The Audacity of Hope: A New Start for the Old Continent?

Jean-Claude Juncker is the third Luxembourger to hold the title of President of the European Commission. The first, Gaston Thorn, was so successful in pursuing European integration that he earned the soubriquet ‘Bloody little Gaston’ from UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The second, Jacques Santer, was sacked by the European Parliament for incompetence. Predicting Juncker’s fate in leading a union choking on challenges is a perilous pursuit.

Nonetheless, I remain an optimist for Europe under Juncker. No other current leader can match his depth of experience in the management of the continent’s affairs. Few previous presidents have been blessed with so many strong players in their College of Commissioners. In some respects, the only way things can go is upwards. After a predecessor whose boast was to give the EU ‘the most dynamic, competitive, knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010′ but whose legacy is largely one of drift and decline, Juncker has the seniority and the support to shine.

The structure he has chosen for the commission, with his vice presidents being given charge of broad policy portfolios for which junior commissioners appear to have primary responsibility, has been criticised by many. But few will defend the status quo ante in a commission of 28 members. His decision to put difficult decisions into the hands of those whose member state of origin poses the main problem is a bold move. Indeed, some have hastened to paint the president as a gambler. Yet in a collegiate body, each individual will be expected to uphold policies adopted collectively. Some still argue that Juncker is yesterday’s man, they argue his vision for Europe is too influenced by the federalism of Europe’s forefathers. However, without greater unity the EU seems lost –  though by definition it must be unity that is respectful of diversity. If its members fail to hang together they will most assuredly hang, separately.

To come into office at a time of strength-sapping stagnation and promise a €300 billion economic stimulus shows courage. It signals a refreshing challenge to the neo-liberal orthodoxy on public spending. Dare one imagine in 2020 a continent comprehensively connected through transport, telecoms and electricity transmission networks? One capable of competing through connectivity, of adding value to products and services through smart support systems? One that tackles challenges from climate change or internationally-organised crime through a renewed capacity for common purpose?   Let us hope so.

The new president cannot expect an easy ride from the legislature. In a European Parliament in which fully one third of the members from the UK, France and Italy are populist at best and border-line fascist at worst, a majority for moderation will be harder to obtain. From a Council of Ministers containing characters ready to contort constitutions or threaten to take their wickets home, unity of purpose will be doubly challenging. Nor can Juncker expect harmony between the two arms of the legislature. Even if Liberal Leader Guy Verhofstadt’s jibe at the outgoing College of Commissioners as “the secretariat of the council” was unjustified, relations between the directly elected representatives of the people and the governments of the member states are likely to become rockier as a continued recession reverberates.

Europe, like Germany, has been forced into a grand coalition. Juncker must maintain the support of the majority in his European People’s Party. He must rely on his opponent in May’s European elections, parliament’s President Martin Schulz, and the commission’s first Vice President Franz “my right hand man but also my left hand man” Timmermans  to keep his coalition partners happy.

Much will be up to a president who protests “I am not a technocrat.” Political leadership with a clear sense of direction, skilfully crafted compromises and relentless pursuit of objectives is urgently needed. Thankfully for Juncker, good sense prevails at the European Central Bank, the European Court of Justice and other institutions from which support will be crucial.