Inside Story

A break in the European clouds

Europe is shipshape and ready for action, according to the European Union’s top official

James Panichi 19 September 2017 1504 words

Flying a kite? European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker outlining his plans for the European Union at the European Parliament in Strasbourg last Wednesday. Jean-Francois Badias/AP Photo

Europe’s back. Not the awkward, self-conscious, navel-gazing continent you’ve come to know, frozen in the headlights of the populist road-train hurtling down the autobahn, and still smarting from the humiliation of Brexit. No — as Eurocrats return from their summer holidays, Jean-Claude Juncker wants you to know that the “wind is back in Europe’s sails.” And just in case anyone at the European Parliament’s plenary sitting in Strasbourg missed the nautical metaphor, the head of the European Union’s executive repeated it again and again: “Let us make the most of the momentum — catch the wind in our sails.”

What a difference a year can make. Juncker’s 2017 State of the European Union speech was oozing with optimism, patting the European Commission — and, by implication, Juncker himself — on the back for “staying the course.” Referring to the bleak outlook in 2016, the wily centre-right politician from Luxembourg said that the EU had faced a choice this time last year. “Either come together around a positive European agenda or each retreat into our own corners” — code for the clash between those who want greater political unity and those who want the EU to dial back any talk of further integration.

To bolster his argument that the bloc was out of the rut and into the groove, Juncker turned to the good economic tidings. We are five years into an economic recovery, he said, with EU growth of 2 per cent outstripping that of the United States over the past two years. Eight million jobs have been created since the start of this Commission’s mandate in 2014.

What the speech didn’t mention was that Juncker’s strut was about more than just numbers. First, there were the decisive victories of pro-EU forces in both the Netherlands and France earlier this year, which gave the bloc a much-needed shot in the arm; second, the unflinching solidarity of its remaining twenty-seven members in the face of Brexit negotiations has left Britain outmanoeuvred and outclassed. Call it schadenfreude if you prefer — the president’s upbeat disposition is what it is.

But it was the final part of Juncker’s speech, a paean for greater European integration, that was roundly dismissed by the British media as an operation in kite-flying. Always quick to point out what everyone knows, British journalists told us that most of the plan Juncker outlined before parliament was unlikely to get off the drawing board, with dismissive comments by Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte (“I’m not such a romantic”) held up as evidence that national capitals have little appetite for greater integration.

Yet surely kite-flying is the name of the game for a president of the European Commission — particularly when addressing the parliament, an institution that has made an art form out of placing big-picture, pan-European ideas into the never-going-to-happen basket. Everyone knows that the institution that calls the shots is the Council of the EU, representing the national governments of member states, and it isn’t about to hand over more powers to the Commission simply because Juncker got up on the right side of the bed.

Yes, the president’s vision for greater integration may never come to pass — but who cares? What matters is that he has decided to fly this particular kite now, to mark what he sees as a turning point in EU history. Officials in Brussels bristle when English-language media suggest that everything the Commission does is somehow in response to Brexit — the EU has moved on, they assure us. Yet the spring in Juncker’s step at this year’s SOTEU speech (yes, it’s an acronym) is also a recognition of the fact that the bloc’s most recalcitrant player — the one member state that would always push back against any real or perceived mission creep on the part of Brussels — is about to leave the building. This speech was upbeat in part also because it was the first time that Juncker got to turn his gaze to the EU27 — that’s all members except Britain.

Juncker was daring national capitals to think big, to imagine a Europe in which genuine integration could be achieved. Leaders should think beyond the current arrangements, in which cross-border impediments to trade and investment remain in place and national governments continue to pick winners, even as their public statements advocate the importance of removing those impediments.

That the EU27 was the target of Juncker’s speech would also explain why the Commission president used the opportunity to announce the start of trade talks with Australia and New Zealand. “Over the last year, partners across the globe are lining up at our door to conclude trade agreements with us,” Juncker said, before name-checking Australia and adding that he was hopeful that “all of these agreements” would be finalised by the end of his mandate — that’s 31 October 2019.

It’s an ambitious target, although revelations in recent days that the EU is prepared to decouple talks with Australia and New Zealand on a trade deal from a more politically sensitive investment protection agreement suggests the Commission wants to move fast. But, again, it’s about the politics, not just the substance. Why would Juncker use valuable real estate in his speech to mention a possible deal with countries on the other side of the world? Well, because he can. The EU can negotiate trade deals with any country it wants to, whereas Britain will have to wait at least until March 2019, when it leaves the bloc, before it can start dealing with Australia — and that’s assuming its hands don’t remain tied by a transitional trade arrangement with the EU.

What Juncker was telling us was that Boris Johnson, Britain’s foreign secretary, is free to travel the world promising to sign trade deals and reboot the British empire in all its glory once Brexit has taken effect. But until then, he can’t enter into formal negotiations — nor would any country want to, given that the nature of Britain’s post-Brexit trade arrangement with the EU has yet to be clarified. Any talk of the EU’s future trade and investment relationship with Britain will remain on the backburner until the British engage with Brussels on the three issues topping the EU’s agenda: the payment of outstanding liabilities; the future of the land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland; and the rights of both EU citizens living in Britain and British citizens living in the EU.

There’s another point which the kite-flying arguments levelled against Juncker appear to gloss over. The fact that national capitals reject any call for “more Europe” at the expense of member-state sovereignty doesn’t mean that the process of centralising power isn’t continuing, one small and often unreported step at a time. Just last week, an energy reporter working for my news service wrote an article about how proposed EU investment laws would give the Commission a role in overseeing problematic foreign acquisitions of key energy infrastructure. This could see Brussels wedge itself into considerations of European energy security — an area that national governments have long insisted should remain their prerogative.

This is how the EU rolls. Just think of the EU’s foreign affairs department, the European External Action Service, which continues to grow in influence, even though foreign affairs remains the closely guarded domain of national governments. Don’t let the big statements and kite-flying distract you: Europe is centralising, no matter what national leaders say about Juncker’s speech. Security threats, geopolitical considerations in Ukraine and pressure on European energy supplies started to push EU members to consider setting aside reservations about the loss of national sovereignty. Even defence, the last policy bastion of the old European nation-state, is taking on super-national dimensions as southern EU countries grapple with the impact of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants and demand help from Brussels.

So, Juncker’s vision thing is also an attempt to articulate a big picture around a centralising drive that is already under way. “For me, Europe is more than just a single market,” he told the assembly — ignoring, for once, the heckling of the UK Independence Party parliamentarians. “More than money, more than the euro. It is about the values.”

Defining those values won’t be easy — and many of Juncker’s social-democratic motherhood statements, the call for a “union of equality” and the warning that “there can be no second-class workers,” may be met with some scepticism, particularly in northern Europe. Yet you’ve got to admire the chutzpah of a politician laying out such a bold vision when just a year ago the EU was on life support. “Helmut Kohl and Jacques Delors taught me that Europe only moves forward when it is bold,” Juncker said, referring to the former German chancellor and the former French president of the European Commission. “So, let’s throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the harbour. And catch the trade winds in our sails.” •