Large member states stand in the way of Jean-Claude Juncker as first President of the European Council

Jean-Marie Majerus
In Luxembourg, most politicians, as well as public opinion, were happy with Herman Van Rompuy’s nomination as Belgian Prime Minister. He seemed to be the right man in the right place, able to give this neighbouring country the prospect of finding a viable compromise on how Walloons and Flemings could continue living together in peace and mutual understanding.
In the eyes of the Luxembourgish community, the natural candidate for the post of President of the European Council could not have been anybody other than Jean-Claude Juncker. However, in the weeks preceding the decisive Brussels Council, the international press revealed rumours and speculation announcing that Juncker would not be the first President of the European Council. During the decisive Brussels Summit in December 2009, Jean-Claude Juncker could have asked for a vote because “a large majority of delegations were ready to support my candidacy.”[1] One major member state, however, was not keen to support him, but “my friend Van Rompuy did not meet any opposition at all.”[2] Thus, in order not to risk a split in the Union because of his person, he decided to withdraw his candidacy and support his friend Van Rompuy. These rather sad events “left a bad souvenir, but no bitterness,”[3] according to the Luxembourgish Prime Minister.
The Luxembourgish press condemned the way this matter was handled: they were particularly disappointed by the representatives of bigger countries, especially by the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy, who had de facto vetoed the nomination of Juncker, lost his last sympathies in the small neighbouring country. In the eyes of the Elysée, Juncker did not react appropriately during the financial crisis as President of the Euro group. Guy Kemp asked in the pro-socialist party newspaper Tageblatt: “Where was Angela Merkel?”[4] Again, the “big countries” manoeuvred a small one out. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the European Parliament’s Green leader and an outspoken Juncker fan, called “the decision historically inadequate”[5] and was applauded from Luxembourg. Was Juncker not allowed to become the first President of the European Council because he likes to reveal uncomfortable facts in public and does not refrain from criticising politicians from bigger nations?
Jean-Claude Juncker wants to give Van Rompuy a fair chance. In Juncker’s opinion, he is “a European by conviction: he knows the mechanisms of the Union by heart. He has great capacity to listen to different points of view.”[6] Juncker warns those “who predict that Van Rompuy could be easily manipulated like a puppet on a string.”[7] Are these compliments made by courtesy, by personal friendship or by simple political calculation?
Marcel Kieffer, a political analyst of the conservative Luxemburger Wort, has neither high expectations of Herman Van Rompuy nor of Catherine Ashton. He still believes that the main impulses in the future will come from the rotating national presidencies, even if their role was changed by the Lisbon Treaty.[8] He advises the Spanish Presidency to work closely with Van Rompuy in the implementation of the Lisbon Strategy and its follow-up programme.
Generally speaking, the political analysts from Luxembourg are keen to know what the real influence of Van Rompuy on day-to-day EU politics will be. There is a general fear that the influence of the smaller member states might be even more restricted, especially if the traditional Schuman method (méthode communautaire) is not applied in its classical way.
A journalist could not help confronting Van Rompuy with the ominous “European telephone question” at a press conference in Luxembourg City. Van Rompuy refused to answer, as he did not want to “fall into a trap built up by the media.”[9] During his short visit to Luxembourg, he underlined that he “was the EU representative on the international floor,” even concerning the “security and defence”[10] matter “[i]sn’t this (Catherine Ashton’s) job?”[11] This led the Luxembourgish press to ask the inevitable question, as was done by Danièle Fonck, who is working for the independent weekly Le Jeudi: “Who is in charge?”[12] “What are Mrs Ashton’s duties and responsibilities?”[13]
The Luxembourgish media were not happy with Van Rompuy’s silence when the Greek problem was discussed at the Brussels February 2010 Summit. The “Belgian on the imaginary throne was too discrete when the Greek crisis was on top of the agenda.”[14]
Most recently, Van Rompuy nevertheless received some applause in Luxembourg when he refused Merkel’s idea to withdraw voting rights from Euro countries which do not respect the public debt criteria.[15] As head of the task force, he might, according to a Luxembourgish diplomat, create a fait accompli by elaborating a reform program to be ready in October 2010.[16]
Juncker agrees that the fathers of the Lisbon Treaty – him being one of them – have “forgotten to speak of the cohabitation problems created by the treaty.”[17]
The Commission still has the exclusive right to make preparations for the Council. The President will make the traditional rally of the capitals. “The choreography must be good, especially under the Spanish Presidency”, Juncker says.[18]
Rotating presidencies are more important for smaller- and medium-sized member states than for the bigger ones. Before the Lisbon Treaty was institutionalised, the rotating presidency was a real showcase for these countries. They were able to play, for at least one semester, the most important role on the international and European diplomatic floor. But these countries – especially Luxembourg – are also well aware of the disadvantages of the rotating presidency: for the Luxembourgish national administration, rotating presidencies had always been a major tour de force. For the extra-European partners of the EU, the rotating presidencies were always confusing. Nevertheless, the Luxembourgish government and public opinion believe that the rotating presidencies will continue to play a role in European politics, especially when the country in charge has a strong European spirit.
As a matter of fact, Luxembourg has always been and continues being a very strong supporter of the European foreign affairs and security policy. On the day of Catherine Ashton’s designation, the first question which came to mind, in Luxembourg as well as in many other member states, was: “Catherine who?” “I don’t pronounce myself on Ashton as I don’t know her”,[19] Jean-Claude Juncker said.
In fact, Catherine Ashton has to cope with the commissioners who are already in charge of different aspects of common foreign policy. How is she going to find her place?[20]
More critical observers mind the unclear definition of her responsibilities at the top of a new big administration.[21] The former Luxembourgish Foreign Affairs Secretary Paul Helminger, a liberal opposition Member of Parliament (MP), tries to explain why, in his eyes, a British woman was chosen: “The United Kingdom never really wanted a Common Foreign and Security Policy as long as it was not identical with its own foreign policy. By appointing an Englishwoman to this post, the European decision makers abandoned the implementation of such a policy.”[22] The political analyst from Tageblatt had the same point of view: “Catherine Ashton is not the convinced European she pretended to be when she was confronting the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) responsible for her confirmation as High Representative. She says she would prefer ‘silent diplomacy’; could that mean ‘no diplomacy at all’?”[23]
The definition and implementation of a Common Foreign and Security Policy has been one of the cornerstones of Luxembourgish European policy since the seventies. Apart from the tiny Communist Party, no serious political or social relevant group in Luxembourg ever opposed a European foreign and security policy. However, the “Proposal for a Council Decision establishing the organisation and functioning of the European External Action Service” could not pass without creating some fears. Luxembourg, as well as some other smaller member states, is afraid that this new organisation might exclude them from major decision making. The Luxembourgish MPs and political analysts prefer the traditional “Schuman method.”[24]
The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) was explained to the Luxembourgish public by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on[25] Luxembourg’s European Commissioner Viviane Reding, responsible for Justice and Civil Rights, made clear that not just any subject could be introduced by European citizens. She gave the example of a possible proposition asking for the reintroduction of the death penalty.[26]
In a country with only 500,000 inhabitants, a European Citizens’ Initiative, which needs at least 1,000,000 signatures to be validated, does not really produce enormous interest. Only one Luxembourgish newspaper found the EU Commission’s proposal for a regulation on the Citizens’ Initiative important enough to publish it.

