline, and a Pew Research Center survey released last week found rising Euroskepticism in key member countries.
When Juncker has intervened, such as by advocating leniency for France in relation to its budget deficit violations, he has faced accusations of undermining the very principles the Commission should be enforcing. His visit to Vladimir Putin’s high-profile economic forum in St. Petersburg this week, just as the EU is preparing to renew sanctions against Moscow, is for many just the latest head-scratching moment of Juncker’s presidency.
Juncker has his defenders, even across party lines.
“He is facing multiple crises that the Commission cannot solve by itself,” said Christophe Caresche, a Socialist French MP. “His intelligence has been to manage the multiple crises without making them worse than they already were, without exacerbating the natural tensions that exist between member states.”
Juncker’s allies rattle off a laundry list of factors to explain his marginalization, from constant meddling by national capitals to the institutional limits of his office.
To be fair, the odds were stacked against the longtime Luxembourg premier from the outset. He took over the Commission at a time when Europe was still reeling from the trauma of the debt crisis. The debate over German-inspired austerity for wayward economies had deepened a north-south divide on the Continent.
Yet it was Juncker himself who promised to upend the way things were done, to reinvigorate Europe. The man who earned the nickname “Mr. Euro” for helping to steer the eurozone through the shoals of the debt crisis vowed to use his magic touch on the EU. “I’m allergic to the division in north and south, small and big, weak and strong,” he said at the time.
If nothing else, Juncker has made good on his pledge to make the Commission more political, encouraging commissioners to have a clear point of view. He has also streamlined the EU’s executive body with a new structure that gives more power to vice presidents. By all accounts the day-to-day administration of the Commission has become more efficient.
Juncker’s aides insist he is fully in control. “President Juncker devised the new structure of the Commission so as to focus on the big issues that require presidential attention, namely the refugee crisis and the Greek crisis for example,” said his chief spokesman, Margaritis Schinas, in a written response to questions from POLITICO. “President Juncker is devoting his time in managing the so-called ‘poly-crisis’ while leaving the portfolio-specific details to the vice presidents and the commissioners in their project teams.”
Schinas also dismissed criticism that the EU investment plan — which has been called “Juncker Voodoo” — had so far failed to deliver, calling it an “unprecedented success” that has “mobilized over €100 billion in investment in its first year, in 26 EU countries, well over a third of our objective for three years.”
Asked about the president’s hesitation on the question on “floating hotspots,” Schinas said Juncker was aware of the Italian plan and made it clear that he was open to considering it.
A lack of focus
What’s missing from the Juncker Commission, critics say, is an overarching strategy. Political calculation and short-term tactics, whether the issue is France’s deficit or refugees, drive the agenda. Rather than fixing a north-south divide, his migration policies have deepened an east-west one.
“It’s a more PR commission, it’s more about looks and how it looks in the press,” said Olivér Várhelyi, Hungary’s EU ambassador. “They’re drifting with current affairs.”
Some have welcomed the lack of focus. A rudderless executive creates an opening for national capitals to exercise more influence. It’s an opportunity Berlin, in particular, hasn’t hesitated to seize. During negotiations over a refugee pact with Turkey, for example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel ignored the Brussels game plan and secretly hashed out her own deal with Ankara, presenting it to the rest of the EU as a fait accompli on the morning of a crucial March summit.
Across the Rue de la Loi in Brussels’ EU quarter, European Council President Donald Tusk has used Juncker’s weakness to his own advantage, carving out a more political, more forceful role for an office originally designed to serve as a neutral arbiter between capitals.
While some in Europe applaud Tusk’s activism, others worry it has upset the equilibrium between the EU’s core institutions.
The best Europe can hope for now, officials say privately, is for the Commission to muddle through the next three years of Juncker’s term.
The question is how realistic that scenario is. Even if Europe dodges Brexit at next week’s referendum in the U.K. on its membership in the EU, economic pressures and the refugee crisis will continue to strain relations among member countries. The Commission, with its 32,000 employees and sweeping responsibilities, should be the glue that holds it all together. Instead, it’s a bystander.
The ultimate insider
With a career steeped in European politics, the polyglot Juncker seemed uniquely qualified for the post of Commission president. From the landmark Maastricht Treaty to the EU’s eastern expansion to the formation of Europe’s bailout fund, the Luxembourger had been in the middle of every important EU negotiation for a generation. If Juncker couldn’t navigate the politics between Brussels and the national governments, his backers argued, no one could.
Yet he faced difficulties from the outset.
Within weeks of taking office in November 2014, the so-called LuxLeaks documents, which exposed the magnitude of Luxembourg’s soft-touch corporate tax practices, were released. Juncker struggled to explain how in the decades he spent as finance minister and prime minister he knew little to nothing about the dodgy practices, even as they helped transform tiny Luxembourg into a global financial center and one of the world’s wealthiest countries on a per capita basis.
