After nearly five years of Jean-Claude Juncker’s ‘last chance Commission’, the EU still appears to be stumbling from one summit to the next. What comes next after May’s European elections, asks Steven Blockmans.
Steven Blockmans is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies
In 2014, the EU was still suffering through the euro crisis. Unemployment had hit unprecedentedly high levels; intergovernmental emergency measures burdened the Union’s democratic quality; the trust in European institutions of a politics-fatigued electorate had hit an all-time low.
Then came Juncker. Building on his ‘election’ as a Spitzenkandidat, he sought to give the Commission democratic legitimacy through becoming more ‘political’ and leveraging this new bond with the Parliament into bolder agenda-setting vis-à-vis the European Council. He restructured the internal set-up to enable what he called the “last chance Commission” to turn the corner, by channelling its attention towards ‘big-ticket’ items and easing off on hyper-regulation
Five years on, the EU still seems to be stumbling from one summit to the next, even if migration and rule of law have supplanted economic issues at the top of the agenda. As populist political forces gain influence and lead governments, the divisions between member states seem deeper than before – except, ironically, where Brexit is concerned.
How should the next Commission president plan to give European integration yet another chance?
It is difficult to imagine how the future could be different from the recent past. These are times of increasing nationalism, informalisation and exceptionalism, leading to a growing importance of intergovernmental decision-making – not fertile ground for the concept of a ‘political’ Commission and the federal vision of EU democracy that it carries.
Being political also appears to have led to a more flexible application of the rules. And with the appointment of the President becoming a partisan matter, the Commission’s role as guardian of the treaties may have been eroded.
Meanwhile, despite having submitted an impressive 94% of the proposals it announced, only half had been adopted by the end of 2018. Perhaps the next Commission would be better off being ‘political’ in the sense of anticipating what will fly with the other institutions?
Focus on fundamentals
Regardless of the political coalition that will prevail after the European elections, further progress in many policy fields is likely to be limited. This should not discourage ambition. But greater realism is essential.
Taking a step back to gain a commanding view of the broader picture, the CEPS research team has assessed the record of the outgoing Commission and set out what we think the policy priorities for 2019-2024 should be.
We recommend distinguishing between those of a ‘housekeeping’ nature to keep the EU on course, and those geared to more ‘fundamental’ areas, where there is a need to bolster the basic principles on which its community of law is built.
These range from rule of law and fundamental rights through migration to positioning the EU as a leader in responsible AI and strengthening cyber defence, from normalising the triangular trade relationship with the US and China to choosing a pathway that is either between 80-95% emission reductions or the more ambitious net-zero target.
We think the next Commission should take greater care to forge a coherent policy agenda. This applies as much to the social dimension of EMU and the (digital) single market as it does to the nexus between climate, energy and industrial policy – as exemplified by the need for a true Capital Markets Union.
Finally, Juncker’s successor would do well to maintain the current Commission’s more hierarchical and clustered structure as it stimulates coordination between DGs and consistency in implementing a multi-level strategy for the next legislature.
The EU will almost certainly, and tragically, be one member down by the time the next Commission takes office. But even if they have their differences, the leaders of the remaining countries share a belief in the value added of cooperation within the Union.
They are united in their determination to debate the future of Europe at the informal European Council summit in Sibiu on 9th May 2019. If it makes its own luck, the EU is still in with a chance.