Jean-Claude Juncker, the former president of the European Commission, feels calm about the future and trusts in the “noble forces” of the community.
WERTE: People living in border regions are often the first to experience the effects of war. Your family came from Luxembourg and suffered greatly under the Nazi regime. With a family history like that, was it inevitable that you would become a committed European, Mr Juncker?
Jean-Claude Juncker: That’s true. History has different melodies in border regions. The piercing melody that my family had to deal with came from the fact that my father and three of his brothers were conscripted into the German Wehrmacht – even though these young men had nothing to do with the war, with the NSDAP, with Germany. My father and uncles were victims of a process that came down upon them with colossal force. Yes, that really shaped me.
WERTE: Did your family discuss what had happened?
JCJ: Not when I was a child. I looked at my father and was curious about the injuries to his knee, his throat and his neck. I would ask him where they came from. He never gave me an answer. By the time I was 16 or 17, he had started to open up to me just a little about his war experiences.
WERTE: Would you tell us one of these stories?
JCJ: My father died in 2016, aged 92. Amongst his papers, I found some notes he had made describing his very first assignment at the front. The Germans had sent him to the Eastern Front in Russia where, straight away, he had to take part in a firing squad, without knowing why. Of course, he was completely overwhelmed by the situation – the best he could do was to shoot over the heads of the victims. Just imagine: here was a man, really just a boy, who lived in a village in the north of Luxembourg and had never been more than five kilometres away from home; on his very first day in the army, he was thrown straight into the carnage of the Wehrmacht. That was a culture shock. And shapes you for the rest of your life. It shapes your family. So my advice is: Anyone who has doubts about Europe should visit the graveyards of its soldiers.
WERTE: You were born in 1954, which makes you part of the post-war generation. You have seen Europe grow closer again. And you have helped to build this great multi-national, multi-ethnic project, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. How do you feel now as you see the pendulum swinging back in the other direction?
JCJ: I was taught by my father – who, as a steel worker, was an active union member – that the European workforce has always been pro-European. And that remains the case. So the signs of crises that we are currently seeing in Europe do not concern me unduly. I began my European life in 1982 as a young minister, and Europe has been in crisis ever since. Europe hurries from one crisis to another. It’s like a race to catch up: heading into the future but not forgetting the past. After all the turmoil of the past few years, from saving the euro to the refugee crisis to Brexit, I don’t have the impression at all that the European Union is on the point of breaking up. Of course, Brexit has profoundly affected us all. But, time and again, I’ve been aware during negotiations with the other 26 countries that, if anything, commitment to the principle of European unity has increased. Amongst the non-British member states, there is a strong will towards working together going forward.
WERTE: So you aren’t worried at all?
JCJ: I am, I worry about Europe every day, and have done for years – because I continue to understand that European integration, as an overall undertaking, is not without fragility. Things happen constantly where you ask yourself: is this a turning point, is it a rupture, is it disintegration? But ultimately, the noble forces of the European Union always come back together again, to continue the work of our fathers and grandfathers.
WERTE: However, the rise of egoism and nationalism can’t be explained away. Why are autocratic regimes currently so strong?
JCJ: This isn’t a permanent phenomenon; it’s perhaps more a case of a temporary upsurge. I put this down to the fact that history moves faster than the people who are affected by it. Our collective memory of historical events is underdeveloped. You only have to remember that over the past few decades, more than two dozen new states have been created in Europe and at its immediate peripheries. Have we really integrated into our thinking the number of states that emerged from Yugoslavia? The number of states that joined Europe after the break-up of the Soviet Union? They had to make a decision: either we flaunt our newly reclaimed sovereignty – at the cost of our neighbours and at the cost of the European Union – or we try to contribute to a Europe that is in the process of organising itself with a little more discipline. Then we had the introduction of the new currency. Monetary policy ceased to be national. European countries’ economic initiatives had to be brought together more closely than ever before. The European single market, which has been functioning since 1992, has a lot of regulations and conditions. So a lot has happened, and people’s lives have changed profoundly. It is completely understandable that people can’t really keep pace with these transformations, and may even feel lost in this new world, a world that is emerging even though they have not understood all the elements in this emergence process. It is in these times of upheaval that people are particularly receptive to populism.
Of course. When the world gets more complicated, the slogans get simpler. Populists of all kinds offer simple answers that look like solutions, but aren’t really. My worry is that these populists will manage to establish zones of influence for themselves. We have to combat this to the very best of our ability.
WERTE: You are calling on Europe to develop the capacity of playing a role in shaping global affairs. How can we achieve this, despite the various forces of disunity?
