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Juncker’s reign atop the EU stumbles to a close

He has drawn fire for stroking a female colleagues' hair; he stumbled badly during a NATO dinner; right-wing populists have taken aim as European elections approach. How well is European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker really faring?

4 February 2019

Der Spiegel

He has drawn fire for stroking a female colleagues’ hair; he stumbled badly during a NATO dinner; right-wing populists have taken aim as European elections approach. How well is European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker really faring?

United Airlines Flight 951 is ready for departure and Jean-Claude Juncker is one of the last to board the plane, greeting the journalists accompanying him on his trip to Washington. “Everything’s OK. It’s just my damned knee,” he says, before disappearing into the front of the Boeing 777. The European Commission president is wearing a blue shirt and jeans with a braided belt, and limping slightly. During the flight, three blue file folders lie on the armrest of his seat. When Juncker returns from the lavatory during the flight, he blows kisses to the reporters.

A few days earlier, Juncker had stumbled across the blue carpet at the NATO summit, with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and others having to grab him under the arms and drag him to the gala dinner. Right-wing politicians mocked the allegedly drunk commission head while in Germany, parliamentarians from the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) immediately posted the video on social media. His spokesman said that Juncker had suffered a “painful attack of sciatica.” He rejected any aspersions that alcohol might have been involved.

Now 64, Jean-Claude Juncker hails from an era when people tended to look the other way when politicians were ill, complained of pain or had a little too much to drink. For a long time, only insiders knew how severe U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s back pain truly was. Former German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s drinking habits, on the other hand, were a topic of conversation in the West German capital of Bonn during the 1970s, though his fondness for a tipple never seemed to bother the public.

These days, though, politicians are expected to be completely transparent, their authority coming in part from looking fit and fresh on television. German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer is known to get quite indignant when journalists ask him about his occasional shortness of breath.

A Favorite Target of the Far Right

Even though Juncker’s term in office is coming to an end, it’s unlikely that the populists are going to spare their favorite enemy in the run-up to late-May European Parliament elections. Opponents of the EU vilify the head of the commission as a symbol of a moribund and ailing political bloc. As such, whatever might be ailing Jean-Claude Juncker is no longer a private matter — it’s a political one.

The right wing, for example, mocks Juncker for having allegedly turned Europe a “laughing stock,” as if they actually care about the EU’s welfare. At the end of last year, when the dispute with Brussels over the draft Italian budget was simmering, Matteo Salvini, the head of the right-wing populist Lega party, said: “I only talk to sober people.”

Just about every Brussels journalist seems to have an anecdote to share among colleagues about Juncker drinking too much or allegedly smelling of alcohol. But doubts as to whether the commission president is up to the task of fulfilling his duties are hardly ever brought up in public.

Ultimately, a story about Juncker is thus is also one about the way journalism is practiced in the European capital. In Brussels, friends of the European cause tend to stick together — not only when it comes to beating back attacks from the right, from populists and nationalists like Marine Le Pen in France or Heinz-Christian Strache in Vienna — but also when justified criticism is leveled at leaders in Brussels.

“Gin-and-tonic time,” says Juncker’s spokesman. The commission president had flown to Tunis that morning to meet with the president and other dignitaries, to attend a commemoration ceremony for the tourists murdered in a terrorist attack, and to give a speech.

Now, though, Juncker slumps into a sofa on the terrace of the Mövenpick Hotel. A gentle breeze is blowing in from the sea through the crowns of the palm trees as Juncker pours tonic water into a glass with gin and ice cubes. The spokesman and the journalist accompanying Juncker lift their glasses in a toast.

It’s a Thursday afternoon at the end of October and Juncker didn’t sleep too well the night before. And Europe isn’t faring so great, either, with Italy opposing the Commission’s budget constraints and Salvini ready for a fight with Brussels.

A French reporter wants to film a bit more, so the spokesman pulls Juncker’s glass out of the picture as a woman straightens the commission president’s hair. Sometimes, when he’s sitting on stage, she’ll bend down to him and pretend to whisper something into his ear. What she’s really doing, though, is pulling up his socks, which have rolled down. One time, she even gave him a pair that had stronger elastic.

A Politician from a Bygone Era

The interview with the French journalist is about Salvini and the draft Italian budget, but the camera has hardly been switched off before Juncker begins talking about Helmut Kohl, his political mentor from Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, and Jacques Chirac, who served as president of France during the 1990s. It’s a story about the good old days.

