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By JEAN-CLAUDE JUNCKER
MOIEN! It’s Jean-Claude here. In a moment of weakness, I committed to writing Playbook on the last working day of my mandate. And so, nous voilà — a little late but none the worse for wear. Indeed, this seems a fitting way to bid adieu to the press corps of Brussels with whom I have enjoyed so many years of good-natured repartee. I certainly won’t be reimbursing @Berlaymonster for stealing his idea for my much acclaimed campaign video, so perhaps this will suffice.
LOVING EU: It is no secret that Europe is and will always be the great love of my life and so to lead the European Commission over the past five years has truly been the greatest of honors. And what better way to mark the occasion than another (brand new!) montage video, obviously.
The past five years have been no picnic. There were challenging moments that stuck in my mind, and I’ve also got some very fond memories of very special moments — all of them reaffirmed why I do this job. Let me walk you through the highs and lows of my ever-exciting past five years. Also, I’ll have some fresh news for you further down, in good Playbook tradition.
WHERE WE STARTED
PRIORITIES FIRST: I have never believed in more Europe for the sake of it, but in a better Europe, that acts only where it makes sense. In 2014, we set out with 10 clear priorities, including creating a digital union, introducing more solidarity into Europe’s migration policy and a Union that is big on the big things and modest on the rest. We have not achieved all that we set out to do, being at the mercy of circumstance as we so often were, but I would hope to be remembered for having sought to change this Union for the better.
FACT IS: Since the start of my Commission, 14 million jobs were created. The EU and euro area experienced 25 consecutive quarters of economic growth. We struck trade agreements with 16 new countries, supporting 5 million extra jobs. Some 172,000 young Europeans volunteered for the European Solidarity Corps. We invested €4.5 billion in putting our partnership with Africa on a new and equal footing with total expected investments of €44 billion by 2020. Pas mal.
LESS IS MORE: The EU often gets a bad rap for regulating toilet flushes or the curvature of cucumbers but these are archaic references. Over the past five years, we drastically reduced the amount of EU legislation — by 83 percent compared to before — so we could focus on the things that really matter to Europeans, such as tackling climate change and better managing migration.
PROUD GODFATHER: Since 2015, what has been called the Juncker Plan has removed barriers to investment and used public money to leverage private funding to support EU-based projects that otherwise would not have been able to get off the ground. As of October 2019, according to my latest figures, the Juncker Plan is expected to trigger €450.6 billion in investments, and over 1 million small and medium-sized enterprises are set to benefit. Here’s more about the Juncker Plan in your country.
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THINGS YOU GET TO SEE AND HEAR
ALL EARS: The EU also sometimes gets a bad rap for navel-gazing. So rather than engage in a dialogue des sourds, my Commission spent a great deal of time listening to what Europeans had to say in 1,815 town hall debates in 640 locations across Europe. My favorite moment was when a lovely elderly gentleman in Malta asked me when the EU was going to create a European Day for Grandfathers. It was a wonderful opportunity to explain that the EU does not in fact have its fingers in every pie and that some things are better done at national level (as much as I like grandfathers).
PRYING EARS: As everyone is debating the security of 5G networks, I am happy to rely on my trusty Nokia (not quite a 3310 but almost) to protect me from prying ears. That said, I do distinctly remember hanging up the phone after a lengthy conversation with my dear friend Bill Clinton, only to receive a phone call from Jacques Chirac a few moments later. Without a moment of pretense, Jacques asked me: “But why did you say that like that to Clinton, Jean-Claude?” Thanks for listening in, mon ami. Turns out, it’s not always the U.S. listening in on your phone calls.
A SIGHT FOR SORE EYES: Pictures really do speak a thousand words. One of the most skilled communicators among the prime ministers I had the pleasure of working with is someone with whom I never shared a common language (although I consider myself somewhat of a polyglot): my friend Boyko Borissov. When, in 2015, he tried to explain to me the importance of the rather complicated South Stream project for energy security in Bulgaria and the neighboring region, he did so without a briefing and without using words but just through a few scribbles on a sheet of paper. I was so impressed by his artwork that I framed it and put it on my office wall, as a reminder of the importance of energy interconnectedness.
Leaky pipes: A few months later, a Bulgarian delegation came to visit me to continue the discussion on the Bulgarian gas hub. I proudly showed them that I had understood it all thanks to the excellent drawing skills of their prime minister, only to discover that a member of the delegation took a photo of the framed drawing and leaked it to the Bulgarian press. Future Boyko creations will soon adorn an art gallery in Sofia no doubt!
THOSE CHALLENGING TIMES …
THE GREEK SUMMER OF 2015: We spent seven months, 16 Eurogroup meetings and four euro summits fighting to keep Greece in the eurozone. This was a trying time for us all — though for no one more so than for the courageous people of Greece. And I say this after having been one of the “adults in the room” in more than 500 meetings in the Council. These months alone deserve a good book of their own — with the people of Greece as the true heroes of the story.
