It was a handshake for which Russian President Vladimir Putin had been waiting a long time. The flags of Russia and the European Union were on display behind him, alongside a gold-trimmed table. And next to the table was European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the man who had been forced to endure considerable criticism for his decision to travel to St. Petersburg to meet with the Russian president.
Many in Brussels had complained prior to Juncker's trip that the visit by the head of the EU executive body would be a coup for Putin, whose country is the target of EU sanctions due to its aggression in Ukraine. But Juncker, 61, was, as is often the case, convinced he was right. He said this week that he was fully aware that not everyone was happy about his visit, but he added that it was the right thing to do.
It is hardly a surprise that Juncker this week became the first prominent European to extend his hand to Russia. He may have only been in his current office for just a year and a half, but unilateral actions like this one have become something of a trademark. He has even come up with a philosophic framework for his increasingly erratic behavior. This commission, he has said, is a "political commission."
The claim may not sound like much, but in reality it is akin to a revolution. According to the European treaties, the body Juncker leads is a normal government agency that must ensure that agreements reached are in fact adhered to. Juncker, though, sees himself as the head of a government -- one who has made it his job to break agreements if it appears politically advantageous.
The list of his unilateral forays is a long one. During the Greek debt crisis, he threw his support behind Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras even though the Commission is not one of Greece's creditors. In the refugee crisis, he wants force EU member states to accept other countries' offers to provide police officers to help protect their borders and has threatened states with monetary penalties should they not accept refugees -- an imposition for any sovereign state.
Juncker together with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg.Foto: OLGA MALTSEVA/ AFP
He has been particularly independent when it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, which was designed to ensure stable public finances in eurozone member states. Juncker has begun making comments in public that make it seem as though he believes the pact no longer applies. "Because it's France," he recently answered when asked at a meeting in Paris why he was allowing the country additional exceptions to the debt rules. Juncker added that he was intimately familiar with the French mentality.
With that, he strikingly broke a taboo. Until that point, the Commission had acted as though the rules were still in effect and sold its lenient treatment of certain transgressions as the very last exception that could be granted. But in Paris, Juncker essentially claimed that he is no longer bound by rules when it comes to the core issue of economic and monetary union. "A foolhardy thing to say," says one top EU diplomat.
Juncker, for his part, sees his political Commission as the logical consequence of the last EU elections, which had been the first time he had appeared as a leading candidate. But now opposition to his leadership style is growing.
Legal experts with the Council of the European Union consider Juncker's behavior to be extremely problematic, as do many members of the Euro Group, which is made up of finance ministers from eurozone member states. "If the rules are wrong, then we should change the rules instead of constantly violating them," says Philippe Lamberts, head of the Greens-European Free Alliance group in European Parliament. Some of Juncker's political allies from Germany's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) have also expressed concern. "Of all people, Juncker should know what is at stake: Namely our credibility," says Gunther Krichbaum, European affairs expert for the CDU. Bavarian Finance Minister Markus Söder, a member of the Christian Social Union, sister party to the CDU, warns: "Even the European Commission head is not allowed to simply ignore prevailing agreements." The same rules must apply to all, he says. "There can't be a friends-and-family program."
Among European citizens, the response to Juncker's interpretation of the powers of his office is likewise mixed. In many EU member states, support for anti-European parties is on the rise and one reason is the fact that rules and agreements in the 28-member bloc no longer appear to have much value. Indeed, when it comes to the British vote on Thursday on whether or not to remain in the EU, Juncker has not been an particularly helpful figure for the Remain campaign. He was politely but explicitly asked to stay away .
Patience with Juncker's behavior appears to be coming to an end. Euro Group head Jeroen Dijsselbloem told the Economic and Monetary Affairs committee in European Parliament on Tuesday that he was very concerned about how the Commission was approaching the Stability Pact. As the guardian of the European treaties, he said, the Commission "should act on clear, transparent and objective grounds" so as to avoid the impression that it treats larger countries differently than smaller ones.
The Council of the EU, which represents the interests of the member states, has even accused Juncker of employing legally questionable methods. In a recent report obtained by SPIEGEL, Council legal experts write that, for example, there is no legal foundation for Juncker's decision at the end of May to delay pending penalties levied on Spain and Portugal for their excessive budget deficits. It is a significant slap in the face for the Commission president.
Even prominent politicians from the center-right European People's Party (EEP), to which Juncker belongs, have criticized him -- including, most recently, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. During a meeting of EEC members of European Parliament in Nice, he criticized Commission's almost arbitrary attempts to expand its own authority. "Does anyone really believe that having Bulgarians protect the French border would work?" Sarkozy asked sarcastically.
A further example of Juncker's style of leadership comes from last October, at an appearance in Passau, Germany. In a question-and-answer session at the offices of the local newspaper, the discussion focused on refugees and the euro. It ultimately veered toward the planned European deposit insurance scheme, which will ultimately protect depositors on the continent up to a certain level should their banks suddenly go broke. "Savings and cooperative banks are part of our economic model and will thus not be affected by the deposit insurance scheme," Juncker said.
The comment was well received by his audience. Germans in particular are not particularly excited about being made liable for deposits in banks big and small across Europe. The only problem was that the draft version of the EU regulation didn't contain any such exceptions. Juncker's people were forced to rapidly backpedal.
