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? Photo Gallery: The Trials and Tribulations of Jean-Claude Juncker 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. International Newsletter
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"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.
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 […]
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