Jean-Claude Juncker, the ‘Brexit President’, is already fading into obscurity

Jean-Claude Juncker, the ‘Brexit President’, is already fading into obscurity

He’s hardly unentertaining. From the slapping of presidents and prime minsters, to the kissing of bald heads, Jean-Claude Juncker did, for a brief moment, promise to liven up the EU Commission. Mind you, it wasn’t difficult to raise the spectacle stakes. 

A decade of José Manuel Barroso just about sent the entire press corps to sleep. Bar a scandal surrounding a tobacco-friendly Maltese Commissioner, Mr Juncker’s drab Portuguese predecessor never really got the pulses racing in a city where scandal and political accountability remain suspiciously absent. Mr Barosso is now — like all good former Maoists — enjoying a spell as a non-executive chairman at Goldman Sachs, and some are now speculating that an uninspiring career move now awaits Juncker after just one term as the EU’s head honcho.

A recent speech given in Rome by the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, sounded excessively presidential. Meanwhile, the Liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt, who also secured himself a high profile Brexit role as lead negotiator for the European Parliament, is well known to be desperate to land the top job. And had the breakdown in coalition talks not prompted speculation about a second German election, Martin Schultz might have considered returning from his failed bid to become German Chancellor to have another pop.

The sharks are circling. And now, as the EU President who must oversee the exit of a major member state and major financial contributor after the Brexit vote, Juncker’s legacy is under threat.

The careers of the most exalted EU politicians are usually assessed in one simple way: how much EU integration was one able to achieve during one’s tenure? Losing an EU member state almost guarantees that Juncker will never join the giddy heights enjoyed by EU founding fathers like Adenauer, Monnet or Schuman, or by former EU Commission presidents like Hallstein or Delors, who oversaw large increases in the EU’s powers.

But how did it come to this? An enthusiastic start to his presidency in November 2014 saw the former Luxembourgish Prime Minister promise to engage regularly with the press. An unflinching sidestep of the Luxleaks scandal soon after showed Juncker had the teflon coating needed to confront criticisms head on.

But today, many in the Brussels press corps bemoan Juncker’s reticence to leave the upper floors of the Berlaymont building and come and face them in his basement press room. In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, the seasoned Brussels correspondent, Jean Quatremer, reports that Juncker only took two questions and that his replies were ‘monosyllabic’.

That Juncker’s legacy may ultimately be that of the EU President who presided over Brexit did lead to a counter-attack in recent months though. Angela Merkel’s re-election (while now in doubt after the FDP walked out of those coalition talks) and the rise of Emmanuel Macron to the top of the french political pyramid did instil a new drive for deeper EU integration, and one to which Mr Juncker added his voice.

However, the categorical pushback expressed by a number of EU member states (including Denmark and the Netherlands) reveals their unwillingness to sell deeper integration to their electorates at this moment in time.

EU Council President, Donald Tusk, also advised caution back in September in the face of conflicting proposals about how to reform the EU: “Even though some may think it is a kind of a Eurovision contest, and perhaps it is, I am personally convinced that together, we will make good use of it, if we sing in unison.”

The enthusiasm for EU reform already appears to be waning then. The one thing that might have saved Juncker’s legacy appears to be struggling to even get off the ground. What isn’t helping matters in the eyes of the press is that Juncker’s advisors increasingly view any criticism of their boss as blasphemous, revealing an entrenching paranoia within his inner circle.

Bojan Pancevski recently reported in the Times that Mr Juncker’s chief advisor, Martin Selmayr, allegedly told Der Spiegel‘s Europe editor, Peter Müller: “Arseholes do arsehole journalism — you’ll never get any information from me”.

This aggressive outburst came after that editor’s magazine had reported that Mr Selmayr, the man widely considered to be the EU’s top eurocrat, hadn’t taken a call from the Greek Prime Minister, Alex Tsipras.

The latest initiative to reinvigorate the EU, proposed by one of Juncker’s senior advisors, calls on the EU Commission to make better use of social media and to find celebrity ambassadors to support the EU cause. Such a superficial strategy is unlikely to pay great dividends.

Without a popular mandate, Juncker’s fate may have been sealed before he even moved into his 14th floor office in the Berlaymont building three years ago. Mr Juncker may always be remembered as the ‘Brexit President’.