World Economy

Opposition Grows to Junker’s Leadership Style

Opposition Grows to Junker’s Leadership StyleOpposition Grows to Junker’s Leadership Style

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is increasingly under fire because of his unilateral style of leadership. Officials in Berlin and Brussels are losing their patience and EU legal experts have cast doubt on some of his methods.

It was a handshake for which Russian President Vladimir Putin had been waiting a long time. The flags of Russia and the European Union were on display behind him, alongside a gold-trimmed table. And next to the table was European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the man who had been forced to endure considerable criticism for his decision to travel to St. Petersburg to meet with the Russian president, Spiegel reported.

Many in Brussels had complained prior to Juncker’s trip that the visit by the head of the EU executive body would be a coup for Putin, whose country is the target of EU sanctions due to its policy in  Ukraine. But Juncker, 61, was, as is often the case, convinced he was right and added that it was the right thing to do.

It is hardly a surprise that Juncker this week became the first prominent European to extend his hand to Russia. He may have only been in his current office for just a year and a half, but unilateral actions like this one have become something of a trademark. He has even come up with a philosophic framework for his increasingly erratic behavior. This commission, he has said, is a “political commission.”

The claim may not sound like much, but in reality it is akin to a revolution. According to the European treaties, the body Juncker leads is a normal government agency that must ensure that agreements reached are in fact adhered to.

  Authoritarian Rule?

The list of his unilateral forays is a long one. During the Greek debt crisis, he threw his support behind Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras even though the commission is not one of Greece’s creditors. In the refugee crisis, he wants to force EU member states to accept other countries’ offers to provide police officers to help protect their borders and has threatened states with monetary penalties should they not accept refugees—an imposition for any sovereign state.

He has been particularly independent when it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, which was designed to ensure stable public finances in eurozone member states. Juncker has begun making comments in public that make it seem as though he believes the pact no longer applies. “Because it’s France,” he recently answered when asked at a meeting in Paris why he was allowing the country additional exceptions to the debt rules. Juncker added that he was intimately familiar with the French mentality.

With that, he strikingly broke a taboo. In Paris, Juncker essentially claimed that he is no longer bound by rules when it comes to the core issue of economic and monetary union. “A foolhardy thing to say,” says one top EU diplomat.

  Extremely Problematic

Juncker, for his part, sees his political commission as the logical consequence of the last EU elections, which had been the first time he had appeared as a leading candidate. But now opposition to his leadership style is growing.

Legal experts with the Council of the European Union consider Juncker’s behavior to be extremely problematic, as do many members of the 28-member Eurozone Group, which is made up of finance ministers from eurozone member states. Some of Juncker’s political allies from Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union have also expressed concern.

“Of all people, Juncker should know what is at stake: namely our credibility,” says Gunther Krichbaum, European affairs expert for the CDU.

Patience with Juncker’s behavior appears to be coming to an end. Eurozone Group head Jeroen Dijsselbloem told the Economic and Monetary Affairs committee in European Parliament last Tuesday that he was very concerned about how the commission was approaching the Stability Pact. As the guardian of the European treaties, he said, the commission “should act on clear, transparent and objective grounds” so as to avoid the impression that it treats larger countries differently than smaller ones.

Even prominent politicians from the center-right European People’s Party, to which Juncker belongs, have criticized him—including, most recently, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

A further example of Juncker’s style of leadership comes from last October, at an appearance in Passau, Germany. In a question-and-answer session at the offices of the local newspaper, the discussion focused on refugees and the euro. It ultimately veered toward the planned European deposit insurance scheme, which will ultimately protect depositors on the continent up to a certain level should their banks suddenly go broke. “Savings and cooperative banks are part of our economic model and will thus not be affected by the deposit insurance scheme,” Juncker said.

  Not Interested in Details

Prior to taking his current position, Juncker had no experience leading a gigantic administration like the European Commission—another fact that helps explain his desire to operate in a more political manner. In Luxembourg, he directed a state ministry with just a few dozen employees, now he is leading an apparatus of 30,000 people.

Juncker prefers to leave the day-to-day work to two ambitious men who have gained a reputation for being the true leaders of the commission: Frans Timmermans, a commission vice president from the Netherlands, and Juncker’s German cabinet head Martin Selmayr.

But the Stability Pact—or the failure to apply it—is Juncker’s responsibility. He is always happy to listen to the concerns of large EU member states such as France and Spain, even if that means ignoring the advice of his top advisors. Juncker’s goal is to keep the EU together and anything else is secondary.