Time is said to be the greatest healer. But for Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Union between 2015 and 2019, the gaping wound of Brexit five years after the referendum still seems sore.
The Brexit vote, he argues, goes against history. But not helping the healing process for the fiercely pro-European former Prime Minister of Luxembourg – his views were shaped by listening to his father’s stories of the destruction of the Second World War – is that it happened on his watch.
He blames his former nemesis David Cameron for the “mistake” of Brexit, himself for listening to Cameron, and the ‘misinformation’ that he claims ‘brainwashed’ the UK’s electorate.
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“I should not have listened to David Cameron,” he says leaning back in his chair in his office in the commission’s Brussels HQ.
“He told me not to interfere in the debate in the UK, not to come to London, not to do interviews with the British press. I made a mistake because I did not defend the EU’s point of view in the UK. They asked me to shut up, so I shut up. That is something I criticise myself for. I should have spoken out rather than stay silent.”
Whether or not his intervention would have turned the 2016 vote in favour of Remain is up for debate. When US President Barack Obama infamously said Britain would be at the “back of the queue” for any trade deal, the intervention backfired tremendously. And this was with a politician popular in Britain. Juncker – perhaps unfairly – has often been portrayed as the ultimate European bureaucrat.
He has more to say on Cameron’s failure though. Before calling the referendum the then Prime Minister renegotiated some terms of Britain’s membership arrangements. It was an intense and controversial deal to secure a special status for the UK.
“And yet, I saw that this agreement we negotiated with the British government played no part in the referendum campaign,” Mr Juncker, 66, said.
“No one told the British public what we agreed on, say, the free movement of workers,” he adds, shrugging his shoulders at what he says was ultimately a pointless pact.
It could be argued, however, that Mr Cameron failed to secure all he needed to really win over the British public, with German chancellor Angela Merkel refusing to grant Britain an ‘emergency brake’ to halt migration within the bloc.
Juncker was already seen as a bête noire by the Brexit campaign. He was the EU’s ultimate insider, an architect of the Euro, and – as Luxembourg Prime Minister for almost two decades – had attended more EU summits than any other leader. He was branded an arch federalist, said to be an alcoholic, and even tied to the Nazis through his father, who was forcibly conscripted into the German army following the invasion of Luxembourg during the Second World War.
Mr Juncker stepped down as the Commission’s boss in 2019 after five years in the job, but the 66-year-old is back in Brussels. He has a smaller office in the Commission’s headquarters, the Berlaymont building, where he is often found delving into his papers for his planned memoirs.
There’s a lot for him to write about. His time at the EU was eventful to say the least, with Greece almost expelled from the Euro in 2015 over the financial bailout, and then more than a million refugees arrived in the bloc.
But Brexit was the biggest cloud: it was the first time in the EU’s history that a member state had chosen to leave. Mr Juncker now looks back wistfully at Britain’s time inside the club.
“To tell the truth, the British never felt at ease in the EU,” he says, pointing to the way Britain tended to see the EU as mainly an economic project, and distancing themselves from the political nuances.
“When you tell your people for years, decades, ‘Yes, we are part of it, but not really. We are part-time Europeans,’ then you can’t be surprised when you ask their opinion and discover that a small majority of them believe Britain could do better outside the EU,” he says.
He sighs at some of the caricatures of the EU that emerged in Britain. “This brainwashing – sometimes populist, sometimes demagogic, sometimes planned – against the EU meant that British people voted for Brexit,” Mr Juncker says. “I always respect the sovereign decision, but it was ahistorical. It went against the course of history.”
Still, he retains a fondness for Britain, pointing to the television screen in his office, switched to the BBC World channel. “These are down-to-earth people,” he says. “Other Europeans are more volatile, more passionate, sometimes naïve. The British were always more pragmatic. I always appreciated the pragmatic approach of the British governments, both Labour and Conservatives, on Europe. I’m not bitter or angry. I am just sad that this element of good sense has left Europe.”
