Outgoing Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker 'I Kissed Putin ... It Certainly Didn't Hurt Europe'

In an interview, outgoing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker discusses his regret over not fighting Brexit, the special rapport he established with Trump and the prospects for Ursula von der Leyen, his successor at the helm in Brussels.
Outgoing European Commission Presient Jean-Claude Juncker: "Even highly enthusiastic Europeans are against our union becoming a European melting pot."

Outgoing European Commission Presient Jean-Claude Juncker: "Even highly enthusiastic Europeans are against our union becoming a European melting pot."

Foto: Jerome Bonnet / DER SPIEGEL

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Juncker, the farewell speech you gave to the European Parliament a few days ago ended with the exclamation: "Vive l'Europe." There is no doubt about your enthusiasm for Europe. At the same time, however, a countermovement to the EU is growing in some member states -- in Poland and Hungary, for example, not to mention Britain. Why weren't you able to spread your enthusiasm to these countries?

Juncker: The real question is: Why didn't the others succeed in sharing my enthusiasm? I am not saddened, because I can see that support for Europe is growing, as we saw in the European elections. Brexit, too, has led people to turn more toward Europe. Many citizens feel that if more countries were to leave and Europe were to be fragmented, it would be a bad omen for the future.

DER SPIEGEL: The British made the decision to leave the European Union during your term in office, and the community is now losing an important member. Would you say that the British were ever at home in the EU?

Juncker: That is indeed the fundamental question. I have been involved in European politics since December 1982 and have seen time and again that the British have operated on the premise: We are only in the EU for economic reasons. When it came to the political union, to moving closer together, they wanted nothing to do with the EU. That was even the case with my friend Tony Blair. If you stick to that narrative for over 40 years, it should not come as a surprise when people remember it during the referendum.

DER SPIEGEL: Before the referendum in June 2016, though, the majority of observers expected the British to vote narrowly in favor of remaining in the EU. Did you as well?

Juncker: No. I was one of those early on who was firmly convinced that this referendum would go wrong. When then-Prime Minister David Cameron told me on the sidelines of the 2014 G-20 summit in Brisbane that he really wanted to hold a Brexit referendum, I told him: "You're going to lose it." I made a bet with the European commissioner of British nationality at the time, Jonathan Hill: I get a pound from you if the Remainers lose, you get a euro if you win. I have that pound today.

DER SPIEGEL: Still, you didn't fight for Britain to stay in the EU. Why?

Juncker: I had many invitations, but Cameron made it clear that he didn't have any use for me. The European Commission is even less popular in Britain than it is on the Continent. I decided not to get involved. Looking at it today, I think that was a big mistake. So many lies were told, including by current Prime Minister Boris Johnson, that there needed to be a voice to counter them.

DER SPIEGEL: The "stupid nationalism" you warned of in your farewell speech seems to have spread across Britain. Do you fear the same thing could happen in other countries?

Juncker: Actually, I wanted to say "dumb nationalism" -- "dumb", not "stupid." I'm more concerned about nationalism than I want to sound. The populists didn't manage the planned breakthrough in the European election. Although that reassures me, it's not yet over. I am observing with concern how many classical political parties are following in the populists' footsteps. Those who run after populists will eventually become populists themselves. But people will vote for the original.

DER SPIEGEL: The nationalists are trying to create the image of the EU as a bogeyman, as a bureaucratic monster that destroys national identities. Do you think you provided the ammunition for such accusations?

Juncker: I have never spoken of the United States of Europe, at least not since I was 18 years old. But that hasn't stopped many Brexiteers from seeing me as an ideological target. We must not give Europeans the false impression that the European Union is on the way to becoming a single state. Even highly enthusiastic Europeans are against our union becoming a European melting pot.

DER SPIEGEL: Isn't that a little too diffident? Doesn't the EU need more centralism, at least in some areas? We are thinking in particular about European foreign policy. It is unlikely the EU will be able to save the nuclear agreement with Iran and it had to look on helplessly as Turkey marched into Syria. We are far from the "global political capability" that you often exhort.

Juncker: On a few select foreign policy issues, we need to be able to decide by qualified majority in the future -- in terms of condemning the human rights situation in China, for example. It is unacceptable that we say nothing simply because one member state doesn't agree. When it comes to military operations, however, we have to be more cautious. I cannot imagine the German parliament backing a European decision that would send German soldiers into deployment, not even in the future. That is Germany's most sensitive spot. And this sovereign right of the Bundestag will not be encroached upon.

DER SPIEGEL: A joint EU approach to climate policy is also urgently needed. Given the pressure young people have been building up for months now, do you think you should have made fighting climate change a more central focus of your term?

