Van Rompuy says door open for ‘two-speed Europe’

Herman Van Rompuy [President of the European Council/Flickr]

Herman Van Rompuy [President of the European Council/Flickr]

Herman Van Rompuy, the President of the European Council, spoke out on the EU’s future after Britain’s failed attempt to block Jean-Claude Juncker from becoming the next President of the European Commission.

“For decades, Europe was known to be about opening. Now, it is perceived as an unwelcome intruder,” the president of the European Council said in a speech on Tuesday.

“We need to get the balance right.”

Opening up to the concerns of member states, Van Rompuy stressed the need to address issues like immigration and social inequality. “Not only business must benefit from the EU, but also employees,” he said. “Not only movers, but also stayers.”

Turning to the euro zone, the Belgian stressed the need for further integration in the wake of the sovereign debt crisis.

But “this doesn’t and shouldn’t upset the original agreement at the heart of the EU, in particular for those member states which have not and will not join the currency union”, he stressed in reference to Britain, opening the door for a ‘two-speed Europe’.

In the conclusions of the European Council, last week (26-27 June), EU leaders adopted soothing words for Britain, saying “the concept of ever closer union allows for different paths of integration for different countries”.

“It is the first time we are saying this and we hope it will reassure in particular those in the UK,” Van Rompuy said, referring to the growing split between Britain and the rest of the European Union over the bloc’s future direction.

Spitzenkandidaten: ‘pan-European constituency imaginable’

Van Rompuy spoke at a conference organised by the European Policy Centre (EPC) on Tuesday morning (1 July). He also joined a panel with the Hungarian-American business magnate and investor George Soros in Brussels, on Monday (30 June).

In recent weeks, Van Rompuy worked as an intermediary between governments and the EU Parliament on the nomination of the next European Commission president, in the wake of the EU elections. After getting confirmation from EU member states at the European Council meeting last week, the European Parliament now has to validate the choice of the heads of states, Jean-Claude Juncker.

Juncker acted as Spitzenkandidat for Van Rompuy’s own centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) during the election campaign. The Belgian diplomat spoke out against the parties’ initiative several times, however, and EU leaders agreed to review the process once the new Commission is in place.

“It is strange that you don’t have a European constituency,” Van Rompuy said, referring to a pan-European constituency in which ‘presidential candidates’ would run for the EU’s top jobs. “One can imagine that for some seats, you’d work with a single European constituency.”

EU elections: message of citizens ‘is clear’

While the pan-European campaign for the past elections evolved around these Spitzenkandidaten, the national elections showed a strong gain for eurosceptic parties in several European member states.

EU pundits have pondered the issue of legitimacy: how to solve the low levels of trust for the EU institutions.

“It seems people today see Europe as a reason they feel powerless and without a say – while our Union was precisely built to make them stronger,” Van Rompuy argued. While the EU was about “opening, liberating, unlocking”, it is now seen as “meddling, judging, dictating”, he added.

“From this perspective, the citizen’s message to the Union is clear: the Union must be stronger outside and more caring [towards its citizens] inside,” he said. “If you can’t deliver in terms of jobs and in terms of living standards, then this minority of euro-negative voices will become much, much bigger.”

The president of the European Council is in his last months on the job. Van Rompuy was elected as first European Council president in November 2009 and his mandate ends in November this year.

European leaders have planned an extraordinary EU summit on 16 July to discuss who will succeed him, as well as who will take on other lead positions.

In the wake of the EU elections on 22-25 May, European leaders have discussed the results and the strategic priorities for the next team of European Commissioners. They also nominated Jean-Claude Juncker to lead the next EU Commission.

Over the coming months, each EU member states will nominate their Commissioner to Brussels. Those will be grilled in confirmation hearings before the European Parliament in September before a confirmation vote is held on the new team as a whole. 

Once the new team is in place, the EU Commission will put forward its working programme for the next five years.

Van Rompuy announced last year that his EU mandate, which expires on 1 December 2014, will mark the end of his political career.

  • 16 July: European Council meeting to discuss the other lead positions of the European Commission and other European institutions
  • 1 November: Target date for new Commission to take office
  • 1 November: End of mandate of Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council.

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