European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s proposal for closer EU integration is a throwback to the false dichotomy of more or less Europe.
In his annual State of the Union address, the Luxembourger called for merging the presidencies of the European Commission and the European Council, completing the eurozone and shifting from unanimity to majority voting on important decisions.
Various Western European leaders have warned that an uncontrollable influx of asylum seekers from the Middle East and North Africa threatens to undermine the bloc’s open borders.
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte told reporters on Thursday that the European Union could go the way of the Roman Empire if it didn’t take action. “Big empires go down if the borders are not well-protected,” he said.
The Netherlands will take over the bloc’s rotating presidency in January.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, has similarly warned that the continent’s free-travel area, known as Schengen, is at risk. “We have to safeguard the spirit behind Schengen,” he told the European Parliament on Wednesday.
Juncker predicted that the demise of Schengen would herald the collapse of the euro as well. “A single currency does not exist if Schengen fails,” he said. “It is one of the pillars of the construction of Europe.”
The European Union is unlikely to establish the army commission president Jean-Claude Juncker calls for — especially now tensions with Russia are so high.
Juncker, the former premier of Luxembourg who has presided over the bloc’s executive arm since November, lamented in an interview with Germany’s Die Welt on Sunday that Europe has lost respect in the world.
“In foreign policy too, we don’t seem to be taken entirely seriously,” he said.
Put together, the countries in the European Union are the world’s largest economy. Yet divergent interests and the existence of NATO as a joint defense force have often undermined the bloc’s influence on the world stage.
A single European army, Juncker said, “would send a clear message to Russia that we are serious about defending European values.”
The man Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, fought tooth and nail to prevent becoming European Commission president might yet turn out to be an ally of his government’s, argues one of the country’s Conservative Party lawmakers.
Writing in The Telegraph newspaper on Friday, Mark Field, who represents the Cities of London and Westminster in Parliament, points out that Jean-Claude Juncker, the former Luxembourg premier who was seen by many in the United Kingdom as an old-school European federalist, has committed himself to a program that “contains just the kind of language and proposals” Cameron seeks.
In its yearly plan, Juncker’s commission calls for less European Union involvement where member states are “better equipped to give the right response.”
To show it meant business, the commission announced it would abandon or rewrite over four hundred existing proposals. Its legislative agenda has been slimmed down to just 23 new initiatives under the influence of regulation commissioner Frans Timmermans.
As foreign minister of the Netherlands, it was Timmermans who authored a policy brief last year that called for an end to “creeping” European Union interference in the politics of member states and said, “the time of an ever-closer union in every possible policy area is behind us.”
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte has also joined Cameron in advocating for less regulation from Brussels and more emphasis on deepening the single market.
In this area too, Field argues, the Juncker Commission is meeting British demands.
The commission wishes to move toward an energy union and open up the opportunities of the digital single market, allowing consumers to enjoy cross-border access to digital services and creating a level playing field for companies in a vibrant digital economy.
Completing a trade agreement with the United States also remains high on the commission’s agenda. Cameron is among the most enthusiastic proponents of deepening transatlantic trade relations.
Finally, Juncker is putting forward an agenda on migration that could address “the concerns expressed by Cameron and others that the single market should mean free movement of workers, not people,” according to Field.
This should help the government in its mission to crack down on benefits tourism of the type that so incenses the British public.
Fields is not without caution. With little detail on the proposals made so far, there is plenty of room for the commission to slip in new rules that contract Britain’s interests, he warns.
Other countries also worry that the migration reforms Britain wants could undermine the free movement of people in Europe — which is a key pillar of the whole European integration process.
Leaders may also wonder why they should make concessions if Cameron will go ahead anyway with a referendum on Britain’s European Union membership. Polls suggest such a referendum, which would happen in 2017 if the Conservatives win the next election, could produce a majority in favor of withdrawing from the bloc.
Cameron says he will advocate for continued membership if the European Union reforms. In that, he might unexpectedly find an ally in Juncker.
European leaders on Friday pushed through Jean-Claude Juncker’s nomination to head the next European Commission while the prime ministers of Denmark and Finland looked likely candidates to chair their own council.
Juncker’s nomination, which is almost certain to be approved by the European Parliament, came over the strong objections of Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, and his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orbán, who fear the former premier of Luxembourg will advocate deeper political integration in the European Union as the head of its executive arm at the expense of expanding the single market, liberating trade with nations outside Europe and giving member states the flexibility to opt out of specific policies.
