Bad King Wenceslas

“Jean-Claude Juncker is not the first Luxembourger to imagine he can dictate the future of Europe”

Open Season
Jean-Claude Juncker: The Eurocrat should heed the lessons of past Luxembourger potentates (Andrej Klizan CC0 1.0)

If one were to list Europe’s most boring capitals, then Vaduz in Liechtenstein would earn not a gold but a platinum medal. However, Luxembourg City would also be in contention. Luxembourg is a country that feels not quite there. Its dedication to the cause of European integration is understandable when one remembers that it only came to be what it is as a result of a series of historical accidents. In the 19th century it lay for many years under the sovereignty of the House of Orange, and then became separated from the Dutch line of succession because the Luxembourgers, in those days, followed Salic Law and could not permit the succession of a female Grand Duke. Still, most of the historic County of Luxembourg lies within Belgium, where it is also known as “Luxembourg”; and one reason the Luxembourgers are enthusiasts for the euro is that they were already in a longstanding currency union with Belgium before the euro came into being.

The masters of Luxembourg have enjoyed an influence in European politics out of all proportion to the size of Luxembourg (even including the Belgian bits). Jean-Claude Juncker is not the first Luxembourger to imagine that he can dictate the future of a great part of Europe, and his obstinacy recalls the political blunders and inflated self-esteem of Luxembourg’s rulers in the distant past. The accusation, true or false, that he drinks too much also echoes accusations about those past rulers. His refusal to make meaningful concessions to David Cameron, which might well have brought the Remainers victory in the British referendum, and his appointment of a hardline integrationist to lead negotiations about Brexit, conform to the image of a leader without the qualities that leadership requires. One might well ask whether the former prime minister of a country measuring 999 square miles can automatically be presumed to have the same diplomatic skills and the same understanding of world affairs as — even — the mayor of a big city such as London, whatever M. Juncker may think of the recent incumbent of that post. His imperial view of the European Union, which denies states the right to ponder their membership, thus looks very odd when set alongside the realities of power in little Luxembourg.

In the 14th century the princely dynasty of Luxembourg did have imperial pretensions. A marriage alliance brought the Luxembourg dynasty the crown of Bohemia, which was itself part of the Holy Roman Empire. There was plenty to do in Bohemia, which possessed mineral wealth and a flourishing capital at Prague; but King John of Bohemia, as John of Luxembourg became, preferred to intervene disastrously in the already complex politics of Florence and other Italian cities, before he went blind and joined his ally the French king riding fully armed into battle at Crécy. As everyone knows, this battle was a great English victory, and John’s foolhardy heroism, if it can be called that, inevitably resulted in his death.

His son and successor Charles ruthlessly exploited opposition to the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, Ludwig of Bavaria, to get himself elected, not perhaps legally, as Holy Roman Emperor, so that his realm extended far beyond Bohemia and Luxembourg. Some historians have drawn vague parallels between the Holy Roman Empire and the European Union, even seeing the Empire as a model for Europe’s future. Charles, on the other hand, continued to exploit his position to play factional politics, excluding his bitterest rivals, the house of Habsburg, from the small college of Electors whose task it would be to choose an emperor when the throne fell vacant. It is some testimony to the futility of this policy that, even without being Electors, the Habsburgs nonetheless gained the imperial throne in the 15th century, and held it almost without a break until the Empire was dissolved in 1806. In fact, if one reads the “Golden Bull” of 1356 in which Charles IV set out his new constitution for the Empire, you soon see that the Emperor was far more obsessed by ceremonial than by political arrangements. Much of this lengthy document consists of the processional order of the Electors and of the seating arrangements at the imperial high table. When he did lay down rules to the effect that great princes were no longer to divide up their estates among their sons in their wills, he himself did not observe what he preached. He was also a lavish spender, as the bejewelled walls of his castle at Karlštejn still bear witness. His reign can be summoned up with the words “much froth”.

On the other hand, this was nothing compared to the sins attributed to his successor Wenzel or Wenceslas. Wenzel’s reputation was blackened by his enemies, and one should not believe all that was reported: that he set his hunting dogs on his wife, who was mauled to death; that he was rescued from captivity at the hands of his enemies by the boat-girl Suzanna who rowed him across the moat of the castle where he was imprisoned; and that he took solace in very heavy drinking. The Oxford historian Bishop Stubbs thought him the most worthless figure ever to sit on a throne: “There have been worse kings, perhaps, that is, men in whose wickedness have done more harm to their subjects, but surely none in whom there is so little of anything admirable to redeem the blank stupidity of his crimes.” Finally the Electors, to whom he had been paying no attention, decided that they had had enough of him and in 1400 they declared him deposed from the Empire. In reality, he was hamstrung by his father’s willingness to hand out the family lands to his relatives. Quite simply, he ran out of funds.

M. Juncker should reflect on the experiences of his predecessors in Luxembourg politics. Obstinacy, arrogance and wastefulness have done nothing to make the Europe in which he believes attractive.