Sunday

15th Dec 2019

Opinion

Juncker's unashamed admiration of the past

There are many interesting aspects to Jean-Claude Juncker’s start as European Commission president but a key one is his unabashed hailing of the past.

He makes little attempt to hide the fact that he believes the great Europeans are not to be found among current leaders but among those who were in power over 20 years ago.

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His first trip in office was not to Paris or Berlin but to Helmut Kohl’s side in Frankfurt where the former chancellor was presenting his book.

Kohl, born in 1930, was in power from 1982 to 1998. He still, as he just told Stern magazine, continues to see himself in the role of an integrator in Europe.

He along with the late Francois Mitterand (French president until 1995) and Jacques Delors, European commission president for a decade from 1985, were the European triumvirate considered to have done the most for the EU project in its history.

Mitterand and Kohl were the main architects of the Maastricht Treaty, which paved the way for the euro. (Kohl later admitted that he pushed through the single currency – unpopular in Germany - like a “dictator” justifying it on the grounds that nations that share a currency don’t go to war with one another.)

Delors, a clever tactician, focused his sights on completing the single market in his first term and pushed for far-reaching economic and monetary union in his second term. His name fronts a still-cited report on the matter.

And it is Delors whom Juncker will appear beside in a debate at the end of the week entitled “Introducing the new Europe”.

Juncker said that from an historical point of view he is “in the best of company” and these two politicians have secured their place in the “annals of history”. It is clear he wants to be in these “annals” too.

While some of those present at the time - most notably just-left commission president Jose Manuel Barroso – warn against looking at the era with rose-tinted spectacles, it was nevertheless a period of relative optimism for the EU. And it was a time when Paris and Berlin, along with the commission, found a modus vivendi that pulled the rest of the EU with them.

This is clearly not the case today. But Juncker, with his admiring eyes on the past, wants to change this.

He is starting by putting his institution back on the political map in Brussels by chairing talks on economic governance between the heads of the European Central Bank, the eurogroup and the European Council.

By having the talks now, before Donald Tusk European Council President is even in office, he has stolen a march on national governments. And this, in Brussels’ ever evolving institutional power-balance, is key.

Whether he’ll manage to make his mark and bring Europe out of its eurosclerosis - his €300bn investment plan is taking on outsize and emblematic importance – is debatable.

He can do little about the fact that the current French and German leaders don’t see eye to eye. And that some of Europe's newest leaders - Italian PM Matteo Renzi for example - want to pick noisy fights with the commission. Meanwhile Tusk (also known as a savvy political fighter), as European Council President, is a factor that Delors did not have to contend with.

Juncker has said he is presiding over the “last chance” commission. Maybe he’ll fail in his aim to give Europe its “nouvel élan” but it looks like it will not be for want of trying.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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