The new social pact

Over the last five years, the Juncker commission has grappled unsuccessfully with too many issues: Greece’s debt, Brexit and the migration

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker during a press conference in Brussels on the Brexit negotiations. REUTERS/YVES HERMAN
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker during a press conference in Brussels on the Brexit negotiations. REUTERS/YVES HERMAN

On introducing his team to the European parliament on 10 September 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker stressed that his would be a "political" Commission. The head of the first community administration with partial democratic legitimacy was essentially promising that Brussels, often perceived as a lumbering and opaque bureaucratic machine, would prove to its European citizens that it could even have a political impact on the major issues of its time.

However, any overall assessment of how this last EU government has faired as it approaches the end of its mandate must take into account that Europarliamentarians and commissioners will leave their posts in a radically changed global context to the one they faced five years ago.

The main priority of the European Union at the time, after the worst crisis in its history, was to boost its member states' economy. This in many cases had a mainly symbolic significance and was meant to demonstrate how the austerity measures, the bitter medicine administered in the previous years, could, through growth, employment and investments, pay back those who had borne the brunt of these very painful reforms.

The economic and financial governance plans that had been drawn up during the crisis years to improve the response mechanisms to new crises also needed improving. This essentially meant the completion of the banking union and the single capital market. But almost seven years have passed, and the banking union, without its third pillar, the European Deposit Insurance Scheme, is still a "lame duck".

The slowing of the economic reforms can also be pinned on the ongoing revision of the European political agenda in response to the threat posed by fundamentalism, now a major concern in Europe.  An example is the replacement of the British Commissioner appointed to the key financial services directorate Jonathan Hill, who chose to resign in the wake of Brexit, with diplomat Julian King who took his place but was assigned a new security portfolio.  

The ambitious Juncker Commission investment plan, conceived in order to revert to the situation as it was in 2007 and wipe out the effects of the crisis, was supposed to mark the turning point of this legislation. It was meant to be the demand side equivalent of the quantitative easing introduced by the European Central Bank in March 2015 that had boosted cash availability on the markets. The plan wanted to use this cash for strategic investments.

By July 2018 the Juncker plan had already mobilised more than the original 315 billion forecast, and been extended until 2020 with an increased capacity of up to 500 billion. The economic expansion which began in the second quarter of 2013 and is now in its sixth consecutive year has however been weak and the injection of resources into the real economy has only produced modest results. Between the first quarter of 2008 and the middle of 2018 the actual per capita eurozone GDP has increased by just 4% and even the Commission has admitted that in certain economies living standards have hardly improved at all over the course of the last decade.

The strongpoints of the EU's five year period that is nearing its conclusion are the end of roaming charges for the use of one's mobile phone for calls and internet use abroad, but also of geoblocking, which restricted cross-border use of online services. And very advanced GDPR legislation (General Data Protection Regulation), put in place for the protection of personal data, has also been favourably received.

But if this new course set for Europe was supposed to be ambitious on the major themes and less so on the smaller ones, the EU's performance on the major world stages is where the side has been let down.

The first blow came in Athens, with the lightning referendum on the bailout proposal put forward by the "troicka" called by the government led by AlexisTsipras, who the year before had stood against Juncker in the surrogate direct election of the Spitzenkandidaten. And with the Greek referendum the EU's political machinery started to show the first signs of a lack of resilience to political shocks resulting from reckless choices, which has resulted in the timing of its political agenda being decided by upcoming electoral appointments.

One of the aspects that weighs heavily on the overall assessment is Brexit. Although a sovereign choice of the British people, the current legislation will in any case be remembered as the one during which Europe started to break up. Even the tentative handling of the attempted Catalan succession, for which  Europe failed to provide any brokerage, is proof that in the future other crises concerning sovereignty requests or disputes could become tension hotbeds.

On the strategic alliance front, one of the main objectives of the Juncker Commission at the start of its mandate was to reach an acceptable free trade agreement with the United States, that TTIP which was supposed to tilt Obama's "pivot strategy" back in favour of an Atlantic agreement, and which was soon abandoned once Trump announced his protectionist agenda. An unprecedented crisis with the United States has led to a shift in American preferential partners from Merkel's Germany to Macron's France.

But the mounument to all European frailties during the five year period has to be the management of the migration crisis and the total incapacity of member states to agree on how to reform the Dublin regulation covering the European asylum system that has had a direct effect on the rise of populism in Europe. Even the Comission has suffered a serious setback on this issue, having first suggested a relocation mechanism that has been completely ignored by many states and especially those included in the Visegrad Group (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia), who have used the migration front to challenge Europe.

Uncertainty continues to reign and there's still no indication of how the new challenges will be met at a European level. The only initiatives appear to be promoted by French president Emmanuel Macron, but he is also having to come to terms with a drop in his approval ratings at home. His drive to reform Europe hinges on a revision of the Eurozone and also includes the creation of a European army, a subject that at this point is no longer off limits. Steps in this direction have been taken during this legislature with the institution of the first truly European defence industry fund and particularly thanks to PESCO, a reinforced form of military cooperation and a structure that should be a prelude to the creation of a joint armed forces.

However, Angela Merkel's decision to withdraw from national politics could have repercussions at a European level and slow reform efforts. Every time the German internal leadership is weakened, the works in the Council grind to a halt, as happened rcently during the six months it took the CDU to set up a new government after the September 17 elections.

And with Italy currently picking a fight with the Commission and other member states and Spain in a perennial governmental crisis, the clout of the four Visegrad countries could increase, backed by the rising star of Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz who has just completed a very successful European Council presidency.

If the upcoming elections produce a Europe led by the People's Party with the support of the Soveregnists, the issues of security, both internal and external, and migration control would no doubt become priorities. But the real challenge to be faced during the next term will in all likelihood be trying to salvage European integration itself. The decision making and political crisis in which the EU mechanism now finds itself could seriousy hamper the entire project and a great deal of effort and political will is required to keep it alive. The goal of a united Europe is no longer considered essential and it may in any case be achieved through heterogony of ends. 

@gerardofortuna

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