The scandal dented Juncker’s credibility just as he was trying to restore Europeans’ trust in the EU. Then, with the election of the leftist Syriza party in early 2015, the Greek crisis re-emerged. Juncker, a key actor on Greece from the beginning as Eurogroup chief, would spend months trying to broker yet another new deal for Athens.
Meanwhile, the number of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean had surged, the beginnings of what would prove to be an even bigger challenge for Juncker’s fledgling presidency.
A protégé of Jacques Santer (another former Luxembourg premier and Commission president) and Helmut Kohl, Juncker is credited with an innate understanding of how to manage the delicate balance between Germany and France, the EU’s foundation stone. It’s a role that leaders from Luxembourg, a country with one foot in both the Germanic and Francophone spheres, have long embraced.
Yet in Juncker’s case, that focus has also proved to be his weakness. A “Charlemagne European,” one devoted to the original core countries, Juncker is the personification of Old Europe, a throwback to an era that has ended. Unlike the men who shaped the EU’s early days, Juncker didn’t experience the war. But he shares their vision of Europe as first and foremost a “peace project” along the Rhine.
Juncker has less understanding or appreciation for the U.K. or the Union’s newer eastern members, countries that have a different history and priorities vis-à-vis Europe.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, Jean-Claude Juncker in Moscow on September 25, 2012
“Coming from Luxembourg, he’s steeped in Euro-federalism. That’s the egg he’s come out of,” said Geoffrey Van Orden, a British Conservative and an MEP since 1999. “He only really wants to listen to people who agree with the Euro-federalist line and the rest he regards as mavericks and populists.”
‘Worried about his health’
The disconnect between Juncker and those who don’t share his federalist vision for Europe has proved to be a major deficit, particularly during the refugee crisis.
Juncker’s plan to relocate 160,000 refugees across the EU so that countries would share the burden of the crisis failed in large measure because of resistance in Eastern Europe. The Commission’s recent proposal to impose financial penalties on countries that don’t accept refugees under the EU-Turkey pact has further antagonized relations between Brussels and the East.
It hasn’t helped that since becoming president Juncker has only traveled to one country in the region, Latvia, which held the rotating EU presidency in early 2015. When Juncker does travel, he tends to stay within what Brussels officials call his “comfort zone,” the original six EU countries, which he has visited 51 times since taking office, according to Commission records.
“The Commission president needs to maintain a constant dialogue with all member states, particularly with the ones that have issues or problems with the idea of the European Union,” said European Parliament Vice President Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a Liberal MEP.
Juncker’s aides say the travel schedule is part of the overall structure of delegating authority, but insist he still makes trips when needed. Schinas pointed to Juncker’s travel schedule for the week starting May 24, which included a trip to Japan for a G7 summit, then to France for ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Verdun, and stops in Luxembourg and Paris before returning to Brussels.
Another factor is his health. Plagued by kidney stones, Juncker has become increasingly frail since taking over the presidency, his associates say.
“I’m a little bit worried about his health and I know that I’m not the only one,” Grässle said.
No one knows for sure how serious Juncker’s health problems are. Schinas, his spokesman, said, “the president is in very good shape and is working full throttle.”
Just shy of 60 when he assumed the presidency, Juncker often appears tired in public appearances and speeches, or in press conferences at the end of admittedly long EU summits.
His hard-charging lifestyle has long been the stuff of legend in Brussels. A heavy smoker with a nose for wine, Juncker has had to fend off accusations about his drinking for years.
Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, a frequent Juncker critic who succeeded the Luxembourger as head of the Eurogroup, referred to him in 2014 as a “heavy smoker and drinker,” comments for which he later apologized. A Luxembourg journalist once quipped Juncker “doesn’t have a problem with alcohol but without it.”
Juncker has repeatedly denied he has an alcohol problem. Schinas said of the comments from Dijsselbloem, “This matter has been clarified between the two presidents. We are not in the business of reopening issues that predated President Juncker’s appointment to the European Commission.”
But incidents such as the welcome ceremony for the EU summit in Latvia in 2015, during which Juncker awkwardly slapped and kissed arriving dignitaries, have done little to silence the talk about his sometimes eccentric behavior. Asked about Juncker’s deportment at the Riga summit, Schinas said that it was evidence of Juncker’s “very informal and often cool style.”
Whatever the reason, there’s no question Juncker has become increasingly less engaged. He often keeps his Mondays free of outside meetings, records show. Last year, his schedule was clear of outside meetings for almost all of August.
Though he attends summits and other marquee events, such as the Verdun trip, many Brussels officials say they can’t remember the last time they saw him.
“We never see him,” one senior Berlaymont staffer said.
Schinas said Juncker took few holidays and worked long hours. “Anyone who actually knows the president knows he is the longest in the office and the most reluctant to take time off — always found in the office on bank holidays and only taking short breaks in the summer, certainly fewer than his closest staff,” the spokesman said. “In 2015 he was only away from Brussels for two weeks and in any case was permanently on the phone and continuing to work as presidents don’t ever get time off.”
