To commemorate its most famous export, the German city of Trier made an unusual choice of speaker. European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker delivered the speech honouring Karl Marx on his 200th birthday in May 2018. ‘What Marx analysed, what he suggested, what he has left us’, he said, ‘Capital, The Communist Manifesto, contributed to changing the world. It inspired many people of different provenances and fealties.’ Juncker was sanguine about how Marx the 19th-century theorist related to 20th-century political history. ‘One has to understand Marx in his time, and not express prejudices based on the certainties of hindsight’, he urged his audience. ‘Marx is not responsible for all the abominations for which his supposed heirs have to answer’. After this careful appropriation of the world’s premier revolutionary thinker, Juncker turned to the present. ‘The European Union is not a flawed construction, but an unstable one. Unstable because Europe’s social dimension remains the impoverished dimension of European integration’, he said. Channelling the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, Juncker declared that ‘we must change this’. In his native Luxembourg, Juncker has always been on the left wing of his party, the Christian Social People’s Party (csv). But as his term at the head of the eu’s executive branch draws to a close, he has placed a renewed emphasis on the idea of a ‘social Europe’.

Juncker’s late-career paean to Marx contrasts with his Commission predecessor José Manuel Barroso, the Portuguese ex-prime minister who began as a Maoist and retired to a board position at Goldman Sachs. The Luxembourger has been more constant in his trajectory over the course of a 40-year political career, of which he has spent an astounding 35 in cabinet-level positions: 20 years as Luxembourg’s finance minister, 18 as its prime minister, 8 as chairman of the Eurogroup of finance ministers and 5 as president of the Commission. Such longevity, not uncommon among Central Asian despots, is remarkable at the head of multi-party coalition governments. Juncker’s political career is a metonym for the evolution of the European Union. At the same time, the peculiar history of the country that produced him illustrates how the continent’s leaders have reconciled their constituents to change in an era of neoliberal globalization.

Interpreting Juncker’s politics is often a projection of one’s view of the eu. In the collective delirium of Brexit, British tabloids portray Juncker as a German-speaking autocrat, but he is a broker rather than a disciplinarian. The New York Times calls him ‘inscrutable’, but few European statesmen are so goofy and loose-mannered. To nationalists around Europe, his personal habitus reeks of the insider politics of the eu, in which smugness masks incompetence. A glad-hander who is fond of cigarettes and fine wines, Juncker represents the old boys’ instincts of a largely masculine political class. His cheerful play-acting demeanour simultaneously offends and disarms. Yet behind the occasionally drunk buffoonery hides a veteran political operator.

The reasons to dislike Juncker are plain, but his strengths are more subtle and long-lasting. He possesses a charitable style and negotiating stamina that can only be acquired in countries with a compromise-oriented political culture. Nowhere in Europe has parliamentary politics been dominated by Christian Democrats for as long as in Luxembourg. The son of a steelworker, Juncker’s strategy to preserve national autonomy in the global economic arena emerged in the wake of the crises of the 1970s. He has perfected a flexible intergovernmental style of politics among European capitals while preserving Luxembourg’s welfare state by transforming its economy into a leading corporate tax haven and financial hub. In Europe, only Ireland is home to more tax-dodging multinationals, and only the City of London hosts more dark money; Luxembourg attracts both. This buccaneering business model was a symptom of the deregulated capitalism that produced the 2008 financial crisis, but it has survived even as the eu has undergone a period of great stress. A childless man with few passions beyond politics, Juncker continues to practise his craft. His jovial steadfastness in the corridors of global power has earned him respect even from Trump, who told him last summer at a G7 summit in Canada, ‘Jean-Claude—you are a brutal killer.’

Wedged between the Belgian Ardennes to the north, the German Eifel region to the east and the French department of Lorraine in the south, Luxembourg has been a crossroads for many centuries. Ösling, the northern part of the country, is covered in forested hills and river valleys; its flatter southern two-thirds, the so-called Gutland, holds the vast majority of the territory’s 600,000 inhabitants. Most natives speak Luxembourgish, a Germanic language with strong French influences. Juncker was born in 1954 in the village of Redange, 4 miles from the Belgian border. But ‘jcj’ spent much of his youth 20 miles further south in Belvaux, an industrial hamlet on the French border located at the heart of the iron ore-rich terres rouges. Just 10 miles northeast of this manufacturing concentration, on an elevated plateau, lies Luxembourg City. Being able to move from village life to a factory town to the capital city in the space of 30 miles gives an indication that Luxembourgish politics is provincial in a literal sense.

Luxembourg City is the site of an impressive fortress founded in 963 by Sigfried of the Ardennes. Built into a promontory known as the Bock, the stronghold expanded over the centuries to include multiple hills and hundreds of towers, casemates, redoubts and tunnels. Sigfried’s descendants became powerful counts who held the title of Holy Roman Emperor during the late 14th and early 15th centuries. Yet Luxembourg was too small to develop an autonomous base of political power. Ruled in succession by the Dukes of Burgundy, the Habsburgs and the French, Luxembourg was primarily the prized possession of others. The ‘Gibraltar of the North’ was considered the most impregnable fortress in northern Europe; even French fortress architect and master-besieger Vauban confessed to Louis xiv’s Minister of War in 1684 that ‘there are some events of which God alone knows the outcome and its time frame . . . the time when this place will be captured is not something that a man of good sense would dare to guess at’.footnote1

After the fall of Napoleon, Luxembourg was re-established as an independent grand duchy. To quell French revanchism, the new state became part of the German Confederation, with Luxembourg City occupied by a Prussian garrison; but to appease the new Kingdom of the Netherlands, the Grand Duchy was put under the control of the Dutch royal family, the House of Orange-Nassau. This convoluted arrangement came under pressure from nationalist uprisings and the vicissitudes of inter-state politics. The ‘Luxembourg Question’ nearly provoked great-power wars in the 1830s and 1860s. In response to the Franco-German diplomatic crisis of 1867, Luxembourg was made neutral, forbidden from having a standing army and evacuated by Prussian troops, its majestic fortress dismantled. Foreign control loosened further when the Dutch king died without male heirs in 1890, putting the country under its own ducal family, the Nassau-Weilburgs.