EU Commission President Juncker: 'I Don't Understand Tsipras'
EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker remains committed to preventing a Grexit. But he tells SPIEGEL that his patience is wearing thin: "I don't believe the Greek government's response has been sufficient."
SPIEGEL: Mr. Juncker, we would like to speak with you about friendship.
Juncker: A vast topic. Go ahead.
SPIEGEL: It says in the dictionary that friendship is a relationship defined by mutual affection and trust. If you use that as a guide, would you describe Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras as a friend of yours?
Juncker: There are two types of friendship. The first is rooted in goodwill, of the kind I feel for Mr. Tsipras. The second -- true friendship -- is much rarer, because it must first overcome obstacles and grow.
SPIEGEL: You began referring to Tsipras as a friend soon after he took office. More recently, though, you have begun complaining that he is incorrectly depicting the offers you have made in Athens. Were your friendly overtures to him somewhat premature?
Juncker: No, my relationship to Mr. Tsipras is, for the time being, a friendship in accordance with the word's first definition. Only later will it become clear if real friendship will grow out of that. I will, however, acknowledge that the trust I placed in him is not always returned in equal measure.
SPIEGEL: You have made concessions to Mr. Tsipras on several issues, but he is still accusing you and the other creditors of wanting to pillage Greece. Are you disappointed in him?
Juncker: One should never take personally the relationships between representatives and institutions. We are here to work for the people. On the other hand, politics cannot function without reliable personal relationships. With all due respect to the new Greek government, one has to point out that some of its representatives came into office without being adequately prepared for the tasks awaiting them.
SPIEGEL: The negotiations with the Greeks are making exceedingly slow progress, if any at all, despite the fact that the country's bankruptcy is coming closer and closer. Is it still possible to prevent the country's departure from the euro zone?
Juncker: We have to keep trying to do all we can to prevent a Grexit. You are right; we are running out of time. And some of the toxic rhetoric coming out of Athens doesn't make it any easier to find a compromise. Mostly, though, I just ignore the rhetoric, because we have to make progress.
SPIEGEL: The Greeks seem to think they can get a better deal if they remain at the poker table.
Juncker: European politics is not a card game where there is a winner and a loser at the end. On the contrary: Either everyone wins, or everyone loses. That is why it is absolutely essential that the Greek government move as quickly as it can.
SPIEGEL: Many of your colleagues have accused you of essentially inviting the Greek government to shove its chips into the middle of the table. After all, at the very beginning of the negotiations, you categorically ruled out the possibility of a Grexit.
Juncker: Had I said at the beginning of the negotiations that a Grexit was an option, it would have unleashed a wave of speculation on the financial markets. Apparently, there are some in the Greek government who have misunderstood and believe that there is someone in Europe who can pull a rabbit out of the hat in the end. But that is not the case. I have warned Mr. Tsipras many times he shouldn't depend on me being able to prevent a failure of the talks if that isn't desired by the other side. We should do everything we can to prevent a Grexit, but to do so, both sides must exert themselves. In the end, I would prefer the rabbit to bear the Greek national colors.
SPIEGEL: Do you have the impression that Tsipras understands the stakes for his country?
Juncker: I have described for him in detail what an exit from the euro zone would mean for his country on the short-, medium- and long-term.
SPIEGEL: And that is?
Juncker: Greece has experienced deep cuts to its social safety net. The result has been an unacceptable humanitarian crisis. Every morning, many people in Athens or Thessaloniki are actually faced with the question as to how they are going to feed themselves that day. The problem, though, is that the crisis would only become worse in the case of a Grexit. On the other hand, there are people in Greece who are filthy rich. I have called upon Mr. Tsipras to raise taxes on wealth in his country. Shockingly, his response to my request was not as enthusiastic as I had expected.
SPIEGEL: For five years now, international creditors have been trying to stave off Greek insolvency with vast aid packages worth hundreds of billions of euros. But unemployment in the country remains at 25 percent and gross domestic product has plunged by a quarter. Don't you have to admit that Europe's attempts to save Greece have failed?
