Friday

22nd Mar 2019

Opinion

Juncker - president of a flawed status quo

Jean-Claude Juncker will on Wednesday (12 September) deliver his last State of the European Union address as Commission president.

He will be keen to showcase his achievements over the past year, and probably of his whole presidency. We expect him to be honest about his record and self-critical in his speech, as we enter this crucial election year.

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Are Europeans better off now than in 2014? The facts show they are not.

Opportunities to prepare for the future of Europe and to bridge the gap with citizens have been lost.

An honest assessment of the current state of the EU means conceding that the continuation of flawed status quo policies in the EU and member states has contributed to a dramatic rise in right-wing extremism, xenophobia and nationalism.

Illiberal agendas and double standards have allowed for the dismantling of the rule of law and democracy in some member states and increasing support for authoritarianism.

The EU has not overcome its political, economic and social crises.

Juncker came to power with promises of putting the dire years of austerity behind, with the so-called Juncker Plan, an investment plan for Europe. He also unveiled a European Pillar of Social Rights to put a more humane face to the EU's neoliberal policies.

Billions of euros were spent under the plan to promote growth and employment across Europe. While unemployment rates went down, inequality continues deeply entrenched.

In 2016, almost a quarter of EU citizens were at risk of poverty or social exclusion, that's 118 million people.

The Plan was flawed from the beginning because it focused on big corporations, at the expense of public investment, and largely excluded southern European countries, the hardest hit by years of austerity.

Widening inequality gap

The Juncker Plan did little to lift people out of poverty and bridge the widening inequality gap, thus failing to tackle the roots of popular discontent.

A series of high-profile leaks that exposed the extent of tax avoidance and tax evasion in the EU shook Juncker's presidency from early on.

They showed how the EU and member states ignored - and in some cases actively colluded with - greedy practices of large corporations and powerful individuals.

Luxleaks exposed Juncker's own responsibility in turning Luxembourg into a major centre for corporate tax avoidance.

Subsequently, the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers showed how widespread and systematic the issue really is.

It is estimated that one trillion euros of taxpayers' money have been lost to tax evasion, money that could have been used for health, education, infrastructure, jobs and welfare, all target areas for intensive cuts and privatisations.

These scandals exposed the double-speak of Juncker's European Pillar of Social Rights, which has not moved beyond rhetoric, and has eroded the people's trust in the EU.

Brexit on Juncker

Brexit was the starkest expression of this reality, and if the EU has learned anything from this experience citizens' rights will be at core of any Brexit deal.

Likewise, the British government must provide assurances that there will be no hard border in Ireland and that the Good Friday Agreement will be upheld in all of its parts. Established labour, social, and environmental standards must not be weakened or diminished.

Progressive socialist policies are now needed more than ever to bring control back to people's lives, give them their dignity and rights, and protect citizens and workers from exploitative corporations and unfettered markets.

Instead of appeasing populists and the far right, as the commission has often done, policy must focus on tackling the root causes of discontent.

We are witnessing an unruly alignment of forces between an isolationist Trump administration and far right nationalist movements in Europe bent on disrupting international relations and creating distrust between countries and communities.

They are exploiting real grievances from years of austerity and economic crisis.

These moves threaten the rules-based order and the future of the EU. Our response should include the redoubling of our support for international law and human rights - the universalist lessons of World War Two - and the strengthening of European solidarity, multilateralism, and dialogue.

Instead, Juncker has chosen to appease the far right by following the path of militarism and Fortress Europe.

The 2021-2027 budget proposal, presented last May, massively cuts agriculture and cohesion funds while bolstering defence and external borders.

The newly established European Defence Fund will see a staggering €5bn a year going to arms companies, violating the longstanding consensus that EU budgetary funds are not to be used for defence purposes.

Meanwhile, an unprecedented refugee crisis is unfolding worldwide, fuelled by wars where Europe is involved directly or indirectly. From the occupation of Afghanistan, through to the bombing of Syria and the billions of euros in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the EU and member states are not mere spectators of this human tragedy.

Instead of assuming responsibility for the consequences of its actions, the EU has moved to prop up oppressive regimes through agreements to stem the flow of refugees fleeing those same wars.

Deals with Turkey or Libya will see money and arms go to authoritarian states and lawless regions. In Libya, refugees are being turned into slaves with the EU bearing direct responsibility, according to Amnesty International. This year alone 1,549 refugees have drowned at sea under the EU's watch.

In his speech, we demand that Juncker break the commission's silence on the refugee crisis.

Member states must end their reluctance to confront the crimes in the Mediterranean and assume their responsibilities. Ports should be reopened and NGOs saving lives at sea must not be criminalised.

While Juncker will argue that Europe is back on track economically, this has not translated into social gains for European citizens and more equality.

The Left has warned about the risks of neoliberalism and policies that devalue citizens, as well as the costs of abandoning international solidarity for interventionism.

The consequences are there for all to see. Juncker's legacy? - Commission president of a flawed status-quo.

Gabi Zimmer is president of GUE/NGL group in the European Parliament

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