Leading Candidates Square Off The Race for Europe's Top Job

This May, European voters will decide for the first time who becomes the president of the European Commission. In a SPIEGEL interview, leading candidates Jean-Claude Juncker, 59, and Martin Schulz, 58, discuss their views on tax havens, euro bonds and the losers in the debt crisis.

Sven Paustian/ DER SPIEGEL

SPIEGEL: Mr. Juncker, at the party event in Dublin at which you were named the conservatives' leading candidate for the upcoming European Parliament election, U2 lead singer Bono called Martin Schulz a "great European." Was he right?

Juncker: As the competing candidate, it isn't a very prudent answer, but yes.

SPIEGEL: Why?

Juncker: Because Martin Schulz represents European values and knows just how important European integration is.

Schulz: When he's right, he's right.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Schulz, Jean-Claude Juncker has been a member of the European Council, the powerful body that includes the leaders and ministers of the 28 member states for almost two decades. As president of the Euro Group, he also ensured that the common currency didn't implode. Would it really be so bad if he were to become the next president of the European Commission, the EU's executive branch?

Schulz: There wouldn't be anything bad about it. But I have a better plan for Europe. I believe the people should have the opportunity to have a greater influence on European politics with their ideas. We need a new impulse for renewal.

SPIEGEL: There have already been two European Commission presidents from Luxembourg. The last one served 15 years ago. Germany, on the other hand, has only succeeded once in landing the post -- and that was over 50 years ago. Could that play to Schulz's advantage?

Juncker: I don't think in national categories. For me it is about concepts and substance. But still, I would still say that it would be better for Europe if the next Commission president were from Luxembourg. My country has always played the role of a mediator in the EU, especially between the Germans and the French. I believe in the power of consensus. Martin Schulz prefers provocation.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Schulz, in light of Germany's already strong dominance in Europe, would a candidate from a small EU member state not be more appropriate?

Schulz: Europe is in a very dangerous situation. We cannot consider each other to be adversaries. I have a European calling and nationality plays no role for me. I think people know that.

SPIEGEL: What would you do better as European Commission president than Jean-Claude Juncker?

Schulz: I would no longer seek political solutions solely through the EU's institutional structures. I would open the Commission to the greatest degree possible. Brussels needs to stop interfering in every trifling detail. Whatever can be decided at the communal, regional or national level should be decided there. I am a man of parliament, a man of the people. Juncker is a representative of the executive.

Juncker: Nonsense. I am not a person who is only versed in the executive. I have always engaged extensively with the European Parliament and sought joint solutions on many issues. At the same time, it is in no way a disadvantage to understand the sensitivities and interests of the nation states on the European Council. I'm better at that than Martin Schulz.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Schulz, as president of European Parliament, you are currently campaigning on behalf of yourself and the Social Democrats. Last week, members of almost all the German parties represented in the European Parliament wrote a letter in which they called for you to step down from the presidency. Do you plan to do so?

Schulz: No, because it is a part of the parliamentary system to run for re-election. That's why I am astonished that this demand, which not a single one of my predecessors was ever confronted with, is now being made of me.

Juncker: The question is not whether Martin Schulz is a candidate for another term in European Parliament. The question is whether as the acting president of parliament -- an office that is supposed to be above party politics -- should be able to run for the office of president of the European Commission. Any president of a national parliament would have to immediately step down if that person were the main candidate for the highest government office in that country. I'm not calling for that. But it has to be clear to Martin Schulz that the question is being asked.

Schulz: I know that some are going to pose the question, and that's why I am very strict about making sure that I conduct my duties as president in a non-partisan manner. Incidentally, I don't know of a single country in Europe where an office bearer has had to resign during an election campaign. In his 19 years as prime minister, Mr. Juncker also conducted countless election campaigns as his country's leader. We should instead focus this campaign on debating the right course for Europe.

SPIEGEL: Europe is in a state of crisis. Turnout for the last election for the European Parliament was less than 50 percent. Why should people give you their votes?

Schulz: Election turnout will increase. The competition between Juncker and myself will help to ensure that. With the European Parliament in the past, voters had to cast ballots for an anonymous institution. Now, for the first time, it involves people. Personalization is the icing on the cake of democracy.

Juncker: It is true that Europe is currently in need of clarification and that EU detractors on both the left and the right are on the advance. People have to vote in order to prevent their breakthrough. It is great that Schulz and I are being supported as the main candidates for the largest parties in parliament in both the northern and southern part of the Continent. That is symbolic of European unity.

Schulz: For the first time, the European election is no longer going to be a national election in disguise. This isn't about German Chancellor Angela Merkel or Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel. Those who want Martin Schulz (as European Commission president) will have to vote for the (center-left) Social Democrats in Germany, and those who want Jean-Claude Juncker will have to vote for the (conservative) Christian Democrats.