When Juncker is around, he is usually holed up in his office on the 13th floor of the Berlaymont. He spends his days working the phones to Europe’s capitals as he chain smokes, officials say. When he moved in, a maintenance team reconfigured the ventilation system to accommodate his smoking habit but visitors say his chambers still reek of stale smoke. Schinas declined to comment on Juncker’s smoking or on the ventilation system.
“It is not that he is doing nothing, it is that he does a lot of it by phone,” a senior EU official said. “He talks to a lot of leaders, he knows everything, and that is obvious when you meet with him. He is ready.”
Officials who have spent time recently with Juncker report that his mood has darkened as Euroskeptic populists continue to gain ground across the Continent.
“He is less and less positive about the EU and the abilities of the member states in particular,” another senior EU official said. “You can say he is EU-depressed. He has decided simply to focus hard on a few things, especially migration and Greece. The rest doesn’t matter to him.”
“I find the Commission too weak and lacking the appropriate understanding of the need that rules are to be followed” —European Parliament Vice President Alexander Graf Lambsdorff
The vacuum created by Juncker’s disengagement has been filled in part by his powerful number-two, Vice President Frans Timmermans, to whom he has delegated key responsibilities. On Turkey, for example, it was Timmermans, not Juncker, who negotiated for the Commission. Martin Selmayr, Juncker’s chief of staff, has also gained influence, playing an increasingly direct role behind the scenes, Commission officials said.
Juncker has maintained his role as the Commission’s public face. Yet a number of his recent interviews have sowed confusion and controversy.
Speaking recently about Brexit to Le Monde he said: “Deserters will not be welcomed back,” adding, “the U.K. will have to get used to being regarded as a third-party state.”
His comments followed a pledge by the Commission to stay out of the debate in order to avoid inflaming passions.
Juncker’s most controversial statements have been about France, however.
Asked at the end of May why the Commission had repeatedly granted France leeway on its budget deficits, Juncker answered: “Because it’s France.”
The response fueled criticism that Juncker’s Commission favors big countries over smaller ones and that the president, in particular, looks the other way when Paris and Berlin bend regulations.
Some even accused him of undermining the eurozone fiscal rules in the so-called Stability and Growth Pact he helped write.
“If the Commission president says that things apply differently for France, then this really damages the credibility of the Commission as guardian of the pact,” Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister, said in an interview with several European papers. “It would be wise for the Commission to pay a little more attention to its credibility.”
Such a public rebuke of the Commission president, coming from Juncker’s successor as Eurogroup chief no less, is rare in the upper echelons of the EU and underscores the growing dismay with his administration.
Dijsselbloem wasn’t the only one to wince at the comments. “When the president of the European Commission when traveling to France declares publicly ‘Well, France gets special treatment because it’s France.’ That is unacceptable,” said Lambsdorff. “Call me a Germanic stickler for rules but this is a community of law and we have a treaty concerning the euro as well. As far as the euro is concerned, I find the Commission too weak and lacking the appropriate understanding of the need that rules are to be followed.”
‘Absurd’ to resign early
Brussels’ chattering classes have even begun speculating about whether Juncker will have to step down. The rumors aren’t new, but Juncker’s inner circle is clearly unnerved.
After a Dutch blogger repeated the rumor that Juncker would “retire soon” in a tweet last month, Selmayr shot back: “With ‘soon’ you probably mean ‘31 October 2019’. Indeed, that may be an early option.” That date is the final day of Juncker’s term.
Schinas underlined that statement, saying Juncker would stay in office even if there is a British vote to leave the EU — which some have speculated would be his excuse to leave. “President Juncker will not resign,” Schinas said. “It would be absurd for President Juncker to resign over a referendum that he has not called.”
“Terrorism, illegal immigration, the euro crisis, Brexit. It’s not easy to be leader of the European Commission,” said European Parliament Vice President Antonio Tajani.
“My assessment of Juncker’s term is really positive,” said Caresche, the French MP and a close ally of Prime Minister Manuel Valls. “He understands the need to deal carefully with member states.”
“He has understood the need to focus Europe’s actions and not to interfere excessively in member states’ affairs.”
What about Juncker’s handling of the refugee crisis and the economy?
“I think he’s made the right decisions and given this Commission the right options,” said Pierre Moscovici, France’s commissioner, who called Juncker “the best president the Commission has had since Jacques Delors.”
Moscovici denied suggestions that Juncker isn’t fully engaged.
“He is the pillar of the Commission and he’s in full control,” he said. “He’s a good manager.”
Even Juncker’s own assessments have been less effusive.
“Our European Union is not in a good state,” he said during his state of the union address in September. “There is not enough Europe in this Union. And there is not enough Union in this Union. We have to change this. And we have to change this now.”
Arnau Busquets Guàrdia, Maïa de la Baume, Jacopo Barigazzi and Nicholas Vinocur contributed to this article.