By Radu Magdin
A Europe that protects, empowers, respectively defends values. This was the mantra of Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the Union discourse. It was a significant rhetorical moment, an exercise in projecting success, launching fair warnings and proposing the way forward for the European project.
However, the question remains whether JC Juncker, who will most likely not continue as the European Commission President after the next European elections, delivered more of a Europhile manifesto than an actionable roadmap.
Was it more like political legacy building than real measures that will see the light of day in the coming years? For pragmatists, despite the boldness and the frankness of the speech, it remains to be seen if the changes will really take place or whether they will be seen with hindsight as the defining moment of a wave of federalist overconfidence.
President Juncker played his role and played it well. He should be applauded for trying to put the European crisis behind him and work for a renewed bright future for all EU members. Europe cannot fight on a negative platform so switching mentalities towards growth is important.
The return of growth and the progress observed during the past year were rightly highlighted, together with the ever-present gap between perception and reality. Priorities were clearly and passionately set and it is no coincidence that trade and climate change were so high on the list. The signature proposals converged towards the same ideas – more Europe, more integration, less division and more solidarity. For those who are able to see that Europe, in view of long-term global transformations, has to adopt a comprehensive and unitary approach, the speech provided reassurance and optimism.
Should the speech be remembered in a few years, it will be for how Juncker tried to redefine the role of the EC President. A ‘‘Spitzenkandidat’‘ in 2014, Juncker wants to set the tone for how the major stakeholders will come to understand the prerogatives and leverage of the first Eurocrat. This is no small thing, but it appeals rather to Europhile nerds.
Nonetheless, the major questions will not disappear: is expanding the membership of the Eurozone a realistic project after the Greek experience? Is Schengen a viable arrangement? Can the posted workers issue and the differences in standards between West and East be solved? Is establishing new institutions the right way of addressing major problems faced by the EU? Will a full embracement of free trade and liberal democracy produce high levels of growth? Who will easily agree to modify the required majorities for key EU decisions? What are the specifics of a new immigration policy geared mainly towards Africa? What role for the reprimanded Turkey?
SOTU answered very well the ‘‘what‘’ question and only briefly the one on ‘‘how’‘. This is understandable: first you lay out a vision, details come afterwards, following consultation. A couple of European decision-makers have already distanced themselves from Juncker’s proposals and have rejected the quick expansion of the Euro and Schengen zones. The ball is now in the national leaders’ court. The coming months will reveal whether the coalitions to defend and advance these measures are in place or if Juncker took a political gamble by saying openly and without extensive consultations what should be done.
On a personal note, as a Romanian and a European, I was happy not only to hear several mentions for my country, including for the 2019 Sibiu Summit, but also because Juncker stated the obvious: don’t play politics with Romania and Bulgaria, they are prepared for Schengen, let them in.
But let’s return to the bigger picture. The truth is that the EU is a viable economic project and we are growing again. The time has come to draw a line and to reaffirm and live by our values. A potential crisis of liberal democracy is even more consequential than the Euro crisis.
Right now the EU risks escaping from one crisis only to enter another: but it must not lose the political battle as the price for winning the economic one. For too many years, the EU has become the punching bag for those who need a straw-man to win national elections. An appropriate reaction from the European institutions has often been absent. It’s time for a Brussels fightback, this time in coordination with national capitals.
Brexit has happened but as Juncker pointed out, it needn’t be any more than a lesson from the past. Europe needs to fight populism and nativism with solidarity, responsible and responsive leadership. Strengthening our values and democracies, our ability to defend liberalism, rule of law and principled leadership is a key point for the future of the EU. Leaders in Brussels and beyond must learn from the lessons of the populist surge. Europe has to be seen again as the project of the many. In many ways, populism equates to anti-elitism.
We, those in love with Europe and passionate for the European project, as “EU elites”, have to take a profound look in the mirror and to ask ourselves how we can fight best against alienation, isolation, obscene inequality and poverty. The fight for the right principles and the corresponding actions has never been more important.
Such a perspective was missing from Juncker’s speech, together with a grounded plan about how to reduce the various inequalities which have transformed Europe into a de facto multi-speed project. Many summits, such as the one announced for Sibiu in 2019, are needed for a plan to emerge and to be finally implemented. Without asking the fundamental questions and by just muddling through, Europe will still suffer – irrespective of the implementation of Juncker’s pronouncements.
Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that a strong and optimistic signal was delivered. This is Juncker’s penultimate #SOTEU address and his attempt to make history was evident. He sought to show that he knows how to Make Europe Great Again: both inside its own neighbourhood and in front of other key global players. Values and optimism were as present as trade and geopolitics. In the end, the speech was also for the average Joe and Jane, not just the EU elites.
Europe is also about having an EU dream, the plea for a new European social contract was evident, the reference to the right and left lung self-explanatory and duly noted. Only history will tell us if the challenge launched by Juncker will be accepted by European leaders. But where there’s a will, there’s a way for a Europe that truly protects, empowers, and defends.
Radu Magdin is VP of think tank Strategikon and a former advisor to the Romanian prime minister
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