Photo/IllutrationJean-Claude Juncker responds to a question in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun. (Naoki Tsuzaka)

  • Photo/Illustraion

The Brexit movement in Britain and the increasing popularity of right-wing parties in other European nations are all targeting the bureaucrats in the Brussels headquarters of the European Union.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was asked in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun to address the widespread dissatisfaction among Europeans who do not want to have their lives determined by EU bureaucrats.

He was asked to comment on the belief that those bureaucrats are an elite class whose main goal is to usurp the state sovereignty of member nations.

Juncker, who will step down this autumn, was also asked about the EU's relationship with the United States and Japan.

Excerpts of the interview follow:

Question: Do you have any regret at not being able to prevent the decision by the national referendum in Britain in 2016 to leave the EU?

Juncker: (David Cameron), the then British prime minister, did not want to have us interfering in the referendum campaign. I agreed that we should not interfere but that was a major mistake. Because of all the lies which have been told to people during this referendum campaign, it would have been wise to have one institution to say 'this is a lie.' We did not do that, and we were failing to do our duties.

Q: There is still no resolution to how Britain will leave the EU and Boris Johnson, the leading candidate to become the next prime minister, has said he would be content with a hard Brexit. What is your view of that?

A: I do think that a no-deal is a bad solution because it is in the interest of nobody.

We will not renegotiate the withdrawal agreement. We can give some clarifications on the political declaration related to the future relations but as far as the substance is concerned, there will be no renegotiation. This is not an agreement between Theresa May and myself, this is a treaty between Britain and the EU.

Q: There is now speculation that parliamentary elections could be called under the new prime minister. If that is the case, would that be a reason for extending the withdrawal deadline that has now been pushed back to the end of October?

A: Well this is a British decision. I will react when the decision will have been taken. I don't know if they will decide to go for new elections. This is their decision.

Q: One of the reasons given by the British public for leaving the EU is their desire not to follow instructions from Brussels. What do you think about that?

A: I have full understanding for all those who don't want to be dictated by Brussels. When I was prime minister (of Luxembourg) I was strongly refusing this dictatorship of the European Commission. I have done everything possible to avoid this impression that here in Brussels people are surrounded by stupid, blind bureaucrats and technocrats.

People working here--commissioners and civil servants--have excellent qualities. They are not trying to have the national states disappear. The commission has to work closely together with the different states. Nations are not a temporary invention of history. They are here forever. People here, they have to understand that.

Q: What do you think has to be done to convince people that the EU is an organization that exists for their sake?

A: Europeans first have to understand that what we are aiming at are not the United States of Europe. I never believed in the United States of Europe. We are not a body which is trying to attract to Brussels all the decisions. I am a strong believer in the principle of the so-called subsidiarity. Those who are closer to events, to people, to problems, they should make the decision. The EU should be in charge of the problems that the local communities, regions, countries, cannot deal with.

Q: In the May European Parliament elections, the moderate pro-EU parties, including the one you belong to, suffered losses in the number of seats won and the moderate parties did not gain a majority. Gains were made by right-wing populist parties and the Greens. How do you view the results of the election?

A: The result is bad but better than expected. The turnout was by far better than in previous times (at 50.62 percent, the highest in 20 years). I am happy about that. Those who went for elections were not expressing the same view on European matters. I am against the simplified way of dealing with the public opinion consisting in saying that all those who have questions to be put to the EU are euroskeptics, are against Europe. No, they have good reasons sometimes to put questions. I, myself, am putting questions to the EU at least five times per day without informing the general public that I am doubting. But no, let's not make this mistake of putting all those who have questions to be put to the EU, who have doubts expressed, let's not put them in the same basket as these stupid nationalists. That is not the case.

Q: But don't the results show a polarization of politics in light of the gains by the right-wing parties and the Greens?

A: If you are watching the domestic landscapes in the different member states, you can easily see that this is not the phenomenon when it comes to the EU as such, but that is a phenomenon which is playing out in all our countries. And the Greens are not extremists. The Green explanation for the vote to some extent is a right one but it is not the only one. Why should populism totally disappear when it comes to Europe whereas it continues to exist in member states? But I have to say that, nevertheless, these extreme forces are contained. They are not breaking the whole system.

