The wording is important because of the recent debate over the EU's pursuit of “ever-closer union”. This phrase has been a fixture of European treaties since the 1957 Treaty of Rome, and has become a focus for Eurosceptics – particularly those in the UK campaigning for a Brexit. Juncker doesn’t, technically, reject ever-closer union. But he limits it, probably more severely and more explicitly than any Commission President before him:
We will concentrate our efforts on those areas where only joint action at European level can deliver the desired results. When we act, we will always look for the most efficient and least burdensome approach. Beyond these areas, we should leave action to the Member States where they are more legitimate and better equipped to give effective policy responses at national, regional or local level.
The lines have been included in the letters to all the Commissioner-candidates, and they appear to have gone unreported. Such sections of the letters inevitably consist of standard reminders about ethics, transparency and teamwork. Media and interest groups are understandably more on the lookout for policy changes telegraphed by Juncker’s choice of personnel and the Commissioners’ new job descriptions.
But such language was missing from outgoing President José Manuel Barroso's letters in 2010, where the only mention of member states went as follows:
An effective Commission must also form a successful partnership with the Member States and the other institutions, and in particular with the European Parliament.
“Ever closer union” has come under intensifying fire in recent years with the surge of Eurosceptic parties. As he sought to fend off the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), British Prime Minister David Cameron said in 2013 that he wanted to opt out of the principle – something he made a condition for his support of continued UK membership of the EU. Since he wants to hold a referendum on this by 2017, retaining the principle would increase the chances of a British exit, or “Brexit”.
Rejection of this phrase has spread beyond the traditionally difficult British. Soon after Cameron’s speech, the Dutch government too said that “the time of an ‘ever closer union’ in every possible policy area is behind us”. It called for the EU to work on the principle “European where necessary, national where possible” – not much different from the principle Juncker has now outlined. May’s European Parliament elections returned 100 or more MEPs who are broadly anti-EU.
The Commission is of course the guardian of the Treaties and Juncker, its President, could argue that his guidelines are still in line with the texts. Moves in those areas “where only joint action at European level can deliver” would still constitute closer union. (He talked about the digital single market during the Parliament campaign.)
But at the very least Juncker is offering a defining principle for where the Commission should act, and sharply curtailing the scope for closer union. As a candidate for the Commission presidency in July, he told the Parliament that he would leave matters beyond 10 policy areas to the member states; this time, as President, he has gone further, by saying the Commission should only act when there is no alternative. The letters thus constitute Juncker's clearest rejection yet of the “federalist” (or “arch federalist”) label pinned on him by some of the British press.
In an apparent recognition of the grumbling and misunderstanding the EU provokes nowadays, Juncker also tells the Commissioner-candidates to get out of Brussels more – again using language absent from Barroso’s 2010 letters:
I want you all to be politically active in the Member States and in dialogues with citizens, by presenting and communicating our common agenda, listening to ideas and engaging with stakeholders. In this context, I want all Commissioners to commit to a new partnership with national Parliaments…
If all these words turn into actions, the continent’s new Eurosceptic protesters might find they have less and less to protest against.