Precise diagnose, but also fragmentation and lack of credibility in suggesting a treatment. This was the essence of the hour-long speech of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (Luxembourg, EPP) on the state of the European Union, filled with painfully boring clichés with no substance. His address to MEPs in Strasbourg and the subsequent debate created the feeling that European institutions are wandering with no direction, completely detached from member states. They veer between their old glorious past of a future European government and their current look of an already too small and needless raincoat in a dynamically changing world with a multitude of challenges.
"But never before have I seen such little common ground between our Member States. So few areas where they agree to work together", he said, after reminding the audience that he has witnessed decades of European integration, stressing at the end of his speech that he is the same age as the European project and even a bit older. "Never before have I heard so many leaders speak only of their domestic problems, with Europe mentioned only in passing, if at all. Never before have I seen representatives of the EU institutions setting very different priorities, sometimes in direct opposition to national governments and national parliaments. It is as if there is almost no intersection between the EU and its national capitals anymore. Never before have I seen national governments so weakened by the forces of populism and paralysed by the risk of defeat in the next elections. Never before have I seen so much fragmentation, and so little commonality in our Union", further said the former PM of Luxembourg and veteran at the European political scene.
After such a depressing confession one would expect that the boss of the EC would come out with a no less emotional, engaging, and inspiring proposal how to solve the problem. Instead, we heard a compilation of old European clichés, a new idea here and there, a lifeless reminder of the reasons for the Union’s existence, a few numbers, and no leadership. An hour later one finds himself feeling nostalgic for an old version of Europe, embodied in Mr Juncker’s figure. His address contained a desperate appeal to member states not to give up on European institutions and bring back the European spirit in their bodies. “We have to stop with the same old story that success is national, and failure European. Or our common project will not survive”, he said.
12 months that will not change the EU
The EC president set a deadline to the Union – something needs to change in the next 12 months, the union needs to come together again, to overcome the “tragic divisions between East and West which have opened up in recent months”. Those 12 months will be decisive, he believes, and commissioned member state leaders to come up with three reasons why the EU is necessary at their meeting in Bratislava on Friday. “Three things they are willing to take responsibility for defending. And that they are willing to deliver swiftly afterwards.”
And while the leaders are thinking, Jean-Claude Juncker proposed several solutions. The most unexpected one was his idea that the post of the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini (Italy, Socialists and Democrats) be transformed into a full-fledged foreign minister, which all diplomatic services will go through. “Take the brutal fight over Syria. Its consequences for Europe are immediate - attacks in our cities by terrorists trained in Daesh camps. But where is the Union, where are its Member States, in negotiations towards a settlement?”, asked Mr Juncker and expressed his disappointment that Ms Mogherini was not present at the table, when Syria’s future was discussed by the foreign ministers of the USA and Russia last week when a ceasefire plan was agreed on.
The other proposal rests entirely on the ideas of France and Germany for the creation of common European defence, agreed on last Sunday. Over the last decade, reminded Juncker, the EU participated in over 30 civil and military missions from Africa to Afghanistan. “But without a permanent structure we cannot act effectively. Urgent operations are delayed. We have separate headquarters for parallel missions, even when they happen in the same country or city. It is time we had a single headquarters for these operations”, urged Juncker. He advocated for moving towards unification of military assets in addition to NATO.
The third proposal is that by the year 2025 the entire EU is covered by a 5G network and by the year 2020 in the centre of every town and village there is WiFi internet. Next week, the Commission is going to propose a new bill for the removal of roaming in the EU, after the previous proposal last week was met with sharp criticism. This is one of the examples of a loss of credibility in Juncker’s speech, because the proposal caused sharp discontent throughout the EU and was withdrawn. The EC boss attempted to lay blame for the bungle on a “well-meaning official”, who wrote it over the summer without taking into account all important aspects.
The EC thinks that the investment plan is extremely successful and suggests its doubling and extending. To date, the plan has generated 116 billion euros in investments throughout the EU in its first year of functioning. Over 200 000 small enterprises and start-ups have received loans. Over 100 000 people have gotten a new job. This is why the EC proposes that the size of the fund is increased, for it believes that by the year 2020 it could generate investments of at least half a trillion euro and even 630 billion by the year 2022. The EC further proposes that the fund scheme be administered outside the EU as well for the development of Africa and EU neighbourhood.
What does it mean to be a European?
Outside these specific proposals Jean-Claude Juncker spoke about what it means being European, about peace, values, about the fact that Europe is not the Wild West, but it is social. In a sense, this part of his speech was contradictory, because while it is obviously trying to criticise certain states, it is in a way telling them that they are not European. “We Europeans can never accept Polish workers being harassed, beaten up or even murdered on the streets of Harlow”. This refers to recent incidents with Polish citizens in Great Britain. In the beginning of September, a group of Poles was attacked in Harlow and 40-year-old Arkadiusz Jóźwik lost his life in the attack. Another group of Poles was later attacked close to the spot of the first incident. It is believed that these attacks could be hate crimes.
"We Europeans also believe in independent, effective justice systems. Independent courts keep governments, companies and people in check. Effective justice systems support economic growth and defend fundamental rights. That is why Europe promotes and defends the rule of law". With these words Juncker attacked several countries simultaneously – Bulgaria, which is under a cooperation and verification mechanism, because it has not yet built rule of law and institutions needed to effectively fight corruption at the high levels of power (eight years after its accession to the EU), Poland, against which there is an ongoing procedure for violation of the rule of law, and also Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has committed to building an illiberal regime.
If Jean-Claude Juncker sees these states as non-European, he should say what is to be done with them. The incantation about European values and that the EU upholds the rule of law is emptied of substance and even little children, who are used to being punished when they do wrong, do not believe in it. Another message about non-Europeanness was sent to Turkey. “We Europeans stand firmly against the death penalty. Because we believe in and respect the value of human life".