FAMILY FEUDS: Over these past years, I often felt like Europe’s family therapist, trying to keep everyone happy and on board. Don’t forget that the Brexit referendum was not the only referendum I had to deal with. There was the Dutch Nee to the Association Agreement with Ukraine, the Danish Nej to help us jointly fight crime and Switzerland’s decision to cap the free movement of EU nationals. When it came to Brexit, I hired the most capable divorce lawyer in town, mon cher Michel, who (twice) negotiated the best divorce deal possible, while making sure the EU27 family sticks together.
THE UK IS LEAVING — ENFIN? In November 2015, the United Kingdom submitted a request to improve what many already considered to be favorable membership arrangements. This was the beginning of a trilogy of Commission task forces dedicated to trying to navigate our way through murky waters not of our own making: UKTF, TF50, and now we are back to UKTF (we ran out of creative acronyms, just be glad we put the TF and the UK in the right order). Four years later, I will be leaving before the U.K. does. In a way, I am not unhappy about this because it breaks my heart to see a member of our Union leave its midst.
Every cloud: At the same time, support for the European Union is at an all-time high (according to much beloved Eurobarometer figures). I would chalk this up in no small part to the debate around Brexit, which highlighted the merits of European membership. That people are singing “Ode to Joy” in the streets of London or that my in-tray is overflowing with love letters from British citizens is surely testament to this.
STICKING TO MY WORDS: Election campaigning appears to be in full swing on the other side of the Channel. Any wise man would steer clear of adding fuel to the fire, and luckily I still have some wisdom left to impart, so I take the liberty to not comment.
Dictionary corner: It has been often said (you’ll never guess by whom) that everyone understands the English language but no one understands the English. I can, however, personally testify that there are still large segments of the English language that are yet to be fully understood on the Continent. A notable example: nebulous (adjective) /ˈneb.jə.ləs/ (especially of ideas) not clear and having no form.
… AND HERE ARE THE HIGH POINTS
HAPPY 60th: There was admittedly a moment in 2016 when things looked pretty grim. But slowly and surely our Union was able to bring itself back from the brink. On March 25, 2017, Europe’s leaders gathered in Rome to renew their vows, pledging to stick by one another and move forward together. This will remain one of my fondest memories of this period. I signed this declaration with the same pen, in the same room, as the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg Joseph Bech signed the original Treaty of Rome that established the European Economic Community in 1957.
WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE PARIS: Paris is always a highlight, but never more so than when it became emblematic of the most ambitious legally binding climate agreement the world has ever seen. For me, this confirmed what I already knew in my heart to be true: When the European Union acts together, its combined diplomatic strength can change the world for generations to come. Without the EU, the Paris Agreement would not exist. Faced with an increasingly volatile global landscape, we should not lose sight of what can be achieved when we are united.
We need more of this — what I call Weltpolitikfähigkeit. And I am glad that Ursula von der Leyen’s Commission will carry this torch forward, starting Monday with her attendance at the kick-off of the COP25 in Madrid.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MONEY: When the polls in Luxembourg give you a 95 percent approval rating, you tend not to trust them. That being said, a Eurobarometer survey that will be published today — previewed by Playbook — shows support for the euro at an all-time high: 76 percent of citizens polled believe the euro is good for the euro area and 65 percent believe it’s good for their own country. This represents the highest level of support since these surveys began in 2002.
What’s more, 69 percent of citizens believe there should be more coordination of economic and budgetary policies. Even if there is less amore in Italy, support is still at 69 percent and there is a great deal of amour in France — 75 percent. I am glad to see this record-high support for our single currency on my last days in office as president of the Commission: The euro has been the fight of a lifetime and today’s figures are quite an endorsement to celebrate the euro’s 20th birthday! Have a look at the results here and here.
EUROPEANS ON THE MOVE: Since 1987, 10 million young people have taken part in the Erasmus program, 4 million of whom participated between 2014 and 2019. This is not a coincidence but the result of record EU investment in European citizens, and our choice to make full use of the EU budget to help people study, train, teach, work or volunteer abroad.
ROAMING FREE: Europeans on the move have never chatted to one another so often — particularly our citizens from Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Poland. Contrary to popular belief, prices for mobile services have actually gone down across the EU since 2017 when we scrapped the charges for using your phone abroad, which has led to a tenfold increase in the use of mobile data. More juicy details to come in the Commission’s full report later today.