Juncker: I am really not inclined toward self-satisfaction, but we in the EU made a massive contribution to the establishment of the Paris climate agreement. We have set milestones for 2030 and are striving to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. But I would also say this: Anyone who acts as though all this does not require any special effort, just because there is now a movement in this direction among young people, is greatly mistaken. I really like young people getting involved, but I am also not naive. Much of what is being presented there in such sentimental terms is not so easy to achieve in reality. Classical industry must continue to have a home in Europe.

DER SPIEGEL: The United States has withdrawn from the climate agreement and from other international agreements. You have nevertheless succeeded in establishing a special rapport with U.S. President Donald Trump and, at least for the time being, preventing an escalation in the looming trade war between Washington and the EU. How did you do it?

Juncker: One of my little tricks was that I only used U.S. statistics when speaking with President Trump. When Trump would say, "I don't believe your numbers," I responded: "Those are your numbers."

DER SPIEGEL: Trans-Atlantic relations would be a lot better off if things were that simple.

Juncker: You definitely have to present yourself in a certain way. In Washington, Trump told me about all the people from Europe who had already been to the Oval Office before me -- the chancellor, presidents, prime ministers. And I told him: They are all important, but you spoke to the wrong people. The European Commission is responsible for trade policy, not the member states. That impressed him. Trump then responded: I do not want an agreement at all with the European Union, I want an agreement with you. I replied: The European Commission has sole responsibility for trade matters. An agreement with me is an agreement with the EU.

DER SPIEGEL: As a gift, you brought along a photo of an American military cemetery in Luxembourg when you visited Washington.

Juncker: General George Patton is also buried there. I knew Trump holds successful generals in high regard. I explained to him that this little spot of land in Luxembourg, where 5,000 dead soldiers lie, is American territory. We in Luxembourg resolved as much after the war. That touched Trump deeply. These are the kinds of small things that can open hearts.

DER SPIEGEL: Is this the right strategy to open the heart of a man who is dangerously unstable?

Juncker: I don't agree with many of Trump's decisions, but I respect him. He's human too. Treating him without respect will not open doors to viable agreements.

DER SPIEGEL: Let us come back to your exclamation: "Vive l'Europe." You were born in 1954, which means that you have lived a life in peaceful times thanks to the EU. To what extent have you been shaped by the experiences of the war generation?

Juncker: My father, who died three years ago, grew up in a village. The next small town was 5 kilometers away. He never traveled any farther than that until he was forcibly recruited by the Wehrmacht in World War II. Three or four days later, he was on the Russian front. Just imagine the culture shock! I just read in the papers he left behind that he had to take part in a firing squad on his first day in the Wehrmacht. Of course, he didn't try hard, and didn't shoot anyone, but what a traumatic experience. Someone who had never traveled farther than 5 kilometers from home finds himself in a foreign, hated uniform and is made to shoot at people without knowing why.

DER SPIEGEL: With such a family history, you and your family would have had good reason to turn your backs on Germany.

Juncker: My father always told me: There were many scumbags among the soldiers, but there were also good people who pulled me out of the dirt, who saved my life. He had a nuanced image of the Wehrmacht. We went on vacation in Germany relatively early on, in 1966. Before then, we didn't have the money.

DER SPIEGEL: You're multilingual. Do you sometimes dream in German?

Juncker: This is going to be very disappointing to the Luxembourgers, but I have to admit that I don't know which language I dream in. I just don't know. And when I talk here in the Commission all day, with my staff from all the EU countries, the languages blend. I understand Italian because I played with children of Italian guest workers in the sandbox ...

DER SPIEGEL: ... you grew up in a steel working area that was home to many immigrants ...

Juncker: ... I also understand Portuguese quite well for that reason. As prime minister, the Luxembourg Portuguese would often stop me on the sidewalk and say: Mr. Juncker, everything is good in Luxembourg, but there are too many foreigners. That's actually a sign of successful integration, isn't it?

DER SPIEGEL: As an active politician, you have experienced three German chancellors: Helmut Kohl, Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel. Who was the most European?

Juncker: Kohl by far, because he was a historian. He could think in historical contexts and explain them to others. Besides, he was also someone who was considerate in his dealings with smaller member states. For example, Kohl could recite the names of Luxembourg resistance fighters who were murdered in German concentration camps during the last days of the war.

DER SPIEGEL: Seriously?

Juncker: Yes, seriously.

DER SPIEGEL: Why did he acquire that knowledge? Did you ask him?

