EU Commission President Juncker is being blamed for many of the bloc’s woes: waning interest in Europe, far-right populism and – recently – the Brexit. But how far is he really to blame? Barbara Wesel from Brussels.
Jean-Claude Juncker has faced a lot of criticism over the past weeks. Critics say he missed the opportunity for a new beginning for the EU; that he has no vision for the future; that he wants too much Europe; that he doesn’t want enough Europe; that Merkel would like to get rid of him; that the eastern Europeans would like to get rid of him. In the minds of some, Juncker stands for a Europe that lacks a social conscience and solidarity. He is accused of letting the stability pact slide and held responsible for southern Europe’s economic weakness. And most of all, he is blamed for the fact that many EU citizens reject the bloc.
Many of the above accusations are mutually exclusive. Even a miracle worker couldn’t please everybody in Europe at the present moment.
Business as usual – or a new vision?
Jean-Claude Juncker’s first reaction to the Brexit referendum was emotional. He admitted he was hit hard as “a human being and a European.” At the same time, he pleaded with the EU to continue on its political path, while urging Britain to move along briskly toward leaving the bloc. Juncker wanted to prevent instability, and avert any kind of political and economic “threat of contagion.”
His stance was close to the French government’s point of view, but ran crosswise to Berlin’s more cautious approach. The latter has never proven to be a good decision for a Commission president.
A day after the British vote, Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, and Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) published a strategy paper urging more integration and more joint responsibilities for Europe. Juncker, Schulz’s political ally, is said to have had a hand in the move, too. Any changes to the treaty, however, would fail in the present situation, and spell an end to the EU. So Juncker gave the signal to “continue as before.” That suits the Council of the European Union, which wants time until September before it starts to think about the consequences of the Brexit vote.
As a result, critics accuse Juncker of lacking a European vision. At the same time, the EU governments – in particular in eastern Europe – refuse to tolerate high-flown ideas from Brussels. They explicitly want a less powerful EU. “Juncker is stuck in a dilemma,” says European Parliament Vice President Alexander Graf Lambsdorff.
More efficiency – or more democracy?
On the fringes of the Brexit summit, a cantankerous Juncker defended his decision to have the CETA trade treaty with Canada ratified only by the Commission and the European Parliament. The timing was a political mistake, and so was the manner in which he presented his argument. But was the content of what he said so wrong? The Commission is supposed to generate more economic growth and jobs in Europe, so from that point of view, it makes sense to implement CETA speedily in order to expand trade.
All the same, German Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel and Norbert Lammert, president of the Bundestag, were up in arms, demanding that CETA should be approved by national parliaments – and Juncker immediately gave in. As a result, the treaty will snake its long way through the European parliaments, and probably never be ratified in its agreed-upon form. Representatives from the business world fear that the TTIP treaty with the US will fall prey to the same mechanism.
It’s unpopular to say so, but if every national parliament decides on every EU agreement, the EU will be incapable of action.
Save or spend?
The EU Commission has for years faced accusations of handling the stability pact in far too lackadaisical a manner. Time and again, it has let the governments in France, Portugal and Spain get away with missing the 3 percent deficit mark. Juncker argues for stability policies that include a “sense of proportion” – as long as member states make efforts to implement reforms and work toward a solid budget. He has also come out in favor of Greece remaining in the eurozone.
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, on the other hand, demands the same rights and the same responsibilities for all members. The Commission has since given in, so now Spain and Portugal could face sanctions. It hasn’t, however, dared take on the French government.
The austerity policies are a source of “frustrations and concerns in Europe,” US President Barack Obama said during a recent visit to Spain. US economists aren’t the only ones campaigning against EU stability policies shaped by Berlin: The EU member states along the Mediterranean Sea have long been demanding more debts as a means to boosting their economies.
This is where two economic theories clash. Should state budgets be solid and create competitiveness at great sacrifice? Or should states spend money and let investments spearhead a boom? In the end, it’s a question of power, and one that isn’t decided in Brussels, but in the EU capitals. Minus one: the advocates of hardcore austerity in London are out.
Charisma – or boring predictability?
About two years ago, toward the end of his career as a special EU adviser, former Bavarian state premier Edmund Stoiber turned into a staunch European. Today, he demands more “charisma in Europe’s politics.” No grinning, please.
Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz, both reasonably charismatic European politicians, are not the flavor of the month right now. Perhaps the German chancellor will get her way here as well: People are to possess only as much charisma as Angela Merkel will allow.