Jean-Claude Juncker: "I Was Always Fearful"

07/18/2013 10:53 am ET | Updated Sep 17, 2013

He's without a doubt one of the EU's most influential voices: Mr. Euro -- Jean-Claude Juncker. Max Tholl sat down with Luxembourg's Prime Minister to talk about quarrels during EU summits, political cynicism, and fears during important negotiations.

The European: You advocate that Europeans should relearn to love each other. In the face of the current crisis, that goal might be hard to achieve.
Juncker: Every crisis has different phases and love is never an easy thing to achieve because it is an irrational feeling. You must want to love, be allowed to love, and be able to stay in love; that's no piece of cake. But to answer your question: mutual interest among Europeans was already low before the crisis hit the continent.

The European: Why?

Juncker: We don't really know a lot about each other. What does a Laplander know about a Sicilian and vice versa? Nothing. And yet, we raise the claim to apply the same social and political norms all across the continent without considering local or regional conditions or preferences. This contributes to a rising estrangement, that's why I am advocating moving closer together.

The European: The European project depends a lot on the feelings and the state of mind of its citizens. The steady state of crisis must afflict enormous damage to the European idea.

Juncker: The crisis revealed something I was well aware of but was nevertheless shocked by its intensity: age-old resentments that are creeping back into European relations. There is a long list of offensive and unjustified German assertions about Greece that have caused a serious rupture between the two countries. But it's not a one-way street. Pictures of Angela Merkel with Hitler-mustache, depicting her as a descendant of the Nazis, are being displayed on the streets of Athens. It shows that the European integration is still a very fragile undertaking.

The European: Can you imagine how Angela Merkel must feel in the light of these accusations? After all, you were the president of the Eurogroup and thus also a potential target for protesters.

Juncker: I gained the goodwill of the Southern Europeans and they have always treated me relatively benignly. I undertook a lot of efforts to capture and grasp the mood in countries like Greece or Portugal. I called up my local friends twice a week to hear their appraisal of the situation. That's how I knew about the hardship endured by so many people in Greece or Portugal. If you know these things, you don't talk about the affected people, but with them. But yes, it is certainly unpleasant for Ms. Merkel to see herself being depicted in that way; it's a kick in the teeth.

"We are no longer able to explain our vision for the continent"

The European: Do you think that she might have provoked this criticism by her remarks that weren't always well chosen?

Juncker: She hasn't treated the Greeks with scorn; at least not on a regular basis. She embodies all the German remarks and has become a projection surface for all the grief and anti-German feelings. She's in the limelight but she's not the initiator of the quarrel.

The European: Are you concerned about the current atmosphere in Europe, especially with regards to the European elections next year?

Juncker: I am concerned, but the upcoming elections aren't my prime concern. I am worried about the fact that an increasing number of people are turning their backs on the European project and that we politicians are no longer in a position to rectify this process. We are no longer able to explain our vision for the continent and our words no longer strike a chord with the European citizens. We are also witnessing a precarious need for a stronger welfare state in Europe. People tend to believe that we politicians only focus on controlling budgets and making social cuts. Europeans have abandoned the European idea and have returned to their national states to find the solutions to their problems. But it's a blind alley; there are no answers to be found by turning away from the European project.

The European: Are you primarily concerned about the economic repercussions, like the dwindling competitiveness, or the consequences that this shift could have for the European peace?

Juncker: I am primarily concerned about the consequences for Europe's politics and citizens. As I said, we are no longer able to get through to the people and they are drifting away from us. How should we then explain European integration? It used to be easier. The generations that witnessed the disastrous wars that wrecked this continent didn't need to be convinced; they already were. The people returning home from the trenches or labor camps had experienced what a non-European Europe looks like. Their vows of avoiding such wars in the future became the basis of a common political program that still lingers on today. Nowadays, the situation is different. Today's youth no longer relates to the accounts of peace and war. They seem to have forgotten that peace on this continent can't be taken for granted. We must learn to constantly substantiate the idea of a common European home. If our past and historical legacy can no longer serve this purpose, we must look towards the future to justify this undertaking.

The European: Replacing the old accounts of war and peace with a new account of a brighter future?

Juncker: Exactly, but unfortunately many politicians are cautious to do so because they fear that people might start to think that they are only trying to deflect from current problems. I know that the future is now therefore I refrain from hiding the truth. Europe is the smallest continent in the world. It's merely half as big as China or the U.S. and measures only two-thirds of the size of Brazil. Europe is just a tiny spot on the map but we are still convinced that we are the masters of the world. We are not; and ought not to be because we lack the skills and ability.

The European: What are we doing wrong?

Juncker: We are ignoring and neglecting the complex issues because we look for simple solutions. For example: after the fall of the Berlin Wall, 20 new states were created on Europe's periphery. Up until now, we haven't dealt with these countries the way we should have. Their complete integration remains to be done. The European percentage of the global economic output is in free fall. In 20 years time, China will have more economic weight than the U.S. or Europe and there are other countries like India that are catching up pretty fast. Europe used to be a muscleman but it is now suffering from muscle atrophy. Our demographic problem risks getting out of hand but we are failing to act upon it. At the start of the 20th century, Europeans made up 20 percent of the world's population. At the start of this century, we merely represented 11 percent and in 30 to 40 years that number will shrink to 7. To think that now would be the time to abandon the European project and return to the national unities is a crucial mistake and will harm our common future.

"Without the euro, Europe would be insignificant"

The European: Anti-euro and euro-skeptic parties are rampantly spreading throughout Europe. This could jeopardize further European integration.