Juncker: Kohl had Europe in his heart. And when it came to German interests, he suddenly had Germany in his head. People always act as if Kohl were somehow a totally gung-ho European. He wasn't though. He knew how to insistently represent German interests. Gerhard Schröder, whom I also appreciated very much, didn't have Europe in his heart at all. He had it in his head. For him it was a logical and rational unification process for which there was no alternative. By the end of his term in office, though, he also had Europe in his heart.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Juncker, you have almost 40 years of experience in politics, and during this time, the everyday life of politicians has changed significantly. You are constantly under observation through social media. When you welcome Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán as a "dictator," it sparks a storm of outrage. How do you deal with the constant judging?

Juncker: Well, first of all about Orbán, I've always called him a dictator, only that time we got caught on the microphone. As for the internet: It is an improvement insofar as it allows people to inform themselves better. But we see that it doesn't always lead to peace in society. I personally don't look at the social networks. But the real question is what should I be making time for? In Europe, it is important to be well-informed about all the countries. It is not sufficient to listen when a prime minister says something in the European Council. I need to know why he or she is saying it because that leader would never go into their domestic political difficulties there. Europe's problem is that we don't know enough about each other.

DER SPIEGEL: Does it bother you that it has been alleged repeatedly, including by DER SPIEGEL, that you drink too much?

Juncker: I'm not going to answer that question. Such false claims hurt my family more than they do me. And the constant observation? It's a product of our era. Sometimes, people take up to 200 selfies with me a day. When people come up to me with friendly intentions, I could say to them: No, I can't do that right now. But that sounds arrogant and aloof, and I don't want to convey that kind of image of Europe. You know, you have to love people if you're in politics.

DER SPIEGEL: You don't shy away from physical contact, you slap people on the back and kiss them. This is also one of your peculiarities that the media frequently discusses. Looking back, would you say it is right to preserve one's individual characteristics in politics?

Juncker: I don't care. I am who I am. I sometimes think the worst thing about prison is that you don't experience physical closeness. I can't at all imagine not touching other people or not being touched by other people. My staff sometimes warns me not to hug this or that person. But I've been kissed by Erdogan, so I kiss him, too. I kissed Putin and I was kissed by Putin. In either case, it certainly didn't hurt Europe.

DER SPIEGEL: In November, you are scheduled to undergo an aneurysm operation, for which we wish you all the best. After that, you will return to the European Commission, with your retirement expected to begin in December. Have you prepared yourself for life after politics?

Juncker: I'm not afraid of any kind of black hole. I have 40,000 books at home, and another 16,000 books in this and other offices. This is the first time I have been busy giving away books. And it's painful. Or look at these photos ...

A staffer opens a cabinet door and shows two photos.

DER SPIEGEL: Ah -- kiss photos, one with Über-Brexiteer Nigel Farage, one with former European Parliament President Martin Schulz ...

Juncker: Are you supposed to get rid of photos like that?

DER SPIEGEL: Absolutely not.

Juncker: But something has to go. Once I get everything sorted out, I would definitely like to write.

DER SPIEGEL: Your memoirs. And what language will you write them in?

Juncker: In German. My father taught me to love the German language. He gave me all the Karl May books. I owe my German to Karl May, not only him, but to a degree. My fear is that I will constantly be writing "I." Because what is it that a person remembers? Yourself. And that results in me, me, me.

DER SPIEGEL: World history has almost always been masculine, but now, for the first time, Europe will be in the hands of women: Ursula von der Leyen will be your successor and Christine Lagarde is taking over as the head of the European Central Bank. In what ways will this transform politics?

Juncker: I have always tried to place as many women in managerial positions as possible. I have increased the proportion of women in senior Commission positions from 30 to 41 percent. In this respect, I am pleased that more and more women are gaining access to politics, which is also changing politics. But it doesn't automatically make the world a better place.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 45/2019 (November 2nd, 2019) of DER SPIEGEL.

DER SPIEGEL: Ms. von der Leyen came into office through the side door given that she wasn't a lead candidate in the European election, as European Parliament had demanded. Now she's having trouble assembling her Commission on time. What prospects do you think your successor has in light of this difficult start?

Juncker: I think she has everything necessary to serve in this capacity. But it is true that I had an easier start. This was due to my friendships with the Social Democrats; ultimately, I also have the Social Democrats and Martin Schulz to thank for my getting into office. In my own camp, the (conservative) European Peoples' Party, many voted against me -- Hungary, for example. The right-wing nationalists said: We'll never vote for you. And I said: I never want to be someone you'd vote for, either.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Juncker, we thank you for this interview.

Juncker takes his leave, with kisses on the cheeks.

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