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Analysis

Intercepted in Luxembourg: The EU and the resignation of “Mr. Euro”

There are many indications that Jean-Claude Juncker will be returned as Prime Minister of Luxembourg in the autumn. Whether he can jump onto the personnel merry-go-round at the European stage, however, remains to be seen, says Jörg Münchenberg in a commentary for Deutschlandfunk, Germany’s national public radio.

In normal times, hardly anyone would take notice when in a country with just 500,000 inhabitants the Prime Minister were to announce that he is temporarily stepping down. That’s exactly what Jean-Claude Juncker did this week after a spy scandal in his own country finally caught up with him.

But Juncker is not just any Prime Minister – he is regarded by many as the face of Europe, as “Mr Euro”, no less. This status can be ascribed to his personality, but also his tenure. No other prime minister has ruled his country unchallenged for so long as Jean-Claude Juncker – 18 years in total. For this reason alone Juncker has experienced and shaped countless summit of Heads of State and Government and, in passing, contributed to writing the history of European integration. He was celebrated as the hero of Dublin in 1996: in marathon negotiations lasting 24 hours, he succeeded in reconciling French and German views on the Growth and Stability Pact. Later on, he purposefully built up his role of mediator and honest broker. And it also cleverly used the platform as head of the Eurogroup.

The rescue package for Greece, the cut in private creditor debt, his fervent commitment to the interests of small countries and against Franco-German dominance – coupled with a sharp tongue, a dash of irony in French, English and indeed German – this amazing mélange has cemented his reputation of an exemplary European, one who is both popular and influential. Unforgettable is his last appearance as head of the Eurogroup in January of this year when he spoke to journalists in the Council building and in the EU Parliament. He was not rendering his accounts, but celebrating a farewell tour. Receiving so much public praise and recognition is rare for a European leader, not to mention the sympathy and popularity that Juncker has managed to unite in his personality.

Of course, the Luxembourg Prime Minister has also been getting on the nerves of some European officials. Some of his surprising public interventions often caused more confusion than clarity, such as in the spring of 2010 after a meeting of the Eurogroup, when he said that, if necessary, Greece would be getting bilateral loans. A day later, Germany denied that such a decision was ever made. But such examples are rare. More serious was the apparent contradiction between the aspiration to be a bridge builder in Europe and pursuing a bang-hard national interest policy for the Grand Duchy.

Luxembourg depends on the money flows from banks and investment funds. Juncker always kept a watchful eye over their interests, whether in discussions over the special role of Luxembourg in the wake of the Savings Directive or in the zigzag course in respect of the financial transaction tax. But now the tide has turned and the wind is also blowing in Juncker’s face. Rising national debt and social spending in Europe stand in sharp contrast to bank secrecy and tax avoidance schemes. Far too late, and then only very reluctantly, did Austria and Luxembourg give in to the demands of other European Member States to finally dismantle their financial fortresses.

But it was ultimately this blatant contradiction between the flagship European and the Lord Privy Seal of Luxembourg’s financial center that increasingly annoyed other Heads of States and Governments. That is why there were hardly any voices last January calling for him to stay on chairman of the Eurogroup. Juncker has lost influence in Europe. Especially at a time when his successor, Dutchman Jeroen Dijsselbloem, has found his role as head of the Eurogroup, despite an arguably bumpy start.

It is clear that Juncker can only continue to play an important role on the European stage if he stays on as Prime Minister of Luxembourg. A lot of evidence points in that direction. Whether he has, for instance, any real prospects of taking over from Council President Herman Van Rompuy next year, when the merry-go-round of top positions in Europe starts turning again, remains to be seen. It is certainly too early for Juncker, aged 58, to think about the end of his career. What’s more, the conservative block in Europe has a serious deficit of candidates at the moment. It is, however, rather unlikely that German Chancellor Angela Merkel will want to see an unpredictable and confident Juncker – someone who has often enough annoyed her with his nationally motivated special requests – at the helm of the EU Council.

(Source: dradio.de, translation by luxpol)

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Election dayOctober 20th, 2013
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