Tuesday

13th Nov 2018

EUobserved

Where is Juncker?

  • Juncker is to attend a G20 meeting in Brisbane next week where, irony of ironies, tax issues are on the agenda. (Photo: Alan Cleaver)

Well that was short-lived. Our new "political" commission arrived on Monday (31 October), wobbled into being on Tuesday, had its highpoint on Wednesday, and shut up shop on Thursday.

There will (presumably) be fewer better opportunities to show how a revamped European Commission – breaking with the langue-de-bois of the past – might work than a veritable political maelstrom in which the president of that institution is caught up in the absolute, very, centre.

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Yet the response to an investigation detailing the breadth of the corporate tax evasion enabled by Luxembourg has been one of refuge in the technicalities.

Firstly the man himself is nowhere to be seen. The person who from the mid-1990s until last year ran a country that allowed hundreds of large companies to pay a smidgeon of tax has effectively disappeared.

A planned public debate with Jacques Delors – who fortuitously turned out to be ill – on the day of the revelations was also cancelled. The next day Juncker was to be found attending an event at the little-known Robert Schuman Foundation in, of all places at this particular juncture, Luxembourg.

The Juncker silence, as of late Friday afternoon, continued to reign.

The response has been left to his spokesperson Margaritis Schinas, who tried to put it all under a technical umbrella, saying that as the practices undertaken by Luxembourg were not illegal it was up to the commission to see if the Grand Duchy had breached state aid rules.

The depths of farce were plumbed when a journalist who asked whether Juncker knew of these tax avoidance schemes was referred to the Luxembourg authorities.

When asked about Juncker’s political position on all this, his spokesperson noted that in a speech before parliament in July, the Luxembourger said he favoured a common corporate tax base and financial transactions tax. (This is akin to someone asking: Do you like bananas; and getting the reply: “I said back in summer that I like apples and pears”).

So far, so very technical. So very devoid of politics.

Because naturally there is no politics in the fact that Juncker is now presiding over an institution that has in the past, and will continue, to stress the need for austerity measures that directly affect EU citizens.

And there is no politics in his very own acknowledgement that this is a "last chance" commission - one that needs to get closer to citizens who feel alienated by the EU’s structures and policies.

At this rate, his first public appearance will be at a G20 meeting in Brisbane next week where, irony of ironies, tax issues are on the agenda.

Let’s not be blue-eyed, however..

It’s hardly as if Luxembourg was alone on this. Several member states do the same sort of thing (here’s looking at the Netherlands, Ireland, and the UK for a start) depriving their treasuries of billions of euros.

But Juncker is now the president of the European Commission.

And the political winds have changed. He is doing a disservice to the institution with his silence. He should face the press, face the awkward questions (like whether he can really be a neutral chief when his commission is supposed to be delving into the Luxembourg set-ups).

The investigation by the ICIJ, a journalists' consortium, may have done the fight against these tax avoidance schemes a large favour - the EU commission now has little political (that word again) choice but to come down on the practice strongly.

However, Juncker should himself take steps to put any doubts to rest.

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