[1] Jean-Claude Juncker: Je ne veux pas porter les chapeau du désaccord franco-allemand, Les Echos, 27 January 2010.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Guy Kemp: Mittelmäßige Ansprüche, Tageblatt, 3 December 2009.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Jean-Claude Juncker: Je ne veux pas porter le chapeau du désaccord franco-allemand, Les Echos, 27 January 2010.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Marcel Kieffer: Erste Früchte, Luxemburger Wort, 13 December 2009.

[9] Bertrand Slezak: Tout le monde raccroche, Le Quotidien, 5 February 2010.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Danièle Fonck: Mais qui est censé diriger l’Europe?, Le Jeudi, 4 February 2010.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Harmut Hausmann: Griechenland und die Konsequenzen, Journal, 7 May 2010.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Marianne Truttmann: Gipfel der Eurostaaten, Luxemburger Wort, 8 May 2010.

[17] Jean-Claude Juncker: Je ne veux pas porter le chapeau du désaccord franco-allemand, Les Echos, 27 January 2010.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Hartmut Hausmann: In einem Boot, Journal, 10 December 2009.

[21] Bertrand Selezak: On n’y voit pas plus clair, Le Quotidien, 10 March 2010.

[22] Paul Helminger in an interview with the author on 2 December 2009.

[23] Guy Kemp: Mittelmäßige Ansprüche, Tageblatt, 3 December 2009.

[24] Guy Kemp: Klarheit schaffen, Tageblatt, 30 December 2009.

[25] Europaforum: L’initiative citoyenneté européenne donne aux citoyens de nouvelles possibilités d’influer sur les
politiques européennes, 31 March 2010.

[26] Tageblatt: EU leitet Europäische Bürgerinitiative ein, 1 April 2010.