If a country for good reason says, 'I have to defend my national interests,' that is acceptable. But they have to be willing to compromise with others. Because there are 28 national interests and something overarching--that is the interest of the EU. The people should bear this in mind. When a country says again and again 'my country first,' it could easily be the first country to be isolated.

Q: It has been said that right-wing populist parties began to gain strength after the response to the immigrant crisis of 2015 when Germany accepted more than 1 million from such nations as Syria. What is your view of this?

A: This is part of the explanation for this populism and this tendency to move to the right and extreme right. But I have to say that (Chancellor Angela) Merkel and the others, because Germany was not the only country to take in refugees, she was not opening the borders, they were open. She did not close the borders. That is something different. Whereas the extreme right and the populists they say, 'Why did she open the borders?' No, she did not close them and that is something different, and I think that she was right.

Q: But there are some people who say that the freedom of movement, one of the basic principles of the EU, leads to terrorism and is a threat to national security, aren't there?

A: I am very strongly in favor of free movement. But of course, gangsters, terrorists and others, they are abusing this freedom of movement. This is up to the member states to be in control of those who are coming in and why they are coming in. From here I cannot control the terrorist traffic between the Netherlands and Germany but they can. They can.

Q: Looking back on your five years as European Commission president, what would you consider your greatest achievement?

A: When I was starting in November 2014, I was saying we have three priorities: growth, employment and investment. We have a good growth situation in Europe, an average 2 percent per year. We have created 13.4 million jobs. I am proud that we kept Greece in the Euro area. In 2015 we had more than three governments which were asking to eject Greece from the EU area and all the big guys, Nobel Prizes and others, were saying 'there is no future for Greece in the Euro area.' We've proved the contrary.

Q: With the ongoing trade war between the United States and China, what are your views about both of those nations?

A: I am not representing the United States, I am representing the EU. That makes a difference when it comes to the relation with China. No, we do see them as a rival, as a competitor but nevertheless, as a partner. These are three things going together. President Trump is misled by himself. He is by far more positive I think, than people usually think he is.

Q: After many years of negotiations, an economic partnership agreement has been reached with Japan. How do you feel about that?

A: That is a big thing. My commission has concluded, since 2014, 15 trade agreements. We have trade agreements with 75 countries in the world. These trade agreements with 75 countries are covering 40 percent of the global GDP.

We do not share every time and always the same points of view but we have always shared the same values. The trade agreement we have negotiated with my good friend (Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe and with Japan is covering one-third of the global GDP. That is something. Even with this trade agreement, we were mentioning values, not only figures, not only business, not only money. The relations with Japan were never in such good quality as they are now. I do think that Japan is one of our main strategic partners in the world.

We are in ongoing talks with China, with Japan and with the United States.

When I was negotiating with the Chinese president or premier or with the U.S. president, I informed, the other morning, the Japanese authorities because I don't want that what we are doing with others is overshadowing our relations with Japan. We are swimming in the same channel (with Japan) and others have to learn to swim.

Q: What do you feel are the qualities and conditions required of the president of the European Commission?

A: The one who is president of the commission has to be able to listen to all the member states, to the European Parliament, to others. Not dictating from there. Take the other with you. I didn't want to say, 'The commission says this, so you have to do this.' This was never my approach.

Q: What are your plans after you step down as European Commission president at the end of October?

A: I was appointed minister (in Luxembourg) at the age of 28, and I was in office in my government until 2013. And I am here since November 2014. That is enough. I will do everything to have the Europeans benefiting from my recently discovered literacy.

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Jean-Claude Juncker was born in 1954 in Luxembourg. He served as prime minister of that nation for 18 years from 1982 before becoming president of the European Commission in November 2014.

(This interview was conducted by Naoki Tsuzaka, Asahi Shimbun's Brussels bureau chief, and Tsutomu Ishiai, Asahi Shimbun's London bureau chief and European editor.)