Juncker’s great expectations

Jean-Claude Juncker addressing the European Parliament during a debate on the State of the European Union on September 13. Photo: Reuters

Jean-Claude Juncker’s term as president of the European Commission ends in March 2019. In this year’s State of the Union speech he abandoned his usual downbeat rhetoric about the future of the EU to define his dramatically optimistic vision for Europe for the next 18 months and beyond.

Propelled by improving economic data coming out of the euro area and falling unemployment levels, he spelled out his federalist expectations while ignoring other real challenges facing the EU.

Put simply, Juncker dreams of a more centralised Union where Brussels will have a major say on important issues like taxation, defence, social policy and the fight against terrorism.

While there is no doubt that in the last few years EU institutions have helped to avoid a deeper recession characterised by a dramatic failure of the European financial system, the structural weaknesses of the EU remain largely unaddressed. Juncker failed to make any significant comments on these issues while coming up with some rather controversial proposals that are unlikely to be accepted by some member states.

Juncker wants to merge the chair of the European Commission and the European Council into one so that the EU would have ‘one captain at the helm’.

As Luxembourg’s prime minister, Juncker had the reputation of being able to read mood and broker delicate promises. I see little evidence of this talent in his speech to the European Parliament.

What Juncker failed to address adequately are the real concerns that are troubling ordinary people throughout the EU.

This concern is often evidenced in the growth of populist parties who do not waste much affection on how the EU is functioning.

A single EU super finance and economics minister, as proposed by President Macron and endorsed by Juncker, will not bridge the economic development gap between northern and southern member states. Nor will it resolve the issue of disagreement on fiscal matters.

The threat of terrorism is another problem that Juncker failed to address sufficiently well.

What Juncker failed to address adequately are the real concerns that are troubling ordinary people throughout the EU

As long as the social integration of important minorities remains elusive, Europe will continue to face a terror threat.

With countries like Hungary and Poland adopting more right wing polices one can only predict a growing schism between countries that have a full respect of the rule of law and those that are prepared to administer the justice system in their own way.

Juncker said very little on how violations of democratic principles should be dealt with.

I found very little evidence of positive reactions to Juncker’s great expectations speech. Juncker, for instance, thinks that the euro’s structural weaknesses can be resolved by urging countries like Sweden, Poland and Hungary to adopt the euro so that this currency becomes the norm in the Union.

But Markus Ferber, a senior German MEP, said the eurozone could not be enlarged “by political decree”. He added: “Greece has set a striking precedent on what can happen if political ambition beats economic reality.”

Juncker knows full well what the problems facing the EU are. He seems to know much less on how to resolve them.  Some small token measures to impress increasingly disgruntled ordinary Europeans would have made Juncker’s great expectations speech more in line with what people want.

Why not, for instance, reduce the size of the European Parliament by half rather than plan to increase the number of MEPs through EU-wide candidate lists as Juncker seems to be proposing?

One can just hope that the next European Commission president will be a realist that not only understands the real threats that haunt the future of the EU but has the ability to come up with pragmatic solutions that will make ordinary EU citizens optimistic about their future.

Juncker’s speech says more on how he would like to be remembered than what he realistically believes can be achieved.

A more federalist Europe may sound as a Utopic solution to the Union’s obvious fragmentation but is unlikely to ever materialise.

With the increasing threat of protectionism spearheaded by the US and the still unknown consequences of Brexit, it is refreshing to see the EU still committed to free trade. Less encouraging are the threats coming from the eastern flanks of the EU where Russia is flexing its muscles at a time when Nato is not exactly in shipshape condition.

Juncker’s speech would have been more relevant had he addressed these delicate issues

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