The long-awaited State of the Union address delivered by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday (13 September) has boldly set a plan for EU institutional change, without changing the Treaties.
Juncker outlined a broad reform plan but broke it down into sizeable bits so that it never looked overwhelming or unfeasible, especially when it came to shaping his vision for a new institutional setup.
The Single President
Under the leitmotiv of catching the ‘wind in our sails,’ Juncker sketched the Union of tomorrow, “a Union of states and a Union of citizens”. To reach that objective he proposed a major institutional change – merging the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council.
“This is nothing against my good friend Donald [Tusk], with whom I have worked seamlessly together for the past three years,” he said. “But Europe would be easier to understand if one captain was steering the ship.”
The proposal is actually not new and goes back to the late Jean-Luc Dehaene, then vice-chairman of the European Convention on the Future of Europe, who made sure that the wording of the (later) Lisbon Treaty would allow for that merger in the future.
Democracy or the art of compromise
Juncker insisted in the speech that he was only interested in institutional reforms ‘if they lead to more efficiency in the Union.’
“Instead of hiding behind calls for Treaty change – which is in any case inevitable – we must first change the mindset that for some to win others must lose,” he emphasised, making the case that democracy is nothing else but a compromise.
“The right compromise makes winners out of everyone,” he continued. “A more united Union should see compromise not as something negative, but as the art of bridging differences.”
The single president at the helm of the two institutions would also be elected in a pan-European campaign with transnational lists.
Preparing for the next European elections in 2019, Juncker said he wanted to see European political parties start campaigning for the next elections much earlier than in the past.
“Too often Europe-wide elections have been reduced to nothing more than the sum of national campaigns,” he said, stressing that transnational lists would help make the European parliament more European and more democratic.
The plan of pan-EU lists is currently under discussion in the European Parliament but is opposed by Juncker’s own EPP group, which wants to wait until after Brexit.
“I will try to convince the leader of my parliamentary group to try to follow this idea,” Juncker said.
Today, the Commission also proposed new rules on the financing of political parties and foundations. “We should not be filling the coffers of anti-European extremists. We should be giving the European parties the means to better organize themselves.”
Winking at French President Emmanuel Macron and his plan to revitalise the European Union, Juncker also said the Union had to involve national parliaments much more and organise democratic conventions across Europe in 2018.
Refuting growing criticism about the ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ process, under which every political group in the European Parliament nominates a candidate to be Commission president, Juncker said the democratic progress of creating leading candidate cannot be reversed.
The process was first used in 2014, when Juncker was elected president of the Commission.
“To understand the challenges of his or her job and the diversity of our member states, a future president should have met citizens in the town halls of Helsinki as well as in the squares of Athens,” he added.
“The future of Europe cannot be decided by decree. It has to be the result of democratic debate and ultimately broad consensus,” he insisted.
European minister of economy and finance
Another new position in the new Juncker architecture is the one of European minister of economy and finance “to promote structural reform in our member states.”
“The Commissioner for economic and financial affairs – ideally also a vice-president – should assume the role of economy and finance minister. He or she should also preside the Eurogroup,” he explained.
“ I am not asking for a new position just for the sake of it. I am calling for efficiency,” he added, dismissing the ideas of creating a Eurozone parliament and a Eurozone budget (see separate story).
Using the ‘passerelle’ to move fast
The cherry on the cake is his encouragement to use the so-called “passerelle clauses” in the current treaties which allow the process to move from unanimity to qualified majority voting in certain areas, provided that all heads of state and government agree to do so.
Juncker insisted to use this tool in decisions on taxation and foreign policy.
“I want the union to become a stronger global actor,” he said. “In order to have more weight in the world, we must be able to take foreign policy decisions quicker,” he added.
Quoting Mark Twain, the president of the European Commission charted the direction for the future. “Years from now we will be more disappointed by the things we did not do than by the ones we did,” he said.
On first account, Juncker seems to have woken up to his first warning, the Commission of the ‘last chance’, taking advantage of the positive winds coming from the economic recovery and the weakening of populistic pressure. But the last chance is turning into ‘now or never’.