19th Mar 2018


Juncker, a wise man lost in details

  • Juncker, the "old, smart fox" showed his skills - and his limits (Photo:

"I'm as young as the European project," the 61-year old Jean-Claude Juncker said in Strasbourg on Wednesday (14 September) morning.

In his state of the Union speech, the European Commission president showed that he is indeed like today's EU: battered but still active, relevant but looking for a new purpose.

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The speech was Juncker's come-back after a difficult summer marked by criticism over his sometimes erratic behaviour and calls for resignation.

The head of the self-proclaimed "political commission" seemed helpless after the Brexit vote in the UK. He appeared powerless to have his plans on migration implemented by member states, and sidelined by national leaders who said they would decide themselves what to do after Brexit.

But Juncker, who has spent more than half his life as politician, is an "old, smart fox," as one EU parliament source called him.

In front of the 751 MEPs he showed his skills - and his limits.

Firstly, he disciplined himself and delivered a 49-minute speech free from impromptus or cryptic jokes.

Secondly, he positioned himself as Europe's wise man, somewhere above the fray, looking down at the European situation, reminding people about EU values, and pronouncing judgement.

"I have witnessed several decades of EU integration," he said.

"Never before have I seen such little common ground between our member states. So few areas where they agree to work together … Never before have I seen so much fragmentation, and so little commonality in our union. We now have a very important choice to make”, he said.

He then presented his guidelines for future action:

"First of all, we should admit that we have many unresolved problems in Europe. There can be no doubt about this … Secondly, we should be aware that the world is watching us … Thirdly, we should recognise that we cannot solve all our problems with one more speech, or with one more summit," he said.

His summit comment was aimed as a jab at those EU leaders who think they can move ahead without the commission's help.

The wise-man Juncker also presented himself as a statesman with solutions.

"I am therefore proposing a positive agenda of concrete European actions for the next 12 months," he said, adding that the EU must "deliver" to protect Europeans, preserve their way of life, and empower them.

Christmas tree

Under the EU treaties, but also by political necessity, the commission is a machine for proposing new laws and projects. 

Juncker's political commission has reduced the number of legislative proposals but is keen on presenting concrete initiatives.

The EU executive chief used the speech to announce a raft of measures on digital industries, migration, capital markets, investment and defence, among others, that could, perhaps, have better been announced by his "team" of commissioners.

In a few minutes, he went from promising to equip "every European village and every city with free wireless internet access … by 2020”, to announcing the creation of a European Defence Fund, or the doubling of the commission's €315-billion investment plan.

In EU-speak, this is called a Christmas tree - a group of disparate items hung on the same frame, whose main purpose is to show people that politicians are doing something.

This is where the statesman and his vision got lost in details.

One of Juncker's main problems as commission president has been that his proposals, however right or justified, need other actors' support and participation to be implemented.

Plans to relocate asylum seekers is the most flagrant example, but other initiatives, for instance, on security or tax (because they depend on member states), and the investment plan (because it depends on the private sector) have also failed to live up to expectations.

Same trap

Is the European Commission president sure that installing free wifi in all cities the day after tomorrow is technically, politically, or economically feasible?

Is he sure that member states will supply the defence fund when some of them are not that enthusiastic about common defence?

Is he also sure that they will supply a newly announced investment fund for Africa, when they failed to give enough money to earlier funds for migrants and refugees?

Juncker on Wednesday tried to be both political (his vision) and practical (his projects).

But he risks falling into the same trap old trap of making promises that he can’t keep.

When he said "there is almost no intersection between the EU and its national capitals anymore,” one felt his conviction that national leaders should help the EU more.

But if he was betting that his come-back speech alone would mark a come back, he might well lose.

Juncker: EU 'not at risk' of disintegration

The EU Commission chief warned Europe is more divided than ever before, but that Brexit does not mean it is falling apart. He also promised free wifi, an EU army of sorts, and more investments.

Juncker's EU vision to focus on security

Juncker will aim to please southern states by talk of investment, and others by talk of deeper security cooperation in his first big speech since the Brexit vote.

Populists blame Juncker for 'same old' ideas

Mainstream parties defended Juncker's ideas on how to win back people's trust, but populists blamed the EU Comission chief for dishing up "more of the same".


Juncker's unrealistic promise of free wifi

The commission president said "every European village and every city" will have public internet access in 2020, but the statement was not backed up by any legally binding target.


Juncker-Tusk: A clash of EU visions

The EU commission president may be right that Brexit is not an existential challenge to the EU, but rifts with the EU council chief over how to handle the divorce talks may well be.

Commission rejects ombudsman criticism over Barroso case

The European Commission repeated that it followed the rules when its former head joined Goldman Sachs - and suggested it will not follow the EU Ombudsman's demand to refer the case back to the ethics committee.

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