Interview with Juncker and Schulz 'Deadly for Europe'

The presidents of the European Parliament and the European Commission, Martin Schulz, 60, and Jean-Claude Juncker, 61, talk about the consequences of the Brexit vote, the failures of EU leaders and their early morning phone calls.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker

European Parliament President Martin Schulz and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker

Foto: Bert Bostelmann/ DER SPIEGEL

SPIEGEL: Mr. Juncker, who was the first person you talked to after hearing the news of Brexit?

Juncker: With Martin Schulz. He's in the habit of talking to me on the phone each morning between 7 and 8 a.m. It's a habit I sometimes wish he could drop.

Schulz: I seem to remember it being between 6 and 7 a.m. I was shocked. In the days before the vote, I bet that the British would stay in the EU.

Juncker: I put my money on Brexit. The EU Financial Stability Commissioner, Jonathan Hill from Britain, still owes me a pound. (Eds. Note: Hill announced his resignation from the Commission in the wake of the Brexit vote.)

SPIEGEL: What did you say on the phone?

Schulz: I said: "Jean-Claude, I think this isn't going well." Then I advocated for a quick response from the EU. The last thing we need right now is uncertainty.

Juncker: I shared his opinion. It was important for the Brits to trigger Article 50 as quickly as possible in order to avoid any uncertainties. That was also the tenor of the press release the European Commission, Parliament and Council issued afterward.

SPIEGEL: Just like on that Friday, you often present yourselves as extremely tight political partners. Can you appreciate that some in Europe see your relationship as cronyism?

Juncker: Nonsense. Martin and I lead the two important community institutions, whose tasks include working together in confidence. After 30 years in Brussels, I can tell you: The relationship between the Commission and the Parliament has probably never been as good as it is now.

SPIEGEL: That's precisely what many people find problematic. Parliaments are ultimately responsible for keeping governments in check -- not acting as their reinforcements.

Schulz: There can be no talk of reinforcements. Jean-Claude and I are fully aware that we have different roles. There's also friction between us, for instance with the agreement for visa liberalization for Turkey. The Commission sent us a proposal. While 66 of our 72 conditions had been met, many of the most important ones had not been, including the reform of anti-terror laws. So we put the agreement on ice. The Commission very often has a very unpleasant time in Parliament.

Juncker: I don't let it get to me. I said in my inaugural address that I am not the Council's secretary, nor am I the Parliament's lackey. That can sometimes lead to conflicts, which are defused through dialogue. Martin invariably knows what the Commission thinks, and I'm well informed about the sensitivities of the Parliament.

SPIEGEL: The day after Brexit, Martin Schulz and Sigmar Gabriel, who is the head of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD), to which Schulz belongs, presented plans for sweeping reform in the EU. These plans foresee turning the Commission into a proper European government, one that is regulated by the European Parliament and by a kind of federal council of member states. The plan would mean a significant loss of power for member state governments. What do you think of the plan?

Juncker: The proposal in and of itself is convincing, but it doesn't suit the times. To implement it, the European treaties would have to be amended. Martin's plan is a long-term project that cannot currently be implemented due to the mood on the continent. But where the community can achieve more on the basis of existing treaties, we should do so.

Schulz: I completely agree with Jean-Claude. I'm fully aware that my vision of a European bicameral parliament can't be implemented tomorrow. I'm also not an integration fanatic. We agree: Brussels can't regulate everything. I'm driven by something else: There are forces in Europe that want to generally give national policy priority over a common European approach. We have to prevent this.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, many in Europe see you as being symbolic of the backroom technocratic politics that is associated with the European Union and the euro. Some have even accused you of being responsible for Brexit. Do you plead guilty?

Juncker: No, why should I? In the end, the British didn't vote to leave because of the euro. They're not even members of the currency union. Even the refugee crisis hardly affected the country. I have another explanation: In its 43 years of EU membership, Britain has never been able to decide whether it wants to fully or only partially belong to the EU.