Are political and credible Commission synonyms?
The part of Mr Juncker’s address about tax avoidance by big corporations and about fiscal rules posed the question of the credibility of the European Commission, whose main role is guaranteeing the upholding of European law. He defended the actions of his Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who opened a court case against Apple for not paying taxes in Ireland. “Every company, no matter how big or small, has to pay its taxes where it makes its profits. This goes for giants like Apple too, even if their market value is higher than the GDP of 165 countries in the world. In Europe we do not accept powerful companies getting illegal backroom deals on their taxes”, he announced. There was sporadic laughter in the room.
The reason is that the substantial changes in EU attitude towards taxes started following the “LuxLeaks” discoveries, which showed that Luxembourg, too, struck lucrative deals with large corporations for avoiding taxes right at the time when Jean-Claude Juncker was Prime Minister of the Grand Duchy. The scandal exploded literally days after he stepped in as boss of the EC. The sporadic bursts of laughter in the plenary did in no way disturb the President of the EC, who continued saying that the main objective of his team was fighting for fairness. “But it is not right that one company can evade taxes that could have gone to Irish families and businesses, hospitals and schools”, he said.
Juncker attempted to also defend the necessity of the Commission being political and not technocratic. "Being political also means correcting technocratic mistakes immediately when they happen", he said and continued: "Being political is also what allows us to implement the Stability and Growth Pact with common sense. The Pact’s creation was influenced by theory. Its application has become a doctrine for many. And today, the Pact is a dogma for some. In theory, a single decimal point over 60 percent in a country's debt should be punished. But in reality, you have to look at the reasons for debt. We should try to support and not punish ongoing reform efforts. For this we need responsible politicians. And we will continue to apply the Pact not in a dogmatic manner, but with common sense and with the flexibility that we wisely built into the rules", said Juncker.
Those words once again question the credibility of the Commission, for it refused to levy sanctions on Spain and Portugal for their systematic violation of fiscal rules, but with a different argument – populism and the loss of trust in Europe. In the end of the day which is it – that rules are not enforced as a dogma because there shouldn’t be more fuel fed to the fires of populists, or in order to stimulate reformist efforts?
What would the EU have been if Guy Verhofstadt was elected EC President?
The debate, following the speech of the EC president, was lifeless and kept reiterating the painfully familiar opinions of the most recognised faces among MEPs. Everyone tried to get a word in. The EPP was trying to explain that public finances should return to their frameworks and the Socialists and Democrats demanded that an end is put to austerity policy. The Eurosceptics ceased the opportunity to blame Europe for every problem with the culmination being Nigel Farage’s speech, who appeared totally spotless after the discoveries that he led his campaign for the exit of Great Britain from the EU based on false statements. He went on once more explaining how happy he was that Great Britain is leaving and how bad the Union is.
In all this cacophony, once again, the boss of the liberals’ group, Guy Verhofstadt (Belgium), stood out. The former Belgian Prime Minister presented his own diagnosis of European problems and gave his solutions. He was an opponent of Jean-Claude Juncker in the race for the EC presidency during the EP elections in 2014. The main problem, in his opinion, is that people no longer view Europe as a solution to their problems. Discontent, fear, and rage in European citizens are bred by the rift between globalisation and the fact that democratic policies are proposed, which are then developed at the national or even local level. This is the imbalance, which brought about the financial crisis in 2008, because markets are global and policies are local, he explained. In his opinion, the populists’ proposals for building walls as a solution to every problem are false.
"How do you keep climate change outside your borders? With fences, with walls? How do you keep terrorists outside your borders with national fences or European policies instead? Or how do you deal for example with tax evasion and with offshoring. You can only do that with supranational policies and supranational instruments in the future", he said. Guy Verhofstadt believes that this does not mean abandoning national democracy, but Europe could serve as a counterweight to the “wild and uncontrollable” globalisation and be “the cure against the cancer of nationalism”. The MEP welcomed the idea for the creation of a defence union, reminding that it is not new at all. “Let’s be honest, the Americans will no longer take responsibility for our neighbourhood. We shall do it ourselves or it shall not be done. Certainly, if Trump is elected don’t make any illusion about this unwillingness from their side to do something”, explained Mr Verhofstadt.
He urged Jean-Claude Juncker to insist on the implementation of the five presidents’ report, especially in the part about the creation of a common treasury of the euro area, because “this little game with the Stability and Growth Pact cannot continue anymore because we will lose any credibility to the outside world”.
Guy Verhofstadt expressed a very different vision about the Brexit. Jean-Claude Juncker briefly touched on the subject, sending a clear warning towards Great Britain that any a-la-carte access to the common market would be impossible. “We respect, but also regret the British people’s decision”, said Juncker. Unlike him, Guy Verhofstadt was lenient. In his opinion, the Brexit should not be viewed as a risk, but rather as an opportunity for Europe to become better for its citizens. He urged that the Brexit is not turned into a punishment or revenge. “It is a question of the sound relation between UK and Europe and moreover how we want Europe“, he said. Guy Verhofstadt got recently elected chief negotiator of the European Parliament in the negotiations for Great Britain’s exit.
The second address of Jean-Claude Juncker to European citizens on the state of the European Union did prove true the doubts that Juncker is unable to get in role as an EC boss. He still thinks and acts as a member of the Council. This way he makes the Commission look helpless, without direction, and purposeless. This is why his speeches are controversial – they are a conflict between the only thing he can do best – rule – and what is expected of him – to give guidance, to demand from governments, to keep them close to the European spirit. With this year’s address he failed in giving an answer to the question “How do we bring back the soul of the EU in the bodies of member states?”, because this is exactly what the problem of the EU is.
Translated by Stanimir Stoev