SPIEGEL: The only problem is that it is the job of leaders of EU member states to nominate the president of the European Commission and not that of elected members of the European Parliament.

Juncker: But under the Lisbon Treaty (ratified in 2009), the European Council must take into account the results of the European election. Leaders of the EU member states cannot simply make a decision that circumvents reality. They have to enter into consultations with the European Parliament -- that is also stated in the treaty. The times in which the national leaders can agree on a president in back rooms are over.

SPIEGEL: Chancellor Merkel has said that it is not a foregone conclusion that one of the two leading candidates will become Commission president in the end.

Schulz: There's also the normative power of the facts. Both the Social Democratic and conservative national leaders have stated this at their party conferences. If you say in advance there is going to be a main candidate and then that doesn't count later, then that's going to be a highly problematic occurrence in a democracy.

Juncker: If a decision is made that runs counter to that of European voters, then the rift between politics and the people will grow -- and no one can afford to risk that. Angela Merkel knows that, too.

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mike.wood2 03/21/2014
1. Democratic deficit
I've got news for Mr Schultz. Practically no one in the UK (and I'll bet in Europe) has ever heard of him or Mr Junker either. He seems to believe that competition between himself and Junker will increase turnout and that "Personalisation is the icing on the cake". If we are supposed to be voting for the PRESIDENT OF THE EU COMMISION, then personalisation is not the icing - its the essence of the cake recipe. If either Mr Schultz or Mr Junker think that these elections confer any sort of legitimacy then they have clearly been living in the Brussels bubble for too long. In any sort of democratic election the voters expect some sort of manifesto, they expect some sort of engagement. They expect someone to try and pursuade them of the virtues of the proposed policies. What they DONT expect is a leader to emerge as a consequence of some opaque backstairs process. For a union which prides itself on the democratic nature of its constituent contires this isn't good enough.
titus_norberto 03/24/2014
2. The most hilarious paradox....
The most hilarious paradox after all this trouble uniting Europe would be to be ruled by non Europeans....
RKA 03/24/2014
3. @ Democratic deficit, While I agree on the democratic deficit, you are under estimating..
While I agree on the democratic deficit, you are under estimating (some Europeans..) knowledge of these two personalities ;)) !!! Cheers anyways, to a more democratic Europe ;))!!!!
rschadt 03/24/2014
4. Reducing the Democratic Deficit of the EC Commission
Response to Mike Woods: the two main party blocks in the European Parliament have select their leaders and voters will give their vote for the parties in the European Parliament. I don't understand your cynicism - the fact that British voters may or may not know about Mr's Schultz and/or Juncker can still change, because not everybody may be reading the FT or the Economist, where you will find plenty of citations. Well, most folks can in fact look up this interview in the internet. I don't recall that leaders in the House of Commons are picked any more 'democratically', and if anything this is a step forward to increase the legitimacy of the European electoral process. You may even see an interview or a speech in the UK by these two leaders, and when do you recall such a competition to have taken place? Since a vote for the European Parliament becomes somewhat more meaningful, it can only help. Progress in Europe has always been slow. You should know that voting for a party only indirectly determines the future Prime Minister, and a step to do the same for the head of the EC Commission is progress.
mike.wood2 03/25/2014
5. Reducing the Democratic Deficit etc
It is normal practice for european democratic parties to publish a manifesto before an election: a statement of beliefs, an analysis of the problems facing the country and their perceptions of the problems facing the citizens and what they propose to do about it. Manifestos differ in style of course. I am not concerned with how parties, internally, select either their candidates or their leaders, I would prefer a democratic process, but that is up to them. But I am concerned with how these parties communicate the electors as the prelude to the democratic process. To be blunt a few interviews with journalists (although bravo to Spiegel for publishing this on their web site) and some references by "high brow" magazines don't begin to address the problem. If Mr Schultz or Mr Juncker want to seek a democratic mandate then they should sit down with colleagues and write a manifesto, publish it and be prepared to defend in hustings meetings. They claim that they are in competition and that this is some sort of advance but until voters see what they stand for, it is hard to discern what the basis of any such competition would be. I accept that we vote for parties, not Prime Ministers, or other sorts of head of states, and so the vote is indirect. But at least in a democracy one knows what one is voting for- i.e., what the Party stands for , and the policies can be understood and debated. I repeat my claim, I would bet that 90% of european voters do not know what the major divisions of the european parliament are, what their policies are or who Mr Schultz or Mr Juncker are. These elections are not in any real sense democratic. Its a scandal.
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