In 2014 I was rooting for the election of Jean-Claude Juncker, considering him to be the best candidate to succeed the less than dynamic and imaginative José Manuel Barroso. He was known as a strong supporter of a more integrated Europe, which I consider a must if the European Union wants to survive and play a political role commensurate with its size and economic importance. Twenty-six of the 28 prime ministers and heads of states voted for him. There were only two prime ministers who didn’t: David Cameron of the United Kingdom and Viktor Orbán of Hungary.
I guess I was hoping for some quick policy changes that would indicate a tighter European ship, but what followed was crisis after crisis: 2015 saw another Greek bailout and the refugee crisis, and in 2016 the British voted to leave the European Union. Juncker’s tenure didn’t look like a success.
It seems, however, that quietly, in the background, the commission president managed to achieve 80% of what he and his team proposed for the 2014-2019 period. A senior commission official told Politico that on areas outside the commission’s tradition purview, like security and defense, “We’ve done more in six months than in the last 60 years, that’s all him.” Brexit last summer was the low point for the European Union, but since then some of the EU’s woes have subsided. A lot fewer migrants are arriving on the continent, Greece’s bailout seems to be working, and populist voices have quieted after a number of national elections. The Eurozone’s economy has been steadily growing, and unemployment, although still high, is back to its 2009 level.
Unless one is a keen observer of the European Union, these accomplishments are often swamped by the petty quarrels initiated by the Visegrád 4 countries. As Zsolt Kerner of 24.hu put it, “From Hungary the exact state of the European Union is distorted because of the government propaganda,” but the Juncker administration’s accomplishments are considerable.
Until now Juncker hasn’t made any effort to outline his vision for a more closely integrated Europe. But today he put forth some startlingly innovative proposals that could, if adopted, fundamentally change the very nature of the European Union. Leonid Bershidsky, a Russian journalist who works in Ukraine nowadays, wrote an opinion piece in Bloomberg in which he sympathizes with Juncker’s plans but notes that there are quite a few important European politicians, for example Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, who will most likely oppose a structure which, although “the word wasn’t uttered, … would be a federation.”
A summary of Juncker’s speech can be found on Euronews.com, and therefore there is no need to cover the whole speech here. Instead, I will concentrate on those items that speak directly to Juncker’s vision of a United States of Europe. First, as opposed to Merkel and Macron who would like to see a two-speed Europe or a core-Europe of countries using the euro as their currency and the periphery of countries mostly found in the eastern half of the continent, Juncker wants all countries, with the exception of Denmark which is exempt, to adopt the euro as they promised at the time of their adherence to the Union. He would entice the countries whose leaders are hesitant to take the step with generous financial incentives for the transitional period. Once there is a common currency, the Union should have its own common minister of finance in charge of the economy. That person could be one of the commissioners, who would also be one of the vice presidents of the commission. One reason for the Hungarian government’s hesitancy to join the Eurozone is Viktor Orbán’s reluctance to lose the independent Hungarian central bank, which has been the source of all sorts of questionable financial moves benefiting his government. Once in the Eurozone, the head of the Hungarian National Bank would just be one of the members of the European Central Bank.
In order to achieve “a Union of states and a Union of citizens,” he proposed merging the functions of the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council. This is an excellent idea not only because, as he put it, “Europe would be easier to understand if one captain was steering the ship” but because it would also make for less friction between the nation states and the center. Apparently, the idea is not new. In fact, the Lisbon Treaty’s wording intentionally allowed for such a merger in the future. This single president would be elected in a pan-European campaign with transnational lists. Juncker didn’t elaborate on how this would work, and it is not at all clear whether even his own party, EPP, would support such pan-EU lists. Optimistically, he believes that he will be able “to convince the leaders of [his] parliamentary group to try to follow this idea.” Juncker’s powers of persuasion are said to be extraordinary because he is able to change even Angela Merkel’s mind.
He also proposed that the new office of the EU chief prosecutor, which until now was supposed to have jurisdiction only over EU financial matters, would from here on get involved in the fight against terrorism. Hungary was one of the countries which for obvious reasons refused to accept the idea of an EU prosecutor’s office, but perhaps if the office is also involved with terrorism it would be more difficult to turn against the proposal.
Finally, Juncker suggested getting away from the need for unanimity in the decision-making process. Again, this is a complicated affair, but there would be a way via the so-called “passarelle clauses” in the current treaties, which would allow the process to move from unanimity to qualified majority voting in certain areas, provided all heads of state and government agree to do so. Juncker insists on using this tool in decisions on taxation and foreign policy.
There are practically no Hungarian opinion pieces on the Juncker speech yet, but Magyar Idők published an MTI report under the headline “Juncker promises a more united and more democratic union.” MTI reports are not supposed to add comments to its press releases, and therefore I was quite surprised to read that “this 70-minute speech by Jean-Claude Juncker has been so far his most considered and most measured state of the union speech, which was welcomed by the majority of the members of the EP delegations.” I really wonder who is responsible for this sentence.
Some of Juncker’s suggestions would remedy problems the European Union has been battling for many years. If a common currency, common army, and common financial policy were to become a reality, the EU would be on its way to being considered a sovereign entity. Of course, there would still be the question of a common foreign policy, but one cannot expect such giant steps. I’m sure there will be many who will find even that much hard to swallow.