JCJ: What I observe is that the major powers admire the European Union for what it has achieved so far. Many people around the world put their hopes in the European Union, because it is seen as a stabilising force, both on its own very complicated continent and beyond. That is something that Europeans are not always aware of. We tend towards seeing ourselves as a “dwarf” – but this dwarf is growing. Particularly in Africa and Asia, there is a belief that Europe continues to be a model for global peace and order, despite all of the continent’s internal quarrels. As such, I am very much of the opinion that Europe’s international role needs to be strengthened.
WERTE: How exactly?
JCJ: I propose that we begin taking some foreign policy decisions by a qualified majority, rather than continuing to restrict ourselves with unanimous voting.
WERTE: You are calling for courageous, clear-cut European foreign policy?
JCJ: Rhetorical courage is easy. You are only truly courageous if you put words into action. It is absurd if we can’t get a unanimous decision in the Human Rights Committee in Geneva because this or that country has developed a special relationship with China. This example can be multiplied in all directions.
WERTE: Let’s stay with China. The Chinese have reactivated their Silk Road. It ends in Duisburg, in the heart of Europe. Should we be scared by this expansionist policy?
JCJ: I’m not scared, but I take China seriously. And I admire many of the achievements of the Chinese. Providing a population of 1.4 billion people with food every day is no mean feat. But I’m not deceived by China’s economic successes, which are partly a result of the Communist Party’s ability to rule autocratically. China mercilessly exploits the advantages it gains from totalitarianism. We have had endless problems, but I did manage to get across to the Chinese that European companies should have the same access to the Chinese domestic market as Chinese companies do here.
WERTE: What role does Europe’s shared set of values have in these political discussions at an international level? In 1771, the French Enlightenment writer Louis-Sébastien Mercier called for “virtuous rulers”. Is there such a thing?
JCJ: Among the many books I’ve read on history, there is one volume that I rate particularly highly: The March of Folly, by Barbara Tuchman. You can see this folly every day. The book shows how, time and again, those in power make the same errors of judgement, which leads to history developing in a way that is not advantageous to them. But it is in-built in Europe that politicians and the vast majority of citizens after 1945 have attempted to learn from the chaos of war – better than in other parts of the world. Do I know anyone who is virtuous? There’s not enough time left in this interview for me to come up with an answer to that!
WERTE: Have you yourself tried to practice virtuous politics?
JCJ: I am paragon of virtue in political matters, but not in other matters. I’ve always set store by spiritual, sentimental explanations of objective processes. I am of the opinion that humanity has intrinsic virtue, but we don’t necessarily cultivate this virtue. If you are in politics, you need to like people – love them, even. If you don’t love them, you should become a steel manufacturer or a pop singer, and leave others to shape the political future. And governing virtuously is certainly a good thing. Politics that is born out of resentment of other nations, social classes or groups of people does not do humanity any good.
WERTE: All the same, have you had to make decisions that went against your own values?
JCJ: In accordance with the British government’s wishes, I kept quiet during the run-up to the referendum, even though a lot of lies were being spread. I now believe that this reticence was a mistake. Although I don’t believe I could have changed the end result, I would have had a clearer conscience if I had stood up to the liars. And yes, there have been times when I’ve sat at a table with dictators and not said the things that I was burning to say.
WERTE: What did you do instead?
JCJ: If I had the feeling that I hadn’t said everything that should have been said, I used subsequent one-to-one conversations to do this. That gained me more respect amongst those who were less-than-exemplary democrats – although this has nothing to do with the British. In this way, I was able to get a lot of people out of prison. I would always hand over lists of political prisoners. On the shelf back there, there’s a little statue. There’s a story behind it. I was chairman of the European Council when I got a call from an African president: “I would like such-and-such an amount of financial aid”, to which I said: “And I would like you to release this trade unionist from prison, where she is currently being held without trial.” And he agreed to it, as many others have done too.
WERTE: Did you keep count?
JCJ: No. I’m just a little saint in a big church. The end of the story is as follows: One day, all of the African finance ministers were my guests in Brussels. I came out of the meeting, and suddenly a woman was standing there at the edge of the African camera crew – she handed me a statuette and said: “I have you to thank for my freedom!” I was deeply moved. Sometimes politics does make sense.
This article first appeared in the May 2020 edition of WERTE, the client magazine of Deutsche Bank Wealth Management. You can read more from the magazine at werte.com
Profile: Jean-Claude Juncker
Jean-Claude Juncker was born in 1954 in the Luxembourgian commune of Redingen as the son of working class parents. In 1979, he completed his law degree in Strasbourg. Prior to becoming Prime Minister of Luxembourg in 1995, Juncker helped to draw up the Maastricht Treaty in his role as labour and finance minister. He was head of the Euro Group for eight years. As the lead candidate for the EPP in the 2014 European elections, he beat his friend Martin Schulz to become president of the European Commission. He remained in office until the end of 2019.