Unlike Jean-Claude Juncker, the next EU president should understand the needs of the European electorate
There may have been some real achievements under his leadership, but there have been a number of failures demonstrating the European Commission’s insensitivity to the mood of voters
Jean-Claude Juncker, in his valedictory speech as president of the European Commission, ran true to form. For Europe’s problems he proposes, like President Macron of France, “more Europe”. On Brexit, he remained his usual defensive self. It may have been a thoughtful and reflective speech, but on neither agenda did he offer much evidence that the commission has all the answers.
With scarcely more than six months to go before the purported formal date for the UK to leave the European Union – still not an inevitability – not only is there little certainty about what the future relationship will be like, but the signals about progress seem more random than ever. For a day or two at the beginning of this week, the diplomatic chatter was that the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, had been told by EU governments to “save Theresa”.
The man Mr Juncker calls “masterful” has been asked, so the rumours go, to “take into account” the Chequers proposals, and generally sound more amenable and positive.
He obliged, up to a point. Yet now Mr Barnier’s boss sounds as implacable as ever to the British: “If you leave the union,” said Mr Juncker, “you are of course no longer part of our single market, and certainly not only in the parts of it you choose.” Back to square one.
True, he was polite, even sad about the British decision, but as a proud European he would only state that the Chequers proposals would be a “starting point”. We will undergo more dizzying twists and turns as the programme of EU summits to decide on Brexit grind on towards a November deadline. As early as next Tuesday, in Salzburg, Theresa May will be formally told about the EU27’s latest response to her ideas for a facilitated customs arrangement, the “common rulebook” for goods and enhanced security cooperation. It may not be definitive, or especially clear.
Unhelpfully for Ms May, and even more so for those who would like the UK to stay in the EU, Mr Juncker reminded the British about why so many of them voted to Leave back in 2016. As if from force of habit, he called for the national vetoes on taxation and foreign policy to be dissolved, a move that merely confirms the belief – or fear – that the commission’s appetite for federalist solutions remains ravenous. Mr Juncker, more helpfully, answered the concerns of European electorates with a pledge to send 20,000 guards to police the EU’s Mediterranean borders by 2020, though that is unlikely to appease his sternest critics, such as Viktor Orban of Hungary, who went to war with the European parliament this week about migration.
Europe faces a wave of populist protest that can yet inflict further serious damage on it. Mr Orban’s defiance and the recent elections in Sweden prove the point. The rise of populist or far-right parties in Germany, Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Austria, Denmark and elsewhere threaten not only the stability of individual governments, but the cohesion of Europe itself, and its most sacred values of democracy and freedom. Already we can see that the EU is practically powerless to resist the erosion of civil liberties and the rule of law in eastern Europe, while the Conte-Salvini administration in Rome promises even more serious trouble on migration and the single currency. Mr Juncker recognised these challenges, but had few immediate proposals to turn the populist tide.
Still, the president of the European Commission is bound, as Mr Juncker did, to stick up for Europe, to make the case for integration, and to remind Europe’s peoples about the EU’s real and historic achievements. Rightly, he asked how else 27 relatively small nations would be able to stand on an equal footing with President Trump’s increasingly erratic, protectionist and isolationist America? As Mr Juncker remarked: “When we are united we Europeans, as a union, have become a force to be reckoned with that you cannot do without ... Whenever Europe speaks as one, we can impose our position on others. Where necessary Europe must act as one.”
More pointedly, with another nod to Brexit, he also cited the UK’s ambitions to launch its own, hugely expensive, satellite system. He pointed the way for a further ambitious free trade deal, this time between the EU and Africa, building on recent successes with Canada, Japan and South Korea. The contrast with the UK’s pitiful progress on international trade did not need to be highlighted.
Stormy as Mr Juncker’s presidency has been – including the possible first secession of a sovereign member state – he can point to real achievements, especially in trade and most recently defusing a potential trade war with the Americans. There have, though, been failures, in the sense that the commission is as insensitive to the mood of Europe’s electorates as ever.
It will fall to Mr Juncker’s successor, from next summer, to lead Europe away from its real and present dangers. These are not times for any European leader to talk airily about further losses of national power and sovereignty. The next commission president need not be a Eurosceptic – an absurd notion anyway – but he or she will need, somehow, to bring Europe closer to its disaffected citizens.
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