Schulz: Primary responsibility for Brexit lies with British conservatives, who took an entire continent hostage. First, David Cameron initiated the referendum in order to secure his post. Now, fellow conservatives want to delay the start of exit negotiations until they've held a party conference. And regarding detractors: I'm proud of the fact that Ms. Le Pen in France insults me and Mr. Wilders in the Netherlands calls me his opponent. The way I see it is, if these people weren't attacking me, I would be doing something wrong.

SPIEGEL: Criticism isn't only coming from right-wing populists. Mr. Juncker, the Polish and Czech foreign ministers have called for your resignation. They feel the Commission is too domineering.

Juncker: After these reports came across the wire, I spent hours sitting at the same table as the Polish prime minister at the European Council. She made no mention of any resignation. And the Czech prime minister assured me during a recent visit that he thought I should definitely stay in office.

SPIEGEL: Do you deny that a number of Eastern European countries feel that the Commission has been too domineering -- with the specification that quotas be established for accepting refugees, for example?

Juncker: I have a different understanding of the word "specification." Sure, the Commission suggested the quota, but it was the council of interior ministers that ratified it with a qualified majority. Furthermore, the Commission helped negotiate the agreement with Turkey and thus delivered the decisive contribution to solving the refugee crisis.

SPIEGEL: Eastern Europeans see it differently. In their eyes, it was the border closures along the Balkan route that led to the numbers dropping.

Juncker: Without the Turkey agreement, tens of thousands of refugees would still be stuck in Greece. The Commission presented proposals for securing Europe's external borders early on, but they languished in the Council for months. As you can see, the Commission isn't asleep. Oftentimes it has to wake up the others.

SPIEGEL: Do you also need to be woken up, Mr. Schulz?

Schulz: Not at all. It's long been routine that member states blame the Commission for everything they can't agree upon. The scapegoat is always Jean-Claude Juncker. Should I give you a few examples?

SPIEGEL: Please.

Schulz: The plan for a financial transaction tax has been ready for years, but the member states can't come to an agreement. To combat terrorism, the European Parliament hurriedly passed a law for gathering passenger data -- but it then took the interior ministers months to sign off on it while at the same time, the automatic exchange of data was rejected. Those are two examples among many. If cooperation among governments were the superior concept for progress in Europe, I'd be onboard immediately. But the problem is that cooperation isn't working.

SPIEGEL: For the citizens of Europe, it's not that important who is to blame. What bothers them is the constant jockeying for power and jurisdiction and the fact that European processes are so lengthy and opaque.

Schulz: It's true. For many people, politics in Brussels and Strasbourg might as well be happening on another planet. Just come to Brussels after a Council meeting. Do you know what happens? Every head of government holds his or her own press conference. They all say the same thing, in 24 languages: I was able to push through my agenda. And if the result is anything other than what they desired, the message is: Brussels is to blame. It has been this way for over 20 years. These messages stick with people, and that's deadly for Europe.

Juncker: On top of that, there is a distorted perception of what goes on in Brussels. No one reports on the Commission taking a hundred initiatives from its predecessor off the table in order to shift competencies back to member state governments. Stories are invented: Juncker wants to introduce the euro everywhere or immediately deepen the EU -- although I publicly stated the opposite that same day. This doesn't just happen -- it happens in order to weaken the European institutions.

SPIEGEL: What are you doing to stop it?

Schulz: Not being opportunistic. It's not attractive at the moment to vouch for the European idea. I still do it, because I believe nothing would be better for our continent. Complementing the nation-state as it reaches its limits amid globalization: That is what Europe must offer.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Juncker, you have always presented yourself as an admirer of the great European politician Helmut Kohl. But Kohl has been rather critical recently. Today, less Europe is more Europe, he said. And he criticized some people in Brussels who he said were confusing a united Europe with a uniform Europe. Do you feel as though he's talking about you?

Juncker: Not at all. I completely agree with Helmut Kohl. I am not an advocate of the "United States of Europe," nor am I an integration fanatic. You can't deepen the European Union against the wishes of the European countries.