Juncker's idea to lead the Commission in a more political manner isn't just strategic. The freedoms that come with emphasizing the body's political nature are consistent with Juncker's nature. He loves to speak, but doesn't always pay close attention to what is coming out of his mouth. In his previous position, as prime minister of Luxembourg, that wasn't such a problem. It was only later, during his stint as head of the Euro Group, that he was forced to pay more attention to what he was saying.
Now, as Commission president, he is surrounded by a large communications team. Indeed, Juncker's Commission sometimes seems like little more than a well-oiled PR machine. But he feels constrained. Juncker's political persona tends to appear in those moments when he is not bound by the corset of communications advisors -- during the meeting in Paris, for example, or on stage in Passau. Or, unexpectedly, when he is surrounded by bureaucrats who don't have the courage to contradict him.
Such was the case a few months ago during a discussion on the lifting of visa requirements for Ukrainians travelling to the EU. Countries must fulfill a large number of conditions before the EU lifts visa requirements for their citizens and the Ukrainian prime minister was there to discuss the issue with Juncker. The Commission president looked uncomprehendingly at the long list of open questions. "I have no idea what this is all about," Juncker said and announced that he would quickly introduce visa freedoms for Ukrainians. It was only with difficulty that Juncker's advisors were able to return the discussion to the parameters of EU law.
Not Overly Interested in Details
Prior to taking his current position, Juncker had no experience leading a gigantic administration like the European Commission -- another fact that helps explain his desire to operate in a more political manner. In Luxembourg, he directed a state ministry with just a few dozen employees, now he is leading an apparatus of 30,000 people, the equivalent of 6 percent of the population of Luxembourg.
Juncker's leadership style is increasingly reminiscent of former US President Ronald Reagan. He didn't have a reputation for being overly interested in details either and he preferred to sketch out broader political outlines. Juncker also looks as though he is not in the best of health and hardly a minute goes by without him reaching for another cigarette. The news website Politico recently wrote about his alcohol consumption.
Juncker prefers to leave the day-to-day work to two ambitious men who have gained a reputation for being the true leaders of the Commission: Frans Timmermans, a Commission vice president from the Netherlands, and Juncker's German cabinet head Martin Selmayr. European Parliament President Martin Schulz ensures that Juncker still has the backing of parliament.
But the Stability Pact -- or the failure to apply it -- is Juncker's responsibility. He is always happy to listen to the concerns of large EU member states such as France and Spain, even if that means ignoring the advice of his top advisors. Juncker's goal is to keep the EU together and anything else is secondary.
In mid-May, Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs Pierre Moscovici and fellow commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis demanded in a rare moment of unanimity that countries in violation of the Stability Pact be threatened with hefty fines. Their demand came after Spain and Portugal once again reported budget deficits far higher than allowed by EU rules. But Juncker, referring to upcoming parliamentary elections in Spain, which are scheduled for June 26, once again pushed back the deadline for announcing such penalties.
The officials who write analyses, sometimes over 100 pages long, about the economic situations of the countries in violation of the Stability Pact, are annoyed by these kinds of moves. Their reports turn into wax in Juncker's hands -- wax which he then uses to model his political strategy. This time, however, Juncker's unilateral decision may run into trouble. Commission bureaucrats were unable to find a legal mandate for their boss' artifice.
A New Narrative
Even worse, the error likely can't be quietly swept under the rug, as Council legal experts have written. Instead, the 28 commissioners will have to once again consider the Stability Pact violations of Spain and Portugal in July. Simply ignoring their depressing financial situations will then no longer be possible. It is only possible to forgo sanctions in cases of excessive debt, the Council legal experts wrote, when the country in question is confronted with unexpected economic crisis. And not even Juncker can manufacture such a scenario.
"There is no legal option" for ignoring the violations, says one EU official. Such sanctions must ultimately be approved by a qualified majority of Council of Europe members, but the European Commission is legally bound to recommend such sanctions.
In reaction to Juncker's behavior, a suggestion originally made by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU) last summer has gained new life. It is aimed at nothing less than the political disempowerment of Commission President Juncker. Schäuble would particularly like to absolve Juncker of his responsibility for overseeing the solidity of member-state finances. This could also apply to the legal supervision of the internal market and rules governing competition. Schäuble would like to see such tasks assigned to politically independent institutions, such as Germany's Bundeskartellamt, which is charged with protecting competition in the business sector.
"A Commission that sees itself in a political light could be biased," said Schäuble's parliamentary state secretary Jens Spahn in Brussels recently. "If Juncker starts meddling in competition issues, that would cross the red line," says an EU official. It is not completely out of the realm of possibility that such a thing could happen: Industry interests always play a role when the merger of two companies is up for review.
A not insignificant number of people in Brussels believes that the success of the Brexit camp in the UK can partly be blamed on Juncker. Some conservative political leaders think that Juncker has unnecessarily given ammunition to the Brexiteers and has also strengthened Euroskepticism in Germany. "Jean-Claude Juncker's romanticism about Europe no longer works in the 21st century," says one high-ranking German conservative. If Brexit comes to pass, he says, Europe would need a new narrative. "I have my doubts that Juncker would be able to embody it."