In the first part of our interview, you spoke about the Greek crisis as a challenging moment. You also saw Brexit and the process that followed the UK’s decision to leave. What will you remember?
Jean-Claude Juncker: I am still disappointed with the British people who, in a narrow majority, decided to leave the European Union. And I am convinced that this will have no positive effects in Great Britain and will have adverse effects on the continent and in Ireland, which, geographically, isn’t part of the continent but which is psychologically much more European than the UK.
Were you surprised by the wish to leave?
No, the outcome of the referendum wasn’t a surprise. I was the only one in the Commission to say: “You’ll see, the British will vote for Brexit.” The British commissioner–Lord Hill, in charge of financial services–wouldn’t stop telling me that the Cameron government would win the referendum and that Brexit wouldn’t happen. And, for my part, I wouldn’t stop telling him that no, he would lose and that it would be a yes for Brexit. We bet a pound sterling, a coin that I later kept in my pocket. It’s a souvenir, because it’s become a marginal currency since then.
When, for 47 or 48 years, you never stop telling your citizens–regardless the government, except for a few rare exceptions–that you are a member of Europe only for economic and internal market reasons, that the rest is trifling and doesn’t concern you, that you are not a stakeholder in this great European adventure, then you shouldn’t be surprised that the British vote according to what they’ve been hearing for nearly five decades.
What do you think of Michel Barnier’s work?
I appointed him as negotiator without too much consultation when there was readiness to put aside the Commission for the benefit of the member states. He held that position with grace, conviction and determination. It was one of the best decisions I could make in terms of people I asked to do something during my Commission presidency. I consulted with him on a daily basis while insisting with the prime ministers of the member states on the need to maintain our cohesion.
Was this a pressing need?
There wasn’t a single day when the British stopped trying to divide the member countries by making grand promises to those who would support them in their disastrous mission. There would have been discord had their efforts been successful.
Did the British disappoint you because of a lack of fair play?
No, because something else frankly disappointed me before this. For days and nights, I negotiated an agreement with David Cameron–who was against my nomination as head of the Commission–before the referendum campaign, which would have been a big step forward for Europe and which would have allowed the British to steer ahead with more transparency. But this played no role during the campaign, because Cameron simply didn’t explain what had been agreed. From then on, I didn’t expect much.
For example, he asked me not to travel to England during the Brexit campaign. And I wrongly heeded his advice. Would that have changed anything? I don’t think so.
Europe continues on its way, without the UK…
But we are losing a jewel in terms of international influence. The British, with the French, are the only military power in Europe, the only European members of the UN Security Council… All this has disappeared in a fairly brutal manner. Luckily before that we launched what should become a Europe of Defence to remain influential at international level.
On this matter, was Brexit an advantage?
The same day, convincing other member countries of the necessity of Europe of Defence became much easier.
What was the rule you never wanted to break in discussion with heads of state?
First, I always respect my interlocutors. Second, I keep in mind that the majority of those I negotiate with don’t come from countries that are models of democracy, which does not prevent me from slipping in my remarks on human rights. Which I did with the Chinese, in particular.
I have always forbidden myself, in my talks, to refer to domestic and interior political problems, while knowing the minute details of these problems and the debates that were rocking the countries I visited.
The president of the Commission must always be well-informed…
Even in Europe I wanted to be perfectly up to date on what was happening with the others. Every Friday, I received a report by the Commission representation in the different member countries. I did the same at international level with the reports of the ambassadors. I read everything.
Every day, I received a dozen calls from European prime minister and, therefore, I had to be well informed… Especially since those who contact you never say why they are bringing up this or that problem, or why they are presenting it in this way. If you are informed, you understand immediately, and when you answer, your interlocutors feel that you know.
The smallest details count…
I have always said that the small member countries must have big ears. The same thing is true for the Commission. Jacques Delors often told me that the president doesn’t have any allies but just representatives around him, travelling salesmen, national interests.
Where are you in the writing of your memoirs?
The pandemic is preventing me from consulting my archives in Brussels, part of which is also at the University of Florence. But I don’t have archivists at my disposal. Other uncertainties are also preventing me, for the moment, from applying the necessary discipline to writing, but the project is obviously still there.
How do you organise your time at the moment?
I would spend a day and a half per week in Brussels, leaving on Wednesday morning to come back on Thursday. But the pandemic has changed things, especially in terms of cross-border travel. Even if I think the Belgian customs officers would still let me through. At least, I hope so…
This interview was first published in French on Paperjam.lu and has been translated and edited for Delano.