Jean-Claude Juncker Interview: 'The Demons Haven't Been Banished'
In an interview, Luxembourg prime minister and former Euro Group chief Jean-Claude Juncker, 58, urges other EU countries to push ahead with structural reforms, explains why he sees parallels between 2013 and the year preceeding World War I and throws his election support behind Angela Merkel's re-election campaign.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, it has been seven weeks since you stepped down as head of the Euro Group. Do you sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and think: I absolutely have to give another interview on the euro crisis?
Juncker: No, I'm not suffering from withdrawal symptoms. I would say that I have a balanced state of mind. My life is less hectic and I'm calmer and more relaxed.
SPIEGEL: For eight years, you were a kind of informal president of the monetary union. When you take stock of your accomplishments during this period, don't you have to admit that Europe has tended to drift apart rather than become more close-knit?
Juncker: For my generation, the monetary union has always been about forging peace. Today, I notice with a certain sense of regret that far too many Europeans are returning to a regional and national mindset.
SPIEGEL: What do you mean by that?
Juncker: The way some German politicians have lashed out at Greece when the country fell into the crisis has left deep wounds there. I was just as shocked by the banners of protesters in Athens that showed the German chancellor in a Nazi uniform. Sentiments suddenly surfaced that we thought had been finally relegated to the past. The Italian election was also excessively anti-German and thus un-European.
SPIEGEL: You're exaggerating. No one today seriously doubts peace and friendship in Europe.
Juncker: That's true. But anyone who believes that the eternal issue of war and peace in Europe has been permanently laid to rest could be making a monumental error. The demons haven't been banished; they are merely sleeping, as the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo have shown us. I am chilled by the realization of how similar circumstances in Europe in 2013 are to those of 100 years ago.
SPIEGEL: 1913 was the year before the outbreak of World War I. Do you seriously believe that there will be armed conflict in Europe?
Juncker: No, but I see obvious parallels with regard to people's complacency. In 1913, many people believed that they would never again be a war in Europe. The great powers of the Continent were economically so strongly intermeshed that there was the widespread opinion that they could simply no longer afford to engage in military conflicts. Primarily in Western and Northern Europe, there was a complete sense of complacency based on the assumption that peace had been secured forever.
SPIEGEL: The young generation tends to tune out when Brussels politicians lecture them again about the trenches of Verdun.
Juncker: Indeed, we can't completely rely on the aberrations of history to explain today's European necessities. Future-related issues are no less pressing. By the middle of this century, Europe will comprise only a good 7 percent of the world's population. Already today, over 80 percent of economic growth comes from other regions of the globe. A united Europe is our Continent's only chance to avoid falling off the world's radar. The heads of government of Germany, France and the United Kingdom also know that their voice is only heard internationally because they speak through the megaphone of the European Union.
SPIEGEL: The only problem is that a firm commitment to Europe and the monetary union doesn't pay off politically because it demands unpopular reforms. At the height of the euro crisis, you even said: We heads of government all know what to do, we just don't know how to get reelected when we do it. Does this still hold true?
Juncker: If I were to give a humorous response, I would say today: For a long time, we didn't know what to do, and we still weren't reelected.
SPIEGEL: And what is your serious answer?
Juncker: For starters, we have pushed through a series of far-reaching reforms in Europe. We have kept Greece in the euro zone, introduced bailout mechanisms for the monetary union and established a European banking union. Nevertheless, I am concerned that the temporary calm on the financial markets could weaken the will for renewal. It would send the completely wrong signal if the fear of reforms were to spread throughout Europe again.
SPIEGEL: You are presumably alluding to French President François Hollande.
Juncker: By no means. No one at the Elysée Palace is arguing that France does not need reforms. But the Socialist Party government in Paris objects to demands that it should copy the Agenda 2010 reforms (of the labor market and the welfare system introduced by former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder one decade ago) -- and rightly so. After all, not everything that works in Germany can be transferred one-to-one to France.
SPIEGEL: Following the recent election in Italy, it's clear that the people of Southern Europe don't approve of your reform initiatives. Doesn't this worry you?
Juncker: The results of the Italian election are widely interpreted as an across-the-board rejection of the euro, but there are also other factors at work here. Beppe Grillo has primarily made a name for himself as a critic of his country's political class, while Silvio Berlusconi has promised to lower taxes. By contrast, the party that ran the most vehemently anti-euro campaign, the Lega Nord, lost many of its voters. Consequently, I don't see the Italian election result as primarily a vote against the euro and the European reform policy.
SPIEGEL: You always have an amazing ability to sugar coat the European plight. The reality is that the big loser of the election was outgoing Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, whose Europe-friendly course was soundly rejected. Does that spell the end of the reform policy in Italy?
Juncker: That would be a serious mistake. The consequence of the Italian election result cannot be that we suddenly return to the policies that caused this mess. It is not possible to combat the financial and economic crisis by saddling an already heavily indebted state with new debts. There is no getting around a solid budgetary policy.
SPIEGEL: In other words, Italian politicians should pursue a policy that the majority of the population does not support.
Juncker: I'm going to make a bold statement: One shouldn't pursue the wrong policies just because one is afraid of not being reelected. Those who intend to govern have to take responsibility for their countries and for Europe as a whole. This means, if need be, that they have to pursue the right policies, even if many voters think they are the wrong ones.
SPIEGEL: If push comes to shove, politicians should disregard the will of the people. Isn't that a rather odd understanding of democracy?
Juncker: Of course politicians should respect the will of the people as much as possible, provided they adhere to the European treaties. If the Italians intend to roll back the real estate tax, then they will have to come up with some other way of meeting their commitments. In Europe, even more so than in national politics, we have to follow the principle laid down by Martin Luther: Use language that the people will understand, but don't just tell them what they want to hear.
- Part 1: 'The Demons Haven't Been Banished'
- Part 2: 'I Feel Very Close to the Chancellor'
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