Juncker first ‘President of Europe’?

Luxembourg’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Jean Asselborn affirmed already in November 2007, even before signing the Lisbon Treaty: “In Luxembourg, the parliamentary ratification is to due to take place in first half of 2008” . Since all was said in the 2005 referendum campaign, no ‘nay’ votes other than those of the small Populist Party ADR (10% of the electorate) are expected. There is no intense public debate taking place at this moment on the ratification and the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty.

The Luxembourg Parliament (Chambre des députés) organizes forums and discussions with political and social organisations, youth groups and students on the contents of the Lisbon Treaty , although there are very few debates compared to the many that were organized before the referendum. Detractors of the Lisbon Treaty and adepts of a no–vote in the July 2005 referendum are trying to find a broader consensus after controversial discussions. They denounce these hearings as a mere propaganda show since European leaders wish the treaty to be ratified as quickly as possible .

In a declaration in the Luxembourg Parliament, Prime Minister Juncker behaved in a very cautious manner when he affirmed that the “ratification process will be no easy job with 27 parliaments. This treaty needs strong support, and good lawyers which must be accepted by the 27 member countries. If this treaty is not approved, I can’t foresee the outcome (of the European unification process)” . The liberal newspaper Letzebuerger Journal is much more optimistic as to the ratification of the new Lisbon Treaty . No referendums are planned in such difficult countries as France, the Netherlands or even Denmark. A really fast ratification process seems to take place in many member states. Hungary already ratified in December 2007.

The question a larger public in Luxembourg feels concerned with is not whether to approve or disapprove the Lisbon Treaty, but what Luxembourg citizens want to know is if all other countries will approve the treaty before January 1st 2009. If this is the case, they wonder who will be the first “President of Europe” because that is how the chairman of the European Council will be called by the rest of the world . Could his name be Jean-Claude Juncker?  He has so far avoided answering the question of whether he is interested in taking the post or not. But in a recent interview on a Luxembourg language TV station he did no longer exclude the possibility of accepting the job if an overall majority of his European counterparts proposed him to run . In this case another important question arises: if the most popular Luxembourg politician is appointed to this prestigious office, who will be his successor as future Luxembourg Prime Minister?

State of discourse on the preparation of ratification

The people of Luxembourg accepted the European Constitution Treaty in a referendum on July 10th 2005 after the French and the Dutch had already refused it. The referendum campaign was not an easy one, even though all political parties in Luxembourg called for a “Yes” vote, except the populist ADR and the two tiny communist parties (all in all, 3% of the electorate). Only the Prime Minister’s personal intervention in the campaign finally guaranteed a “Yes” victory. The “No” votes (46%), however, exceeded by far the number of votes the communist (2%) and populist (10%) parties usually get in general elections.

The Spanish people had also previously accepted the treaty via referendum. Twenty other European Union member states had ratified the constitution treaty on a parliamentary base. Some governments refused to proceed to ratification, whereas France and the Netherlands seemed to be in a deadlock situation. Luxembourg, for a long time, supported an implementation of the constitution treaty, but after the German presidency’s breakthrough, it accepted the newly proposed so-called “simplified treaty”. The conservative newspaper Luxemburger Wort points out that the new treaty is in fact very close to the already approved constitution treaty: ”This largely satisfies the countries who have already ratified“ . Jean-Claude Juncker comes to the point: “The new treaty is good for Luxembourg and it is a good treaty for the European Union. Luxembourg has got what it voted for on July 10th 2005. The essential issues of the constitution treaty have been preserved.” 

The “Alliance for a No“ proclaims that “the (Lisbon) Treaty is nearly a ‘copy-paste’ of the constitution disapproved by French and Dutch citizens (...) The European institutions remain a mockery of democracy. A total liberalization of the economy and a growing militarization of the society are the side effects of this treaty. Critics of the European Central Bank’s policy are simply ignored. The ‘supposed value of a European religious heritage’ is declared as being a fundamental value; an assertion which must hurt laic (anticlerical) citizens.”  The Communist party’s newspaper calls for a new referendum, a demand immediately rejected by Jean-Claude Juncker. This refusal gives the communist editorialist the opportunity to comment on the so-called “Junker’s lie”: “(Our) French and Dutch neighbours are told the exact opposite (than the Luxembourg people). (Juncker said that) since the reasons of their disapproval have been removed, no new referendum is necessary” .

The Tageblatt, a paper reflecting the views of the Socialist worker’s party (part of the ruling government coalition), explains why a new referendum is not necessary: “A new referendum could not bring Europe one step further” . The editorialist wonders if the most virulent protagonists of a referendum, especially those in the UK, would really be interested in a forthcoming European integration.

A referendum in France would again turn into a campaign to approve or disapprove the incumbent government’s policy. The editorialist supports former socialist Minister Goebbels’ position on Britain’s European policy. In a Tageblatt interview the MEP Robert Goebbels suggested offering a “privileged partnership” instead of a full membership to the United Kingdom. The new Treaty at last offers this possibility: “Great-Britain could be the first country to profit from this new opportunity” . Former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, chairman of the European convention, has recently declared ”that any country that fails to ratify the Lisbon Treaty should seek a special status within the EU or leave. Only Britain faces this possibility, he added to avoid possible doubts.”

Reactions to the establishment of a ‘Committee of the Wise’

The French President ‘s proposal for a high-level “wise men’s committee” to study the European Union’s long-term future has been ‘diluted’ by other EU countries, wary that France wants to set precise limits to the bloc’s enlargement and exclude Turkey, as the candidate Nicolas Sarkozy promised. The panel’s mandate will cover neither the EU’s future geographical borders, nor possible reforms to the bloc’s institutions, nor its budgetary policies . The socialist paper Tageblatt hails Germany’s and Austria’s foreign ministers’ determination to stop Sarkozy’s plan. The Luxembourg liberal party’s newspaper Letzebuerger Journal even sees a personal defeat for Nicolas Sarkozy in EU decisions concerning the French initiative . The conservative Luxemburger Wort is very sceptical too and underscores Chancellor Merkel’s opposition to a “Council of the Wise”, as it was proposed by the French President. The Luxemburger Wort correspondent in Brussels simply calls Sarkozy’s ideas “Gedankenspiele”  (literally thoughts’ plays). Generally speaking, a small country like Luxembourg cannot afford to blame France by openly dismissing President’s Sarkozy’s plans. But – undercover – Luxembourg’s government dislikes the proposal because it might put another brake on the Lisbon Treaty ratification train. Jean-Claude Juncker expresses these fears openly: “(The discussion around the mandate of the reflexion group) might bring the governments in some countries under pressure to organize a referendum” . A discussion on Turkish membership could harm the ratification process . Nicolas Schmit, socialist Minister of European Affairs, was pleased that the mandate of the reflexion group was scaled down . On this point, Luxembourg is in good company. Lithuania and other Nordic countries are pleased that questions of enlargement, institutional matters and EU budget have been removed from the reflection group’s mandate. Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, who defends the same political ideas as Felipe Gonzales, approves the former Spanish Prime minister’s nomination as chairman of the reflection group and points out that the Gonzalez’ position on Turkey is not the same as Sarkozy’s: “Gonzales is in no way against a possible Turkish EU membership” . In fact, the mandate of the reflection is still very broadly based as the liberal Letzebuerger Journal knows. It is supposed to reflect on any subject including the European social model, sustainable development even geo-strategic questions might be considered .