Adelina Marini, September 22, 2017
There is no doubt that European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (Luxembourg, EPP) will remain in history as one of European Union's fathers, side by side to names like Jean Monnet, Robert Schumann, Konrad Adenauer, Helmut Kohl, Jacques Delors. His State of the Union address this year is the latest piece of the jigsaw puzzle which the veteran of European politics has been doing for decades. Only 21 years have passed since Juncker delivered the birth of the single European currency by contributing for the finding of a compromise between France and Germany.
At the time, France was persistent in demanding a common currency whereas Germany was against unless it received solid guarantees for fiscal stability. Juncker's role was key to the establishment of the Stability and Growth Pact, which is still poisoning the sleep of leaders of countries with a more southern view of public finances. 21 years later not only the euro is a fact but it has even managed to survive its first death threat and to start a new life in a much more integrated eurozone.
And Jean-Claude Juncker - the man with the longest career as prime minister and minister of finance in EU - in many cases had a leading role in the deepening of the integration in the currency club in his various European roles - from a Eurogroup chief through a rotating president of the European Council (before the Lisbon Treaty) until his current position as a president of the European Commission. Nothing in the past two decades in the EU happened without Juncker's active role.
An address for the state of a career
Juncker's speech from 13 September is an emanation of his rich European biography. It contained a solid dose of boasting what has been achieved since the beginning of his term in 2014. Although Mr Juncker's personality and political career are closely intertwined with EU's development in the past decades, it will be wrong his address this year to be retracted through the prism of his career because, in it, he offered a realistic picture of the state of the Union and a vision for its future.
The Luxembourger's address was like a Santa Claus's sack - there was a little something for everyone. From rejoicing on the back of those who were against many of the ideas for exiting the crises that were shaking the EU in the past decade to directly aimed criticism against those states who are deviating from the community interests and values (like Poland). His speech contained compliments for the Baltic states and Romania. Bulgaria and Croatia were treated with a mention too. And Italy received special thanks for taking the migrant blows while in the EU member countries were fighting among themselves who how much solidarity owes to whom and for what. And although Brexit was mentioned in a single sentence, Juncker's address was a triumph over Eurosceptics and most of all those on the other side of the La Manche.
A union of equals
A major characteristics of Juncker's Commission is that it adopted the tactics of its president not to forcefully impose the law or its position but wait for the right moment to propose a solution in its most appropriate form. Thus, after a quite meandering beginning, when it was evident that Juncker himself was finding it hard to play the role of a Brussels clerk after spending his whole life being a political motor (he himself admitted openly this year that from the very beginning he wanted Donald Tusk's seat), Brexit offered the Union a gift - a wonderful opportunity to look deeply in itself and recall what it was founded in the first place for and to renew the vows.
Since then, Juncker has skillfully used the global and internal European shifts to offer solutions which were for years gathering dust in the Brussels drawers like, for example, the development of common defence, an institutionalised strengthening of the euro area, changes in the voting system in the Council on key issues like foreign policy and taxation. Armed with his huge experience as a member of the European Council, the Council and now as European Commission president Juncker chose a clever form to sell the ideas he stands for - a reflection paper.
Thus last winter he proposed a white paper on the future of the EU which contains five scenarios for the development of the Union. A very provocative text which practically gives the member states an opportunity, based on their own behaviour and ides (or ideologies), to choose whether all member states will walk together in one direction with the same speed (a fast one) or will they prefer a multi-speed Europe. A smart approach which has managed to shake the Union strong enough to force those most arrogant member states to understand that there are boundaries whose crossing will no longer be tolerated.
Jean-Claude Juncker back then refrained from sharing his personal preferences promising he would do it during his state of the union address. Instead of choosing one of the five scenarios, however, he offered a sixth one. In its essence, this is not a sixth option to choose from but a foundation the other five or a combination of the five to stand upon. Juncker's "sixth" scenario is an embodiment of the French philosophy (liberty, equality, fraternity) and the German one (Rechststaat). The scenarios consists of three principles: freedom, equality and rule of law.
