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European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is a man of compromise, often to the detriment of the vision he espouses. But in his State of the European Union speech on Wednesday, he delivered an uncompromising call for a tighter, federalist EU which goes against the intentions of the bloc’s two most powerful national leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. They may resent being dared in such a way.
In March, Juncker published a white paper on the EU’s future that was a typical, waffling Brussels document: It set out five scenarios for the block, ranging from inaction or the broad devolution of powers to the national capitals to “doing much more together.” As he presented the paper, Juncker only made clear that he opposed the devolution scenario; he was pointedly neutral on the others.
Merkel, the ultimate realist, backs a “multispeed” Europe in which some core member states do more together and others hold back. Macron, in his first major foreign policy speech as president, also called for moving forward “with an avant-garde group of the willing” that others would eventually follow.
It is widely assumed that “Merkron” — the duo of national leaders who have held back nationalist, populist forces in the continent’s two biggest economies — can now seize the opportunity for EU progress, created by the European economy’s return to growth and by the exit of the U.K. Who exactly is Juncker to contradict them? He isn’t even a real elected official: Though the European Parliament did vote for him, he had to be nominated by the national leaders first.
Juncker, who has said he doesn’t intend to run for a second term in 2019, unexpectedly had a good answer to that question in Wednesday’s speech. He called for combining the EU’s two president positions — of the European Commission, responsible for the bloc’s day-to-day running, and the European Council, which brings together the national leaders — in a single post, filled after a Europe-wide election. “To understand the challenges of his or her job and the diversity of our member states, a future president should have met citizens in the town halls of Helsinki as well as in the squares of Athens,” Juncker said.
The move would address many Europeans’ concerns about the EU’s democratic legitimacy. The European Parliament, which they already elect directly, has vague, watered-down powers that few voters understand, so the elections are plagued with low turnouts and irresponsible protest voting that is not repeated on the national level. Electing a single leader for the bloc should be a clearer proposition, especially if the EU president sits on top of a streamlined bureaucracy with clear powers. To that purpose, Juncker proposed that a new post of finance and economy minister — the creation of which both Merkel and Macron have backed — be given to a top Commission official. In effect, under these proposals, the EU would get something like a U.S. presidency, counterbalanced by much stronger states than the U.S. has. The word wasn’t uttered, but it would be a federation.
Within such a system there would be no room for “multispeed.” Juncker was eager to entice East European countries to integrate as fast as the bloc’s euro zone core. Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia should finally become full members of the Schengen borderless area, Juncker said. Non-euro countries should join the euro. And all members should be treated equally: Juncker specifically addressed East Europeans’ concern about the cheaper ingredients used by food multinationals in these countries for brands they sell EU-wide. He also promised the non-euro countries a “convergence instrument” — help in meeting criteria for the common currency. Europe, he said, needed to “breathe with both its western and its eastern lung, otherwise it will suffocate.”
The obvious question to ask is whether there’s any support for Juncker’s vision outside the federalist factions in the European Parliament, which gave him a standing ovation on Wednesday. At first glance, there’s none. It’s not that the Czech Republic and Poland need much help meeting euro criteria; they could do it, but they’re run by politicians who see the common currency as a means of external pressure and want to keep the koruna and the zloty.
Europe’s open borders and Brussels’ relative openness to Muslim refugees are unpopular with the voters and that’s a major obstacle to more federalism. Juncker’s commission has a nasty relationship with the current Polish and Hungarian governments, and if Andrej Babis becomes Czech prime minister in October, as expected, his country will probably become as mutinous.
At the same time, it’s difficult to see Merkel and Macron empowering an EU president. It’s not just that there’s no reason for them to accept an equal or even potentially stronger leader in Brussels. Even if he or she is directly elected, that will give powerful ammunition to nationalists and populists in Germany and France, making the next electoral cycle even more difficult than the one that ends this year. The two don’t even agree on the top speed in a multispeed arrangement: The French president wants a much stronger euro zone commitment to a common budget than Merkel’s appetite, or mandate, supports.
Juncker’s argument is that one needs to, as he put it, finish building the house while the sun is shining. But many will disagree about how sunny the EU’s outlook really is. Economic growth, at about 2 percent, is still far from stellar, and it’s unevenly distributed. Trump-style electoral accidents have been averted, but at the high price of shaky ruling coalitions (Germany will have to build an especially iffy one this year) and unpopular leaders elected as a result of tactical voting (Macron’s case). Resentment in Eastern Europe against being colonized by the West is on the rise, and its peak is not in sight yet. Greece is still in ruins despite massive bailouts. The U.K. is on its way out, and that’s not just an opportunity but also a burden and a drain on EU resources. Is this really the right moment for a major integration push?
Personally, I agree with Juncker and applaud him for finally getting up the courage to say what he thinks. The logic of the European project is centripetal, and, as the U.K. is already finding out, the economic ties pulling the bloc together are stronger than most people realize. It’s just that the particular opportunity Juncker claims is there for a leap forward is likely to be missed because not everyone sees it.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.