SPIEGEL: Kohl also said Europe must return to being a community committed to stability and the rule of law. The former German chancellor was referring to the exceptions that you have granted to France, Spain and Portugal on euro-zone deficit criteria.

Juncker: Those weren't exceptions. Rather, the Commission applied the Stability Pact as it is currently formulated. We no longer have the pact from 1997; it was radically amended in 2005 and the Commission is applying this Stability Pact with wisdom and rationality. France finds itself in a difficult economic situation and the government has taken several measures to bring order to the public budget. In doing so, France is conforming to the law. And the Commission is making decisions on the basis of applicable laws, which I recommend reading.

SPIEGEL: You didn't justify the exceptions economically, but with the fact that presidential elections are soon to take place in the country.

Juncker: I cannot recall the Commission ever referencing elections in any of its resolutions. It could be that some commissioners said something to that effect. It also wouldn't be prudent to slap a country down prior to elections. But that wasn't the reason for our decision. The reason was that the Stability Pact provides justification for this decision.

SPIEGEL: The pact codifies limits of sovereign debt. France intends to exceed them. That's a clear violation, isn't it?

Juncker: The pact allows for the consideration of positive forecasts when sanctioning earlier violations. That is why we will soon be speaking with the Portuguese and Spanish governments to ascertain whether the two countries have the willingness and the ability to get their economies structurally back on the right track.

SPIEGEL: The free trade agreement with Canada, known as CETA, is also controversial. First, you said the final decision should be made by the EU. But then, after Sigmar Gabriel, the head of Germany's Social Democrats (SPD), called your approach "unbelievably misguided," member state parliaments are now going to be allowed a say in the decision. What was the reason for the about-face?

Juncker: Your description isn't accurate. The fact is, according to a legal opinion from the Commission, this treaty is an EU-only treaty. But I'm not deaf and the Commission isn't operating in a parallel world of legal texts. That's why we decided to treat this agreement as a hybrid treaty. All EU heads of state and government have agreed with me that this agreement is the best that we could have negotiated. Now, they have the opportunity to show strong leadership and make the agreement their own.

Schulz: Jean-Claude is right. The Canadian government made significant concessions on the controversial question of the dispute settlement courts and it recognized the norms of the International Labor Organization. Both were European demands that have now been pushed through. As such, CETA also set the standard for the upcoming trade talks with the US.

SPIEGEL: You don't just agree on questions of European and trade policy. You have also emphasized that you are bound by a close personal bond. What is special about your friendship?

Schulz: I agree with the aphorism: "Friends are those who stay when everyone else leaves." I have never been in a situation when companions have abandoned me. But I am certain that, were it to come to that, Jean-Claude would be there.

Juncker: In politics, there are different categories of friendship. My friendship with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, for example ...

SPIEGEL: ... which was especially apparent at the height of the Greek crisis …...

Juncker: …... I would describe that as a utilitarian friendship. At the time, his country was facing the prospect of leaving the euro zone and many Greeks felt abandoned by Europe. In such a situation, it seemed appropriate to me to present myself as a friend to Greece. It had to do with the country's dignity. My friendship with Martin, by contrast, is completely different in that it goes far beyond politics.

SPIEGEL: How did it begin?

Schulz: We got to know each other at an award ceremony in Aachen (Eds. Note: the prestigious Charlemagne Prize, awarded annually by the German city of Aachen). At the time, Jean-Claude was already an important man in Brussels. I was a young representative in the European Parliament. We talked for a long time and from that point on, our connection became increasingly deep. But our working-class origins are at least as important to our bond.

Juncker: My father was a steel worker and Martin's grandfather was a miner in Saarland. In these occupations, there is a particular awareness of solidarity. That creates links that aren't present in other relationships.

Schulz: There is an additional biographical parallel. Your father, Jean-Claude, was forcibly drafted into the Wehrmacht (Eds. Note: Germany's Nazi-era military). He was badly wounded and ended up as a prisoner of war in Russia. My mother's brother was killed while clearing mines in 1945. Those are things that mark your childhood and they help explain why we are so devoted to European unity.