"Europe is first of all a Union of freedom. Freedom from the kind of oppression and dictatorship our continent knows all too well – sadly none more than central and Eastern Europe. Freedom to voice your opinion, as a citizen and as a journalist – a freedom we too often take for granted". To put it differently, Budapest and Warsaw, do you read?
"Second, Europe must be a Union of equality. Equality between its Members, big and small, East and West, North and South. Make no mistake, Europe extends from Vigo to Varna. From Spain to Bulgaria. East to West: Europe must breathe with both lungs. Otherwise our continent will struggle for air". This message comes with specification that the West, too, has sins to cleanse. According to Juncker, in a union of equals there cannot be a second class citizens who consume worse quality products packed in the same way as the high quality products. In the part for equality he completely backed the campaign of French President Emmanuel Macron, launched long before him by the old member states, against cheap labour from Eastern Europe.
"Third, in Europe the strength of the law replaced the law of the strong. The rule of law means that law and justice are upheld by an independent judiciary. Accepting and respecting a final judgement is what it means to be part of a Union based on the rule of law. Member States gave final jurisdiction to the European Court of Justice. The judgements of the Court have to be respected by all. To undermine them, or to undermine the independence of national courts, is to strip citizens of their fundamental rights. The rule of law is not optional in the European Union. It is a must".
Enlargement to democracy yes, to illiberalism - no
The latter is not a message only for the eastern member states, which chose an illiberal path, but for the candidate countries as well, whose leaders do not understand (or feel uncomfortable with) the concept of the rule of law. Juncker repeated his thesis from the beginning of his term that during his time there will be no enlargement because neither of the candidate states is ready to join, but he called for a credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans. Most countries from this region reacted as if had not heard the next remark, being quick to applause Juncker's "unequivocal support" for enlargement.
And he said: "Accession candidates must give the rule of law, justice and fundamental rights utmost priority. This rules out EU membership for Turkey for the foreseeable future", was Juncker's painful judgement. "Turkey has been taking giant strides away from the European Union for some time", Juncker said. This, however, is a warning for the candidate states too that there will be no compromises of the likes of those made for Bulgaria and Romania in the form of a Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM). The EU has a sufficiently strong headache caused by its own members who backed out from the deal for the eastward enlargement of the EU and who started to undermine the liberal democratic order.
For the rogue members the message is: "If you want equality offer equality in every respect in return". And for the candidates the message goes: "If you want membership in a union of equals do your job". "Democracy is about compromise. And the right compromise makes winners out of everyone. A more united Union should see compromise, not as something negative, but as the art of bridging differences", said one of the greatest masters of compromise in EU's history putting this in the context of Schengen and euro area enlargement. "If we want to strengthen the protection of our external borders, then we need to open the Schengen area of free movement to Bulgaria and Romania immediately. We should also allow Croatia to become a full Schengen member once it meets all the criteria".
This message does not have only one address but several. Regarding Schengen, the call is definitely not aimed only at those countries that are blocking Bulgaria's and Romania's accession because the two are not sticking to their obligations under the CVM. The message is also aimed at the governments in Sofia and Bucharest who are the most to blame for being blocked for Schengen. In this sense, Juncker is not taking sides. He is just saying that if everyone truly wants a strong protection of external borders it is necessary these countries to be in Schengen. However, the ball is in Bulgaria's and Romania's court.
Regarding Croatia's membership, Juncker's choice of words ("We should also allow Croatia...") suggests that this message is addressed to Slovenia and Hungary which announced they would block Croatia's Schengen accession, each for their own interests. Slovenia because it wants in this way to blackmail Croatia to accept the arbitration judgement on the border dispute between the two countries. Croatia left the arbitration in 2015 after revelations of political interference on behalf of Slovenia. And Hungary is pursuing its own interest linked to the dispute surrounding the Croatian oil company Ina, where the Hungarian oil company Mol holds a significant share. Nevertheless, Croatia has still not met the technical criteria for Schengen accession. Both Croatia and Bulgaria are situated along strategic and geopolitically sensitive external borders of the Union.