Before becoming president of the European Commission, Juncker spent almost 20 years as the — largely unchallenged — prime minister of Luxembourg. His EU was a men’s club in which the founding member states largely determined Europe’s fate among themselves — and his country was there from the very beginning. Six, and later nine, leaders of member states would sit around the table, with Margaret Thatcher becoming the first woman to join them. If Germany and France could agree, then things moved forward in Europe.

But today, the union has grown to 28 countries and the divide no longer tends to run as much between the wealthy countries in the north and the less prosperous ones in the south, but between East and West. Hungary recently expelled an international university from Budapest while Poland is taking a sledgehammer to its independent judiciary — and in both cases, the EU’s reaction has been inadequate. In contrast to the time when it was a question of keeping Greece inside the eurozone against the will of then German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, Juncker is now largely absent as a crisis manager. He never developed the same kind of instinct for the new EU countries that he had for the old ones.

After the drink, two of his companions help him up from the sofa. Juncker has an appointment, a private dinner with an ambassador, where he says he plans to have another beer. The next morning, he speaks with university students in Tunis about the opportunity of continuing their studies in the EU. Juncker doesn’t give the impression of a man who might be having trouble doing his job.

He flies thousands of kilometers, Juncker says smugly, it’s not possible to do that completely drunk. Back in Brussels, he is sitting in his 13th-floor office sipping coffee. To get to him, you have to pass through fully nine security doors or controls — and you are accompanied by an escort for much of the way. “Hello, Peter, how are you?” Juncker says in greeting at the end of July. When he says goodbye, he offers a kiss on both cheeks.

Growing Loneliness

For Juncker, the buddy-buddy approach to politics comes naturally, even if it seems terribly outmoded to some. They are male gestures, not necessarily degrading or even malicious, rather they are more of an indication of his growing loneliness at the head of the 32,000-employee authority. In December, he drew ire when he ruffled the hair of his female deputy chief of protocol as he arrived in the morning for the EU summit. British Work Secretary Amber Rudd immediately criticized the incident as “ghastly” and “grotesque,” saying it was the expression of an antiquated view of women.

Juncker is wearing a pink shirt with white stripes, his collar open. Files are piled up on his desk, while on another table sits the novel “Tyll” by Daniel Kehlmann, reading material for his upcoming holiday in Tyrol. An open trolley suitcase is lying next to it.

A few days earlier, Juncker had returned from Washington, where he had appeared with U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House Rose Garden to announce that America would not be imposing punitive tariffs on European cars for the time being. It was a success that nobody had thought him capable of. After all, it came immediately after his unsteady appearance at the NATO summit — and after German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron had both tried and failed to wring a similar concession out of Trump. “I came for a deal; we made a deal,” Juncker said proudly in Washington. As his guest from Brussels was heading to the airport, Trump began tweeting nothing but praise for Juncker.

Now, though, shortly after the trip, the euphoria has vanished, and Juncker feels trapped in his office. Over coffee, he says that he sometimes sits at his desk from half past seven in the morning until half past 10 at night, without even going outside for a bit of fresh air. There’s no terrace on the 13th floor, and Juncker says he wishes there was one — though he claims to have stopped smoking. But among his staff, the story persists that Juncker simply taped over the smoke detectors in his office in case he ever needs a Ducal.

When journalists approach his office for an appointment, Juncker’s press people sometimes stall for months. But if you send him a brief SMS directly to his phone, he’ll often call back right away. Contacted in mid-December about a short meeting, Juncker said, “I don’t have control of my own schedule right now.” Juncker was in Strasbourg at the time to address European Parliament, but British Prime Minister Theresa May wanted to see him in Brussels before the upcoming EU summit.

Personal Attacks

The personal attacks are getting to Juncker. When politicians from Austria demanded his resignation after the NATO summit, Juncker made a personal appearance at the European Commission’s midday press conference, something he doesn’t often do. He said ironically that he was surprised by how many experts for sciatica there were in Austria.

He then had to face questions from reporters, who wanted to know if it was true that his stumbles had exclusively been the result of health problems. “It was true on Wednesday,” Juncker replied, “it was true this morning and it will be true this evening and tomorrow morning.”

