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17th Oct 2021

Interview

2018: Juncker: Far-right 'never had a chance' against the EU

Jean-Claude Juncker leaned into his chair at his spacious office at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels.

The former European Commission president had arrived from his home in Luxembourg earlier that morning along with his bodyguard.

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On his desk is an empty but used ashtray, scattered documents, a light blue tie, and a bottle of water. Behind him, shelves stacked with books.

Juncker had set aside some time to discuss with EUobserver the rise and fall of the far-right over the past few years.

He once famously slapped Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban (in jest) on camera, and then called him a dictator.

"I was always calling him privately 'dictator' and so when he came in the room I said 'dictator' and he was used to that," Juncker said.

"He is not a dictator in the real sense of the word, of course. But he is far-right."

During his tenure as commission head, the far-right populist political parties gained in power.

Donald Trump entered office as US president in January 2017, invigorating movements in Europe.

That same month leaders from Austria's Freedom Party, Belgium's Vlaams Belang, the Czech Republic's Dawn of Direct Democracy, and Italy's Northern League, among others, pledged an alliance. It quickly unravelled.

But Germany's Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Austria's Freedom Party soon rose to heights of public support seldom previously seen.

France's far-right Marine Le Pen then faced off with Emmanuel Macron in a bid to become president that same year. She lost.

Yet 2018 still managed to consolidate the far-right in ways that could no longer be ignored.

In June, the Northern League's Matteo Salvini was sworn in as Italy's deputy prime minister and minister of the interior.

He had entered into a shaky coalition government with the populist Five Star Movement, on the back of demonising migrants and immigration.

"The day he [Salvini] became a coalition partner in Italy, it took away from his erotic influence on others," said Juncker.

For Juncker, the far-right was a short-lived threat despite the large number of MEPs of similar political stripes elected to the European Parliament.

"They never had a chance to change European policies," he said of Salvini and others like him.

Juncker extends that assessment to Nigel Farage, the then-MEP who had helped usher the UK out of the European Union.

"I had fights with Farage, I liked him as a person," he said.

But he notes Farage's movement was limited to Britain, and that he had little, if any support, inside the European Parliament.

The AfD has since imploded and Austria's Freedom Party's stint in government collapsed in the wake of political scandals.

Salvini, as well as the Dutch firebrand nationalist Geert Wilders, have since turned into historical footnotes.

Out of the bunch, Le Pen remains an outlier, still eyeing the French presidency.

For Juncker, the real threat to the European Union never came from the far-right. Instead, it is rooted in the rule of law.

Much like with Farage, Juncker got along with people politically opposed to him, in countries where the rule of law was being undermined.

He held meetings with leaders of the 'Visegrad Four' countries, composed of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

"I had huge debates with them, bringing them together and often at the eve of the European Council," Juncker said.

"There was not war - but no common ground," he said.

Poland and Hungary would accuse the Juncker commission of unfairly signalling them out for political reasons.

"I have introduced more infringement procedures against Germany than any other member state and they are a Christian Democratic ruled country," countered Juncker.

The animosity against the commission spread onto the streets of Hungary.

The Orban government had plastered images of Juncker and US billionaire philanthropist George Soros all over the country.

Orban sought to depict the two men as behind a mass migration plot aimed at destroying the 'white Christian' European identity.

"I was not really happy about these posters, but I didn't take this too seriously," said Juncker.

When he was Luxembourg's prime minister, he added, he had even met with Soros on Orban's recommendation.

"He [Orban] doesn't remember that he was the one asking me to have a meeting with Soros back in my prime minister's time. So he has changed. I didn't," Juncker concluded.

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