Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker sought to downplay the impression that tensions are building as a result of the push of member states, under the leadership of the Slovak presidency which started today (1 July), to repatriate powers at the expense of the Union’s institutions.
Juncker and Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico appeared before the press in Bratislava, following bilateral meetings held between the College of Commissioners and the Slovak government.
Juncker said that together with members of the European Commission, they had held “a very open and very frank debate”.
This is the first time Slovakia is assuming the rotating presidency of the Union in its 12 years of membership, coinciding with the turbulent historic moment when the EU is facing the challenge of Brexit, and when the Visegrad countries, a regional grouping of which Slovakia is a part, are challenging the executive’s migration policy based on the relocation of refugees.
“I haven’t seen the press reports of yesterday’s events,” Juncker said, in reference to the statements by Fico and other Slovak officials in front of 58 visiting journalists from Brussels which clearly suggest an effort for to repatriate powers to member state capitals.
Referring to the bilateral discussions he has held in Bratislava since Thursday (30th June), Juncker said:
“I didn’t feel that it is the intention of the Slovak government to enter into war with the European Commission.”
Fico called Juncker a friend of the Slovak Republic, who has helped the country in difficult times.
Need for informal discussions at the highest level
Regarding the 16 September summit in Bratislava on the future of the EU, Fico said he was counting on the Commission to contribute to its preparation. He said there were “huge expectations” from that summit, with some countries expecting “huge reforms” and amending the basic legal acts of the Union. The leader of Poland’s ruling PiS party, Jarosław Kaczyński has advocated for a radical change of treaties.
“Let me be very clear. We don’t want such radical steps”, Fico said, but added that “business as usual was not an alternative either.” He argued that better communication was needed “to successfully sell the European project to our citizens”.
The Slovak premier said that he hoped that with the help of the Juncker Commission, the Bratislava summit would be a “breakthrough for the European Union”.
Asked about the “strong Visegrad spirit” to bring back power from the institutions to the member states, Fico said that those who say that the V4 group want to weaken the EU institutions and give power to national governments were not correct. The regional group only wanted the “balance” of power to be restored.
“There has to be a balance, an equilibrium between the member states and the EU institutions. Neither should dominate,” the Slovak premier stated.
Fico insisted that the Slovak presidency had no “hidden agenda”. He said this was merely an opportunity to have informal discussions at the highest level, and that all institutions should prepare for it.
Juncker pointed back to when the European Council first met in 1979, and held regular meetings in the capitals of the rotating presidency up to 2003, when the Nice treaty changed the practice.
“In the course of the Nice treaty, we decided to have all these meetings in Brussels. Why? It’s less costly, and two, the ponderation of votes in the Council between Belgium and the Netherlands was changed, so Belgium was asking for compensation, and President Chirac was offering to the Belgians regular meetings of the European Council. The Belgians were happy. I don’t know if they are still happy with the traffic jams we are normally organizing, but that’s the historic explanation,” he said.
‘The Fico summit’
Juncker said the EU doesn’t have a long history of informal councils, and that Fico, whom he called by his first name Robert, was “perfectly right” in calling an informal summit outside Brussels.
He said the Commission had backed the Bratislava summit “from the first second”, and he did not understand the rumours that the Commission President wouldn’t be invited. But he added that this had also been the case for the last summit called by Council President Donald Tusk, with Bild reporting that he was not invited.
“So I had to choose between the letter of the President of the European Council inviting me, and the Bild Zeitung. I chose the one of the President of the European Union,” Juncker said.
Juncker stated that on 15 September, he has to deliver the speech on the State of the Union in the European Parliament, and that the next day “the Fico summit” takes place in Bratislava.
“It’s evident that the government of this country and the Commission will prepare like twins these events. I cannot tell the European Parliament totally different things than Robert will lead us to conclude upon on the other day,” Juncker added.
‘Even if I was not there’
“So we have to work together. Even if we were not friends, and even if I was not there, we have to work together. As we are friends for centuries, there will be no problem,” Juncker commented.
Regarding the situation following the Brexit referendum, Juncker said the UK authorities needed to make their positions clear.
“We don’t have time to lose, we cannot add uncertainty to uncertainty,” Juncker commented. He mistakenly used the words “British presidency” instead of “Slovak presidency,” swiftly correcting himself and adding that this was “the joke of the day”.
Juncker emphasised that the Program of the Slovak presidency was in full harmony with the working program of the European Commission.
“Refugee crisis, migration is an issue which is a little bit more difficult in this country and elsewhere. We are trying, Robert and myself, to narrow the differences between the two sensitivities we are watching in the European Union,” he said.
Fico added that migration was a divisive issue, but that the Slovak presidency didn’t want to exacerbate the debate, but rather concentrate on a positive agenda, including the European coast and border guard, the “Back to Schengen” initiative, smart borders, and to create a space for discussing sensitive issues.