Juncker, a wise man lost in details
By Eric Maurice
"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.
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.
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.