Juncker, who previously also chaired the council of eurozone finance ministers, had claimed the commission presidency after his European People’s Party won a plurality of the seats in the European Parliament in last month’s elections.
His appointment confirms the views of British Euroskeptics who believe the European Union is beyond reform and the island nation would be better off outside the bloc.
Cameron has promised his voters a referendum on Britain’s future in the European Union, pending an effort to adjust the conditions of its membership. After Friday’s decision, he admitted, “The job has got harder of keeping Britain in a reformed EU.”
He implicitly criticized other leaders, saying that in a Europe crying out for reform, they had gone for a “career Brussels insider.”
German chancellor Angela Merkel, otherwise keen to keep liberal Britain involved in the European Union as a counterweight to more protectionist economies in the Mediterranean, told reporters, “I believe that the conclusions that we agreed showed we are ready to take British concerns seriously. The entire strategic agenda reflects Britain’s desire, which I share, for a modern, open, efficient European Union.”
However, as recently as Wednesday, Merkel signaled that she was prepared to give France and Italy more “flexibility” to meet their budget targets under European treaty rules. The two countries, ruled by leftist parties, had conditioned their support for Juncker on less austerity.
Individual commissioners are yet to be nominated. Britain can be expected to claim a powerful post given its failure to block Juncker.
The presidency of the European Council — the regular meeting of government leaders — will also soon be vacant. The prime ministers of Denmark and Finland, Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Jyrki Katainen, are believed to be candidates to replace Herman Van Rompuy.
Katainen, a conservative, has already succeeded Olli Rehn as commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs — a position he is expected to keep unless he could become European Council president.
Thorning-Schmidt, a Social Democrat, is a more likely candidate. The socialists in the European Parliament are assumed to demand the European Council presidency in return for supporting Juncker. However, the Danish leader herself insisted on Thursday she was “not a candidate.”
The new European Commission is due to take office in October.
When Europe’s leaders meet on Tuesday to discuss who should replace José Manuel Barroso as European Commission president, they would do well to look outside the group of candidates put forth by the major parties in the European Parliament. Not only are there more qualified alternatives; nominating someone else would confirm the European Council’s primacy among the institutions of the European Union.
The four biggest blocs in the European Parliament — the conservatives, Social Democrats, liberals and Greens — each nominated a Spitzenkandidat for the European Commission presidency. Only the conservative and social democrat candidates, Luxembourg’s former prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the German president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, stand a chance of getting the job. The liberals lost so many seats that it is hard to imagine government leaders will pick Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian premier, instead.
The European Council nominates a candidate; the parliament is then supposed to confirm its choice with a vote. That has led the major parties in the parliament — always keen on expanding its power — to demand a final say. Which is exactly why leaders should defy them and nominate a candidate of their own.
Juncker, for one, dares leaders to ignore him. Asked about some countries’ reluctance to appoint a European Commission president who seems to believe the answer to every crisis in Europe is more Europe, the Christian Democrat said, “I don’t care. I’m not on my knees. I won the election.” This in spite of losing sixty seats.
The European People’s Party did get a 28 percent plurality of the vote but even in coalition with the liberals, the traditional kingmakers in the assembly, it lacks the support to get its candidate elected. The party will likely pursue a “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats — which could give Schulz another shot at the job.
Schultz himself argued that it is “much too early to discuss who will be the supporter of whom” and pointed out that without the Social Democrats, “no majority is possible.”
But he is even more of a believer in the European project than Juncker. Governments in Britain, Finland and the Netherlands would rather not hand power to man who intends to take more power from them.
There are better candidates. Enrico Letta, the former Italian prime minister, is a centrist and a pragmatist. He is a proponent of the European Union but understands that the recent crises, and the mounting Euroskepticism they have produced, should at least give countries pause to wonder if deeper integration is still the best way to go.
Another Italian, Mario Draghi, is already head of the European Central Bank. Leaders might not want to give two of the top jobs to the same country. In which case the prime ministers of Denmark and Finland, Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Jyrki Katainen, are fine alternatives. The former is a social democrat, the latter a conservative. Both have been in office since 2011 and are hankering for another job.
As long as leaders nominate someone other than one of the Spitzenkandidaten, they would make clear that Europe is still primarily governed by them, and the national governments they represent, rather than a body only one in four Europeans bothered to vote for this weekend. Europe is not the union most parliamentarians in Brussels and Strasbourg would like it to be — nor should it be. It is a community of nations and should be led by someone who is elected by their national governments.