Nor does Mr Juncker ascribe to the view – held by Brexiters and some in Brussels – that Britain was never destined to be a true member of the European family. “No, I always thought that it was normal for Britain to be in the EU – which owes it a lot,” he says, pointing to the UK’s military heft, global influence, and its roles in shaping the EU’s single market.
Jean-Claude Juncker was persistently dogged by rumours about his health during his time in Brussels. His unfiltered manner, effusive bonhomie with fellow leaders, and awkward gait led many to assume he had a drinking problem. But it emerged that he suffered from both kidney stones and pains in his sciatica nerve, for which he took strong painkillers.
“I still have the sciatica,” he says. “I still limp. And yet they say the guy is drunk again. I’ve never been drunk in my life.”
The rumours still stung. “It hurt me,” he says. “I can’t really give a press conference to say, ‘I’m not an alcoholic’. That would have been…incompatible with my basic dignity.”
Some of the harshest headlines were in the British press. Once asked by a journalist about whether he drank two cognacs for breakfast, he jokingly responded, “No, it’s four”. It was, nonetheless, written up seriously. “I guess I overestimated the British sense of humour,” he says, wryly.
Since Mr Juncker’s departure from the Commission, the EU has plunged into another crisis as it battles the coronavirus pandemic. Ursula von der Leyen, his successor as Commission President, has been caught up in a skirmish with vaccine maker AstraZeneca, which Mr Juncker has described as “a stupid vaccine war.”
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, last week warned of growing anti-Brussels feeling in France. He warned of “social unrest and anger” over immigration and the EU’s “red tape and complexity”.
Juncker admits the stuttering rollout of vaccines across the bloc has damaged the EU’s reputation. “Yes, because the promises made at the beginning of the year, that it was ‘the hour of Europe’ – and it’s always the hour of Europe – and that everyone would be vaccinated before the deadline, well, those promises were not kept,” he says. “But in an extraordinary situation like this, it is inevitable that some mistakes will be made. Even the UK, in its splendid isolation, has made some errors.”
As it happens, Mr Juncker has long been a champion of vaccination, and in 2018 said that a “stupid mistrust” of vaccines meant people were being killed by preventable diseases. “Pandemics do not stop at national borders,” he says. The EU should give itself more powers to fight pandemics. This is an idea whose time has come.”
Still, Mr Juncker insists that it was still the right decision for all 27 countries to join together in procuring vaccines, even if they look sluggish compared to Britain. “If every member state acted on its own, it would lead to complete disorder – so it was better to go through the EU. This crisis could prove to be a test for Europe.”
Despite this, he renounces any suggestion that he wants to see a United States of Europe. “Contrary to what the British press says, I am not a blind, stupid federalist. I never believed in a United States of Europe. Never. “
Before we part, Juncker has one final message for the British people, despite his feelings over how the referendum result went. “All this does not change the friendship I feel for the British people,” he said.
“If Churchill and the British did not do what they did, we would have all become – I don’t want to say Nazi – but we would have lost our freedom. There is an eternal debt of gratitude that Europe owes the British. Eternal.”
Figure of fun
Jean Claude-Juncker may have been portrayed as a figure of fun in some sections of the UK media, but he could earn unexpected results. Donald Trump praised him as a “killer” when the two met in Washington in 2018 to hammer out a trade deal – a rare piece of praise from the former US President.
Mr Juncker says they liked one another. “I spoke freely with him. There was no fanfare. I just told him what I thought. And I reminded him that the US and Europe have a long history together,” he says.
He also says he got on well with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “When we spoke, in Moscow and elsewhere, it was alone, without advisors or translators, as he speaks excellent German,” he says.
“I could tell him what I needed to say. And he responded in his own way. I won’t say it was friendly. It was brusque, sometimes brutal – which is fine. And I can be like that too. It’s not my style, but if you have to, then…you have to.”