TRUMP TALK: “Tough cookie” and “brutal killer” — these are not words that have been attributed to many Luxembourgers, but I take them as compliments. Good negotiations start with mutual understanding and respect. And sometimes size matters (I knew it!): At the G7 in Taormina in 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump introduced me to his wife with the words: “All these heads of state here — Merkel, Macron etc — are in charge of one country. But Jean-Claude, he is in charge of 28!” I did not attempt to explain the difference between myself and the other Donald.
Fast forward … to a year later, when I arrived at the White House just a week after the EU and Japan signed a trade agreement worth one-third of the world’s GDP. Needless to say, it was good timing and Donald sensed a huge business opportunity with the EU, the biggest trading bloc in the world — and now the number one importer of U.S. soy beans. Although he and I do not always agree, there is an openness and frankness about the relationship, which is fundamental for any partnership if you are to make progress.
All jokes aside: The EU-U.S. relationship is first and foremost a friendship, based on people, not politics alone. This is what I told Donald when I gave him a photo of a military cemetery in Luxembourg, where U.S. General George Patton is buried. I wrote: “Dear Donald, let us remember our common history.” I wanted to remind him that I was there as a friend.
LESSONS FOR THE FUTURE: Europe remains the smallest continent. From the 25 percent of global value added that we account for today, our share, if all goes well, will drop to 15 percent in 10 to 15 years from now. By 2030, it is likely that no European country will still be a G7 member. Demographically, we are also on a downward slope. So we have to stick together, not by wiping out our national identities but by nurturing them, emphasizing our common values time and again, as well as our individualities — the things that make Europe what it is.
Europe must remain a strong pillar of NATO, which is not so much “brain dead” as in a light slumber from which it can be easily roused. Europe already succeeded in awakening what I coined the “Sleeping Beauty” of the Lisbon Treaty — our Permanent Structured Cooperation — in defense matters, so we have some experience in the matter.
CYPRUS: The first official visit I made to an EU country as president of the Commission was to Cyprus, where I consumed enough halloumi/hellim to last a lifetime (I didn’t tell them, but I’m really not a fan of this rubbery stuff). It is with great personal sadness that we have not yet seen the reunification of the island, but I live in hope that it can be done.
BROKEN PROMISES: If Europe’s strength lies in us being a reliable partner, someone to count on to defend the multilateral rules-based global order, our weakness lies in the failure to keep our promises — both ours and those of our international allies. The prime example of this is our enlargement policy and European leaders’ shameful inability to live up to their commitment to start accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania once these governments fulfilled the necessary criteria. Respect must be earned and we want to maintain our credibility, we have to do what we say we will — internally and externally.
LOVE UNREQUITED: I personally spoke 23 times to four successive Swiss presidents and my Commission held 32 rounds of technical negotiations in order to conclude an agreement between the EU and Switzerland on our future relationship. All the elements are on the table and we have a text. It is a source of frustration that we cannot get it over the last hurdle — and a perfect example of how tough negotiations can be (for anyone currently interested in negotiations).
I’m very briefly handing over to the Playbook team at their insistence, as it appears to be customary for this morning briefing to also catch you up on POLITICO’s stories, not just Playbook’s.
COMMISSION’S GOT TALENT — the von der Leyen Commission, to be sure. POLITICO’s funnyman Paul Dallison brings the laughs.
THE STORY OF A CONVERSION: Kalina Oroschakoff reports on the greenification of “Señor Petrolhead” Miguel Arias Cañete..
NEVER WASTE A GOOD CRISIS: Campaigners in Venice hope the recent floods will lead to increased support for autonomy in a referendum Sunday, Hannah Roberts reports.
OVER AND OUT
ANOTHER PIC ON THE WALL: Here I am back with you. Having packed my boxes and emptied my office, all that’s left to do is to hand over the Treaties and the keys to my successor Ursula von der Leyen. We’ll do this next Tuesday when I will finally take my place on the presidential wall of fame. I can’t leave without a final parting shot beyond this column, however, so will come down to the press room at midday today to say my farewells (just don’t ask me any questions on the contents of today’s Playbook).
BIRTHDAYS: There is one of particular relevance to this Playbook author — Jacques Chirac, born on this day in 1932. To speak of Europe today as a community of values and people over interests and a market, is as true as it was when Jacques first said it, more than two decades ago. He taught us all to live by the lessons of history — so today we should pay tribute to his place in history and a legacy that will outlive us all.
THANKS: To the 32,000 European civil servants who dedicate their lives to making the European Union better every day. I have a particular soft spot for the unsung heroes — the interpreters and translators, the chauffeurs, security guards and cooks. They fill this institution with life and have brightened my quotidien for years now.
NOT GOODBYE, BUT AU REVOIR: I am not one for farewells, so I regret to inform you that this will not be the last time you hear from me. Even as I withdraw from active politics, I will never cease to lend my voice and my heart to Europe. Prenez-en soin pour moi.