Sipping coffee in his office, Juncker once again has a full day. He just finished speaking with the Spanish prime minister, and the evening’s agenda includes telephone calls with Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, along with treatment for sciatica.

He’s been suffering from back pain since a serious car accident in 1989 that left him in a coma for three weeks. He woke up just in time for the fall of the Berlin Wall, as he once said. He organized his rise to become party leader in Luxembourg from a wheelchair.

Incidents that Need Explaining

Juncker’s spokesman, a vivacious Greek man and former member of European Parliament, regularly finds it necessary to update journalists about the health of his boss. “I block the bullets,” the spokesman says, referring to such press conferences. “I love you too,” Juncker replies.

He has reason to be grateful. Lately, there has been an uptick in the number of incidents that need explaining.

At the EU summit in Riga in 2015, Juncker welcomed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán by saying, “Hello, dictator,” at the same time lightly smacking the heads of one European leader after the other, kissing bald heads and patting them on the shoulder as if they were meeting at a Soviet communist party conference.

Early last year, Thomas Wieser, the longtime chairman of the euro working group, was bidding farewell in a pub in Brussels. The alcohol was flowing and Juncker’s legs went out on him. He almost fell over, but his cabinet chief grabbed him under the arms and hoisted him onto a chair. There were whispers about the story in Brussels for weeks, but ultimately only one publication, the German business magazine “Wirtschaftswoche,” reported about it.

A few weeks before the NATO summit in June 2018, as Juncker walked to the speaker’s pulpit in the Irish parliament, everyone could see that he was having trouble and Juncker didn’t try to dodge the issue. “I have some difficulties to walk,” he said, trying to take the edge off the embarrassing moment. “I’m not drunk, I have sciatica. I would prefer to be drunk.”

The NATO summit then followed, along with the row that ensued after he ruffled the hair of his deputy chief of protocol. The last time Juncker’s body gave out on him was on the Monday evening before Christmas, at the gala dinner of the High-Level Forum Africa-Europe in Vienna. Again, he needed support.

Such images are low-hanging fruit in right-wing efforts to undermine Juncker’s authority. And it concerns him. He, too, is fully aware how difficult things will become for Europe if right-wing populists grow strong enough that they can exert significant influence on EU operations. Juncker doesn’t even care to utter Salvini’s name when the conversation in the charter jet to Tunis shifts to Italy. “My contact is the Italian prime minister, not the interior minister,” he says. “I’m worried about the anti-European sentiment some people in Italy are establishing out of domestic political considerations, but I can’t change it.”

Indeed, Juncker has become a burden for the man who is seeking to succeed him as European Commission president. When he was nominated as lead candidate for the EU Parliament election for the European Conservatives in Helsinki at the beginning of November, Manfred Weber didn’t say much about Juncker, even though they belong to the same party group. And at the Christian Democrats’ party conference, where Weber received a standing ovation at the beginning of December, the politician also didn’t utter a word about Juncker, which was rather unusual. What, after all, could be more natural than leveraging the successes of your predecessor from the same political group?

‘A Man with Great Strengths and Great Weaknesses’

Although Weber finds the attacks on Juncker to be repulsive, he wants to focus on the European Union in the election campaign and not on the drinking habits of his outgoing commission chief. Weber once said that “Juncker is a man of great strengths and great weaknesses.”

The question as to whether Juncker is currently doing more good than bad for Europe is indeed a difficult one to answer. The head of the European Commission is a sick man struggling with the demands of old age, but he is nevertheless trying to do his job. At times he succeeds in doing it surprisingly well, like when it comes to his relationship with Donald Trump, a man with whom he has been able to establish a personal connection. And sometimes everything is normal, as it was in Tunis. But then come the lapses — missteps that are ultimately unacceptable for the head of the executive branch of the European Union.

Like millions of other people, Juncker regularly drinks alcohol, and only doctors or addiction experts can say for sure if he’s an alcoholic or not. During the period in which DER SPIEGEL spent months repeatedly observing Juncker, accompanying him on trips, meeting with him and calling him for short conversations, he showed no signs of any kind of difficulties.

It is also clear, however, that Juncker benefits from the fact that politicians in Brussels are subjected to far less scrutiny than those in Berlin or other European capital cities. Just imagine a German chancellor staggering over a red carpet and having difficulty standing. It is hard to imagine something like that not having any consequences.

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