Juncker: I have always considered it to be a minor miracle that after the war, people in Europe's border regions were able to forget everything and, in accordance with the slogan "Never Again War," develop a program that still works today. It is always said that Europe is a project of the elite. That's incorrect. In fact, it was a concern of the soldiers who fought at the front, the concentration camp prisoners and the Trümmerfrauen (Eds. Note: The women in Germany who helped clear away the rubble following World War II). It was they who said, we're going to do everything differently now. De Gaulle and Adenauer merely acted upon this desire.

SPIEGEL: Oskar Lafontaine, the former SPD leader who resigned as party leader in 1999 and moved to the Left Party in 2005, once said that there are no real friendships in politics, merely temporary alliances of convenience.

Juncker: Lafontaine has certainly proved that he adheres to his own maxim.

Schulz: I can understand Oskar. In political life, it is extremely difficult to remain loyal to a friendship when constellations of power or interests are in the way. I have friends in politics who really put the friendship to the test through their behavior.

SPIEGEL: Which friends are you referring to?

Schulz: It is an element of friendship that one not talk about everything publicly.

SPIEGEL: Your friend Juncker has also disappointed you in the past. Following the most recent elections for the European Parliament, you agreed that he would nominate you as his Commission vice president. Were you angry with him?

Schulz: Initially, yes. But then we talked about it. I told him, you promised me. He answered, that's true, but I can't keep my promise because I won't be able to push it through internally. I understood that. The most important thing is candor. In cases of lying and cheating, by contrast, the friendship usually comes to an end.

SPIEGEL: It is part of politics that one sometimes must compete for a post against one's best friend. Is power ultimately more important than friendship?

Schulz: Would I sacrifice a friendship to take a step forward in my political career? Thus far in my political career, I have been spared from having to make such a decision, thank God. And I can't imagine what it must be like.

SPIEGEL: Have you ever done so, Mr. Juncker?

Juncker: No, my friends have thus far protected me from such decisions. One can't allow blind loyalty to a friendship to lead one away from acting in the public interest. If Martin were to propose something that was totally absurd, our friendship would not prevent me from doing the opposite.

SPIEGEL: Have you ever had to reject a proposal from Schulz?

Juncker: That we aren't always of the same opinion is something that comes up constantly. Then, we talk about it. Europe is a democracy and differences of opinion are part of it. The problem is: When two governments or institutions in Europe hold differing opinions, it is immediately a crisis. If in Germany the government, the Bundesrat (Eds. Note: Germany's second parliamentary body representing the interests of the states) and the state parliaments aren't in agreement, nobody questions the survival of the republic. I'm always quite amazed that people in Europe become unnerved when two institutions or two people have different views.

SPIEGEL: In your friendship, do you also talk about private things?

Schulz: Yes.

SPIEGEL: Recently, there have been reports about the state of Juncker's health and his alcohol consumption. Have you talked about that?

Schulz: Of course. We exchanged our aggravation over the platitudes that have been disseminated. Jean-Claude has one of the most stressful and difficult jobs. The fact that one sometimes seems tired is unavoidable. Many reports are obviously part of a political campaign, no doubt.

SPIEGEL: What is your response, Mr. Juncker?

Juncker: I said in Parliament that I am neither sick nor tired. Period.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Schulz is approaching the halfway point of the legislative term as president of European Parliament and, according to the deal, the post must then be handed to a conservative. Are you also in favor of a change, Mr. Juncker?

Juncker: I am in favor of the European institutions being led for the next two-and-a-half years as they have been thus far. We need stability.

SPIEGEL: The conservative fraction, your fraction, may see things differently.

Juncker: Europe is facing difficult times and at such a moment it is good for Brussels institutions to work well together. That works great at the moment with the two floor leaders, my friend Manfred Weber and my comrade Gianni Pittella, and the same holds true for Council President Donald Tusk. I don't see why we shouldn't continue with a proven team.

SPIEGEL: Are you saying that as a politician or as a friend?

Juncker: I am saying that as a politician and as a friend.

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