All for the euro and the euro for all
The European Commission chief reminded that all non-euro countries, except two, are supposed to join the euro area after they meet the criteria. Juncker proposed a special instrument to help those countries fulfil the conditions. It will provide technical but also financial assistance. This is a very strong signal that the eurozone train is willing to wait for those passengers who have not boarded yet before leaving for the next integrational step. And that step will be significant. One of the reflection papers the Commission presented this year was precisely on the future of the euro area. On the basis of all discussions held, the Commission will publish a formal proposal on 6 December.
Juncker recalled some of the new elements. The eurozone's permanent bailout fund - the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) - to gradually evolve into a European Monetary Fund. The creation of a European minster for economy and finance is also offered, the main task of whom will be to promote structural reforms in the member states. Juncker sees this minister as a commissioner and a vice president of the Commission, who will also be a president of the Eurogroup. The Luxembourger is against a separate euro area budget but proposes a special budgetary line for the eurozone within the EU's multiannual budget. Juncker is also against a separate parliament for the euro area. For starters, everyone should join the banking union, Juncker called.
A flying start in the foreign policy and taxation
After the EU has begun a new step in the deepening of integration in the area of foreign policy (and defence) because of the significant shifts globally, and after realisation of the need to enhance coordination of taxation policy, Juncker believes the time is ripe to raise the issue of voting in the Council. He called on the member states to move from unanimity to qualified majority voting, as the Treaty allows, because this would make the Union a stronger global player. He proposes the same to apply when taxation decisions are voted. This is something the European Parliament has been calling for for years.
With the entry into force of the Lisbon treaty, in many more areas voting with qualified majority is allowed and the formula of voting is changed too. When the Council is voting on a proposal by the Commission or the high representative for the Union's foreign and security policy qualified majority is allowed and it is to be reached when 55% of the member states, but only if they represent 65% of the Union's population, vote in support. If the proposal does not come from the Commission or the high representative the formula changes - 72% of the Council members, representing 65% of the Union's population.
Another very important proposal by Jean-Claude Juncker, which however will hardly find much support, is to merge the positions of the heads of the Commission and the European Council. According to Juncker, this will make work more efficient. "Having a single President would better reflect the true nature of our European Union as both a Union of States and a Union of citizens". The proposal should be viewed in the context of his insistence to keep the procedure for election of a European Commission chief. The procedure is known as Spitzenkandidaten and was introduced for the first time for the European elections in 2014.
Then, at European Parliament's insistence, and for more democratic legitimacy the European political parties agreed to nominate their own candidates for the position of European Commission president, which by then was being chosen via horse-trading among the leaders of the member states behind closed doors. Juncker himself stated during his address that he would not run for a second term. If the two positions are merged and the Spitzenkandidaten procedure is maintained this will boost European democracy significantly.
Objectively, the Commission president said nothing new in his address but it will enter the textbooks as an example of a European compromise. The address touched upon all important issues from the European agenda, among which are also international trade, migration, the future of the single market. He made a sober assessment of what has been achieved and offered a realistic step forward, underscoring that everything is a matter of choice which, in some cases, has already been made.
About how balanced this year's state of the Union address was testify the immediate reactions of the member states (and candidate countries) on Twitter. Some supported Juncker's speech as a whole, others read it selectively and a third group supported individual proposals. In the European Parliament, too, the overall reaction showed that each of Juncker's targets has been hit. After this address the Parliament and the Council will be flooded by legislative proposals and the member states will face some serious choices.
Under Juncker's watch the EU has made a major integrational step forward in the area of defence, the economic and trade policy, foreign policy, and also taxation. This year the state of the EU is not bad at all and the future no longer seems that gloomy as in 2016.