A Greek challenge for ‘Mr Europe’ Juncker


It's sultry early July and an emotional Jean-Claude Juncker is on the stump, calling for a 'Yes' vote in a referendum on which he says hangs the future of Europe – and his own career.

"A 'Yes' … would have a significance … well beyond Europe," he tells voters. "We can show we're getting moving again, that the process of European unification goes on."

Only, the EU chief executive isn't addressing Greeks before Sunday's vote. This was 2005 and Juncker was addressing his fellow Luxemburgers. As their prime minister, he was pleading for support in a referendum he had called – with no legal need – to demonstrate popular backing for an EU constitution. He won, and went on to serve another eight years.

The risks he ran then – puzzling to many – illustrate the depth of Juncker's engagement to a Europe he this week called the "love of my life" and a highly personal, emotional approach to politics that marked his efforts to broker a deal for Greece.

From the moment Juncker grabbed Alexis Tsipras by the hand and led the novice Greek prime minister away for instruction on his first visit to Brussels, to the Commission president's talk this week of feeling "betrayed" by the leftist leader 20 years his junior, the personal touch has marked a roller-coaster five months of mediation between Athens and its euro zone creditors.

But an approach that one Juncker acquaintance said was based on generating a "personal vibe" in the negotiating room, did not always please Athens' biggest creditor, Germany, which feared he was giving Greeks false hopes of securing easier loan terms.

That highlights risks for Juncker in taking on the EU leaders who appointed him last year to run a Union facing a web of crises – Greece and the euro, British threats to quit, Russian aggression, migration from the bloc's poor, violent neighbors.

Personal engagement

"Juncker is a very skilled negotiator. He has incredible patience," said Jean-Jacques Rommes, the head of the Luxembourg employers federation UEL, who watched Juncker mediating on many occasions during his record-breaking 19 years as prime minister.

"He must be very upset at not succeeding," said Rommes. "If Greece leaves, it's clearly a reversal of something he sees as his life's work … So politically, but also emotionally, everything is driving him not to give up on Greece."

EU officials describe Juncker taking a paternal, "pedagogic" interest in Tsipras, explaining to him how EU negotiations work and the need for technical talks not just political deals. One recalled a meeting when Tsipras arrived without experts; Juncker sat the Greek leader down at a computer and insisted he "get his numbers right" before there was any point in further discussion.

On one occasion, Juncker greeted the younger man for the cameras with a cheery welcome to the "torture room".

As late as Monday night, 24 hours before Athens defaulted, Juncker texted Tsipras a 5-point plan he hoped could clinch a deal and persuade him to seek a 'Yes' vote, one EU source said.

Giving vent a couple of days later to his frustrations over the "ridiculous" behavior of the Greek government, EU lawmakers said he told them he deserved a "Nobel Prize for patience".

Such personal engagement won Juncker fair reviews from Greek officials whose left-wing views are less alien to Juncker than to many fellow conservatives. Long leader of a coalition with socialists, his political roots among Luxembourg's steel mills lie on the left of the spectrum of European Christian Democrats.

And Juncker, who proclaims an unembarrassed "love" for the Greek people, seems genuinely motivated to help, keeping an ear to the ground throughout Greece's austerity pain by means of regular calls to a small number of personal acquaintances.

Feedback from sources around Socialist French President Francois Hollande, whose former finance minister is EU economics commissioner, has also been positive for the multilingual Juncker, who sees Luxembourg as a bridge between France and Germany and a catalyst for their cooperation in building the EU.

German grumbles

Yet a sense that Juncker, who can justly claim to be one of the fathers of the euro, risked selling short those governments which were actually – unlike the Commission – lending Athens hard cash, irritated German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble.

One Berlin official couldn't resist a note of Schadenfreude after Juncker showed his anger at Tsipras, refusing to take his call and accusing him of misleading voters: "Juncker was really enthusiastic about Tsipras and now he’s depressed. We were never enthusiastic about him and so we're not depressed now."

EU sources insist the man who spent eight years chairing the Eurogroup of euro zone finance ministers has a thicker skin than that: "He is very good at engaging people on a personal level," one said. "But Tsipras is not a friend. It's politics."

Germans worried that in his efforts to prevent "Grexit" out of fear it could unravel the euro, Juncker was not helping. As talks reached a climax two weeks ago, euro zone officials said Schaeuble was particularly incensed when Juncker's German chief-of-staff issued a midnight tweet hailing a new Greek offer as a good basis for a deal – before ministers had even seen it.

One EU source said: "Juncker helped create the euro zone. He couldn't survive seeing it go backwards. That's a contrast to Schaeuble, who thinks it would be better off without Greece."

Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom Juncker sees as a key ally, and the German government insist they want to keep Greece in the common currency but that it must respect the rules of the club.

'L'Europe, c'est moi'

Juncker's readiness to defy governments marks him out. Last week's fury at "self-interest" and "populist gamesmanship" around the EU council table was not just aimed at Greeks.

Part of a postwar generation that saw the EU as an antidote to conflict, he rejects Eurosceptic charges he favors a federal "United States of Europe" and defends national sovereignty. But he has not hesitated to speak out against leaders – Hungary's "dictator" Viktor Orban, for example – whom he sees as fuelling centrifugal sentiment by pandering to narrow national interests.

"This is a high-risk strategy," said one veteran Commission insider. "This is new. He's risking annoying the member states."

When national leaders, wearied by wrangling over Greece, collectively rounded on Juncker over his migration proposals at a summit in late June, he burst out: "I don't give a damn."

"He wants to be the voice of the European conscience," one ally said. "And sometimes he forgets the world is tougher than he'd like. But at 60 he won't change. He's in nobody's pocket."

The gamble Juncker took in urging Greeks to defy Tsipras's complaints of EU "blackmail" and vote 'Yes' to a bailout, has echoes of a decade ago. Then, some accused Juncker of blackmail by threatening to resign and deprive Luxembourg of his undoubted influence in Brussels if they voted 'No' in a referendum.

One columnist at the time called his political suicide threat a "clinical symptom" of Juncker's personal identification with the building of the EU and imagined the premier, in an echo of Louis XVI, believing "L'Europe, c'est moi" (I am Europe).

Having said he won't seek a second five-year term, the main risk Juncker runs now is that high-profile failures undermine his ability to persuade leaders to back his plans in Brussels.

"He'll need some successes in order to maintain his authority with the Council," said Julian Priestley, a former head of the EU parliamentary administration whose study of last year's election is called "The Making of a European President".

"If he's seen as a kind of gun-toting, freewheeling figure who isn't succeeding on the big issues, then that's a problem for him in terms of getting things through."