Juncker: I observe this trend with regret and fright. It's clear that they are aiming to destroy Europe's greatest strength: the common currency. We need a stronger and better Europe and the euro is the only way to achieve this. The common currency is the only thing that gives us importance; now and in the future. We don't have a common foreign or security policy so we need another political instrument to increase our influence. Europe would be politically insignificant if it weren't for the euro. That's the only correct answer to the criticism voiced by those parties and movements.

The European: 2007 -- before the crisis -- you argued that the numerous opponents of the common currency "might be against it, but that the euro is nevertheless the right way to go." Isn't that undemocratic?

Juncker: I might be an offender of conviction but I do have to fight by democratic means. If you capitalize on feelings and the mood of the population, you will quickly be labelled as demagogue. If you however oppose those feelings and argue that the majority of the people might be wrong in their assumptions and that you are right, you will certainly be labelled a very unreliable democrat. But voters and journalists have to make a choice: do they want politicians who simply parrot and engage in phrasemongering, or do they want politicians who might oppose and challenge their views. I don't want to sweet-talk voters just to get their approval. Sometimes you have to confront them if you think that they are heading in the wrong direction. But of course, I can be voted out of office if the people are unsatisfied with the work that I do. That can't happen to journalists.

The European: Former German chancellor Helmut Schmit argued that the fate of Europe would depend on two people: you and Mario Monti. Now, Monti is no longer in office and you are no longer president of the Eurogroup. Who's in charge now?

Juncker: We might no longer be in our respective offices but we are far from being gone. But we do have less influence, that's true. I am not convinced that only a handful of people can turn Europe's economic situation around. It's an age-old German fantasy that one person could solve all problems. Even my dear friend and idol Helmut Schmit told me a couple of times that he doesn't know what to do to put the train back on tracks.

The European: The Franco-German union has been in the limelight of the euro crisis at all times. Recently, quarrels over austerity measures have strained the relations between the two countries. Should Germany go on and push through with its austerity measures, regardless of France's objections?

Juncker: Europe is not a Franco-German playground. Budget discipline and debt reduction are not unique to Germany -- that's pure self-deception. The Netherlands, Finland, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Slovenia, and many other European states have a far better record when it comes to budget discipline. Luxembourg and Estonia have the lowest public debt in Europe. 18 months ago, even Spain had a lower debt level than Germany. The Franco-German relation is crucial for the European project and further European integration. Judging from my political experience, I am convinced that the current divergences will be ironed out. They know about the importance of their relationship and are fearful to loose the individual power that springs from it.

"I am not a cynic"

The European: You have said that the European states don't need to assert themselves within the Union because their voice will always be heard. Yet, after EU summits practically every European leader tries to give the impression that he had his demands accepted.

Juncker: Yes, and it drives me up the wall when I see them telling false accounts in the hope to boost their popularity at home. Most of these accounts have nothing to do with the actual course of the negotiations. As president of the Eurogroup, I was well aware of this. It's really annoying. From time to time, you get the feeling that the European Council is very much like a boxing ring where all the parties meet to resolve their differences.

The European: And you act as "the voice of reason" -- as you called yourself a few months back?

Juncker: I've never called myself that. I simply didn't object when others did -- that's different.

The European: You've agreed to support Angela Merkel's election campaign. Was that a party political decision or do you prefer chancellor Merkel's European policy to Peer Steinbrück's?

Juncker: Just like in previous German election campaigns, Ms. Merkel's party has invited me to several campaigning events and I will attend if I have the time. It's become a sort of tradition to campaign across borders because European policies and national policies have become intertwined. But I am not an obedient advocate of the German European policy. I don't take Ms. Merkel's decisions at face value -- I do question them and she's well aware of that. In fact, I often find myself having more similarities with the opposition party than with her. I will use the occasion of the upcoming campaigning events to highlight the flaws of Ms. Merkel's European policy.

The European: During the Cypriot financial crisis, you criticized your successor -- the current president of the Eurogroup Jeroen Dijsselbloem -- for his contradictory statements about the Cyprus rescue. Do you still get the urge to intervene?

Juncker: I didn't criticize him. The press constructed that story from a few half sentences and utterances. To answer your question: No. I am still in contact with all the decision-makers, but I don't feel consulted.

The European: You are renowned for your sarcastic and humorous rhetoric. Is that a helpful tool in the political world?

Juncker: You should take the problems and their consequences very seriously, but not yourself. That's why I often indulged in self-mockery and irony. I never wanted to become cynic or sarcastic. I am not a cynic.

"You have to conceal certain information"

The European: As president of the Eurogroup, you were right in the eye of the storm and experienced the euro crisis at first-hand. How did you manage to sleep with all this sensitive information on your mind?

Juncker: You need sleep so that was fairly easy. I can't go without sleep. Still, I had to learn how to deal with sensitive information that could spark off panic on the markets. I initially struggled a lot with that. That's why I made the assertion that "when things become serious, you have to lie" -- I still feel the after-effects of that statement. But it's true, you have to conceal certain information or they might pour oil on troubled waters.

The European: Did you often wake up in the middle of the night, thinking about the things you forgot to do or say, or the things you could have done but didn't do?

Juncker: No -- never. I have a very disciplined and healthy sleep habit. It's a matter of training.

The European: Training?

Juncker: Yes, I am not a natural talent in that respect but I force myself to sleep at nights. But during the days, I was often unable to suppress the worries you mentioned. In fact, I was always fearful because these issues are so complex -- fearful because so much depends on them. I was always worried that I might not have acted cautious enough, that I might have misunderstood something; that I might have drawn a wrong conclusion and spread it afterwards.

The European: The European: Please complete the following sentence: "If I think of Europe at night... "

Juncker: then I couldn't sleep if it wouldn't exist.

Translated from German