Juncker campaign hits the road
By Peter Teffer
The two men with whom she was talking are "not that into" politics, but nevertheless Erika van der Weijden was curious enough to ask them what was happening in a central square in Utrecht, the fourth largest city in The Netherlands.
Van der Weijden was sitting on a bench outside the monumental Janskerk church, while inside the building the Dutch Christian-Democratic party was holding a conference on the EU.
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The main speaker at the event on a sunny Friday afternoon (11 April) was Jean-Claude Juncker. "That's that Belgian guy, isn't it?" Van der Weijden asked one of the attendees who had left the church during the break. "From Luxembourg, actually," came the reply.
Juncker was visiting Utrecht as part of his campaign to become the next president of the European Commission.
The campaign represents a novelty for the former Luxembourg prime minister but also for the EU as a whole.
For the first time, the result of the European Parliament elections, taking place across the 28-state bloc next month, should be "taken into account" when the next commission president is chosen.
With about six weeks until the vote, the campaigning is just beginning to heat up. A blue American-style campaign bus – with large photos, the slogan "Juncker for president" and social media handles – was parked in front of the church.
Van der Weijden later said she had a brief conversation with Juncker. "He said this was a great town," she said, adding "but I'm not sure who I will vote for."
In any case, Van der Weijden will not be able to vote for the former head of the Eurogroup. Juncker is not on any ballot, nor will he be a member of the EU parliament if he fails to acquire the leadership of the commission.
"I don't want to become a member of the European Parliament, I want to be appointed president of the commission," Juncker told this website.
It is unclear whether Juncker's candidacy will matter much to Dutch voters and whether his candidacy will secure votes for the country's Christian-Democrat party, which belongs to the centre-right EPP political group.
"I am happy that Juncker is here to show that candidates for the presidency of the Commission are humans of flesh and blood, with certain ideas and visions about Europe," says MEP Esther de Lange, who leads the campaign for the Christian-Democrat party (CDA).
"But this election campaign is a Dutch campaign and CDA will provide seats for CDA."
Her colleague Wim van de Camp is more confident about the potential "Juncker-effect".
"I think we will win five seats. And one of them will be thanks to Juncker," says Van de Camp, who is third on the party list. CDA currently has five MEPs.
If Van de Camp's prediction is correct, then the fifth candidate on the CDA list, Dirk Gotink, will be elected because of Juncker. Gotink was also present at the conference but declined to comment.
Juncker's main rival for the top post is socialist candidate Martin Schulz. He is also "expected to visit the Netherlands and a number of options are currently being discussed", said a Party of European Socialists' press officer in an emailed statement.
Elsewhere on the square, a group of international relations students was wondering what the conference might be about.
They had peeked inside, but decided not to go in, "because the meeting didn't seem public". Also, they had just had an exam on European politics, and "weren't in the mood" to hear more on the subject.
Such an attitude might herald a low voter turnout in the Netherlands, a problem that Juncker recognizes.
"What is important now is that we deliver the greatest efforts possible in order to regain the confidence of the European citizens, because this confidence is vanishing. Only a blind guy doesn't see that the confidence is vanishing," he told EUobserver.
In any event though, Juncker's speech was heard only by party members and other invitees, and not by many local residents of Utrecht. Many seats in the church remained unfilled.