Juncker: You are failing to mention the successes we have achieved. Although Greece's GDP has fallen dramatically, the government has presented a budget in which revenues are significantly higher than expenditures. I reject the idea that the Greeks are lying around doing nothing. Pensions have been slashed, salaries reduced and public spending reined in. Germans, in particular, have the impression that the Greeks have done nothing to free themselves from their plight. That impression is incorrect.
SPIEGEL: But the Greeks no longer want austerity. People hate the Troika and the government is cheered when it blasts the parameters laid down by the International Monetary Fund as "criminal." How can the bailout project be continued on such a foundation?
Juncker: It bothers me that the Tsipras government acts as though we in the European Commission are austerity fanatics who are crushing the dignity of the Greek people underfoot. I am upset that the Greek government acts as though the Commission is seeking a higher sales tax on electricity, to mention one example. I have told Mr. Tsipras many times that I am open to other suggestions if they result in the same revenues. Instead of complaining about the Commission, Mr. Tsipras could one day tell Greeks that I have offered a 35 billion investment program for the years 2015 to 2020 to stimulate growth in his country. I haven't heard anything about that.
SPIEGEL: Do you have an explanation?
Juncker: I don't see myself as being in a position to psychoanalyze another European government. I sometimes even find it difficult to analyze myself. But jokes aside: I don't believe the Greek government's response has been sufficient. If I were the Greek prime minister, I would sell that as an achievement and say: I pushed through the 35 billion package in Brussels. I don't understand Tsipras. In one of the positive moments during our negotiations, I once told him during a coffee break: If I had campaigned on your platform, I would have won 80 percent of the vote. But he only got 36 percent.
SPIEGEL: If Tsipras continues to reject additional spending cuts, he would only be doing what he promised to do during the campaign. Do you fault him for that?
Juncker: I, too, am of the opinion that, following an election, a politician should do what he or she promised before the vote. For that reason, politicians have to think carefully, before the election, whether they will be able to fulfill their campaign promises. European countries make up a community of destiny -- one which only works if the members can depend on each other. Unfortunately, prior to taking over the government, Mr. Tsipras adopted positions, which, in part, are in conflict with the rules governing this union. That is why his campaign promises cannot be 100 percent implemented. Mr. Tsipras should have known that.
SPIEGEL: Do you understand why another friend of yours, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, now believes that a Grexit is the better alternative?
Juncker: I am not aware of any sentence uttered by Wolfgang Schäuble that would lead you to draw such a conclusion. The German finance minister is a devoted European who, in his person, unites both the past and the future. As such, everyone -- and the Greeks in particular -- would be well advised to listen closely to this man.
SPIEGEL: Schäuble is concerned that the case of Greece could send the wrong message. If creditors are too lenient and the Greek gamble is successful, other euro-zone member states could seek to emulate Athens' chutzpah.
Juncker: That is a danger I see as well. I know that many, particularly in Germany, see me as a naive proponent of Greece. But I am very clear that solidarity and solidity belong together. While I have understanding for a temporary inability to adhere to the rules, we cannot have a situation where the one who breaks the rules is rewarded. That is why the Greek government must make clear that it is prepared to adhere to the rules.
SPIEGEL: Tsipras enjoys widespread support among the Greek populace, but at the same time, a clear majority of Greeks would like to remain part of the euro zone. Would it not make sense to ask the country's voters if they are prepared to continue down the path of austerity?
Juncker: It is erroneous to believe that one can change the reality in all of Europe with a referendum or new elections in a single country. I have explained that to Mr. Tsipras on several occasions. No matter what happens in Athens, the make-up of parliaments in other member states -- and in the German Bundestag as well -- will remain exactly as it is.
SPIEGEL: Let's assume for a moment that international creditors are successful in finding a last-minute compromise with Athens: Do you think Chancellor Angela Merkel would be able to convince German parliamentarians to back such a deal?
