Jean-Claude Juncker is a man of strong convictions but, having led a very small country for many years, he has learned the art of compromise within Europe. He will be more than willing to compromise with Britain, if Britain meets him halfway.
I saw his capacity to forge compromise at first hand when, as president of the European council, I was chairing the Dublin summit of heads of government in 1996. There was a standoff between France and Germany on the terms for the launch of the euro. Germany wanted a strict anti-inflationary line. France wanted more accomodating monetary and fiscal policies. Finance ministers had not been able to bridge the gap at their meeting the day before. My own efforts to find common ground in a roundtable discussion did not get us much further.
The council secretariat suggested that we take a coffee break and allow Juncker, who is fluent in German and French, as well as English, to get into a private huddle with Jacques Chirac and Helmut Kohl. As I sipped my coffee, I remember looking across the table at the animated talk between the trio, with their anxious officials listening in. There was much gesticulation, and shaking of heads.
After half an hour, word came to me that there was a form of words on which both Kohl and Chirac could agree. I was able to restart the meeting and get an agreement. I announced the success to the media and got the credit, but knew that without Juncker's intervention we might have had a very different, and more dispiriting, outcome.
The key here was Juncker's combination of diplomacy and conviction. If Kohl and Chirac had thought that Juncker was just a diplomat who would settle for any compromise, they might not have gone the extra distance. It was only because they knew that he, like them, was committed to the ideal of building a structure of peace in Europe – that rested on real emotional commitment rather than mere rational calculation – that they were prepared to make the extra effort for him.
Juncker will take the same practical approach to British ideas for improving the EU. He is a man with whom David Cameron can do business, if that is what Cameron wants to do. But it means talking with European colleagues rather than talking at them; and raising problems in good time, not when it is too late.
I also attended the European People's party convention in April when delegates from up to 70 member parties voted, by a 60/40 margin, to select Juncker as the EPP's "lead candidate" for the presidency of the commission, to be put to voters in the European elections last month. This was no walkover for Juncker. He had to defeat a spirited canvass by Michel Barnier, a vice president of the existing commission and a former French government minister.
Nor was it some sort of "coup" by the European parliament. The vast majority of the delegates who chose between Juncker and Barnier were not MEPs. They included grassroots party members, MPs and members of national governments representing their national parties. There was a lively debate, in public and in private, before the vote. Many of Cameron's colleagues in the European council, including Angela Merkel, were present and voted. Meanwhile, the European Social Democrat, Liberal, Green and left parties also held public selection processes for their "lead candidates". Virtually every head of government participated, directly or indirectly.
If they objected or felt this was a power grab by the parliament, they had the power to block the whole process, months before it got going. They did not do so. Timing is all in politics. Cameron ought to have done all his lobbying late last year if he had really wanted to stop this process. He might have got a hearing then. But trying to stop it now after Juncker and others have campaigned throughout Europe, and after the people have voted, is just too late.
Juncker helped his own country attain the highest income per head in Europe and near full employment, surely evidence that he is a good manager. Cameron is entitled to put the Luxembourger's nomination to a vote; that is provided for in the EU treaties. It's not a drama.
But once the vote is over, Cameron should work with Juncker. He will find him to be a modest and unpretentious leader, with a sense of humour – a quality he has no doubt had to deploy to the full in reading the British press over recent weeks.