Juncker: If we are able to reach an understanding that is sustainable, and if it is reached in cooperation with the German government, then it would be Angela Merkel's task to convince the German Bundestag of its merits -- and I am absolutely convinced that she would be successful.
SPIEGEL: With all due respect to your optimism, the mood is quite different among Merkel's party allies. The parliamentarians have lost all desire to allow the Greek government to continue leading them around by the nose.
Juncker: I don't believe that the Greeks would be able to lead German parliamentarians or the Commission president around by their noses.
SPIEGEL: The chancellor has said that, if Greek politicians would like to see who has the strongest nerves, they are welcome to do so.
Juncker: Ms. Merkel is right. But we aren't just talking here about who has the better nerves. We are talking about the Greek people and particularly about those who find themselves in a very difficult situation.
SPIEGEL: Membership in the euro zone was long considered to be irreversible. Now, there is a distinct possibility that a country might leave the common currency area. What does that mean for Europe's future?
Juncker: You are asking a theoretical question that I don't want to consider. I want to prevent Greece's exit. And we have come a long way. Think back to the year 2010, when the difficulties began. At the time, the danger was enormous that the contagion could spread to other countries. Had Greece left the euro then, it could very well have turned into a conflagration for the entire euro zone. Today, a Grexit would still have significant consequences, but the fear that it could cause the exit of additional member states has waned considerably. Nevertheless, the entire world would get the impression that the make-up of the euro zone can be changed. We have to avoid this impression.
SPIEGEL: Greece isn't the only country that is making it difficult for you to keep the European community together. The British government would like to soon hold a referendum as to whether the country should remain a part of the EU or not. How great is the danger that Britain leaves the EU?
Juncker: We need a fair deal. The British know that Great Britain isn't the only country with red lines, but that other member states have them too. Here in Brussels, we aren't manic cheerleaders for Europe and the British are an intelligent people. We will find an agreement that is such that our friends in the United Kingdom will feel a desire to remain a lasting member of the European Union.
SPIEGEL: Yet the British prime minister would like to make some fundamental changes. He would like to remove the phrase "ever-closer union" from the preamble of the Lisbon Treaty, for example. What is your response?
Juncker: Why shouldn't some in Europe go faster than the others? If the British don't want to be part of this move, then we can make it possible for them, but in such a way that it doesn't prevent others from going forward. That has long been the case with the currency union. Those who want to bind themselves closer together should be given the possibility to do so.
SPIEGEL: The presidents of Europe's most important institutions have also been thinking of how the EU should develop. What are your suggestions?
Juncker: On the basis of the current treaties, the economic and monetary union is not yet complete. The entire world now wants to know from us how we intend to change this state of affairs. I, for example, believe that the euro zone could use a larger dose of parliamentary involvement, from both the European Parliament and from national parliaments. I work closely together with (European Parliament President) Martin Schulz. When it comes to smaller issues relating to party politics, we have different points of view. But when it comes to larger questions, we are partners and allies. We propose moving ahead in stages. Initially, the focus should be on what we can do within current rules to enhance our stability and to make improvements. Then we have to examine what we can achieve in the mid- and long-terms were we to make changes to European treaties. That, though, is not a pressing question.
SPIEGEL: Given the crisis in Greece, don't you think such a step is necessary?
Juncker: Yes. Especially because of the crisis with Greece, we have to tell the world and ourselves where we are headed. The people of Europe are also becoming more skeptical and the gap between them and the European elite is widening. You would have to be blind not to see that. That is why Brussels cannot continue to focus on trivialities and burden people with regulations that can often be better handled on a local level. Europe has to show that it is able to take action on the larger, urgent problems: in foreign policy, with the immigration problems, with the economic challenges of the digital era. The European debate can no longer be limited to shower heads and olive-oil jugs.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Juncker, thank you for this interview!
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