It's now or never for Juncker to regain the Commission's lost ground

Europe's World

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder and Chairman, Friends of Europe

It’s hard to look into the future, and presumptuous to tell the new president of the European Commission what he should do, but I’m going to try both.

Never has the future of the EU looked so confused and uncertain. When José Manuel Barroso took the helm of the new European Commission ten years ago the outlook was plain enough; the ground lost in the decade since Jacques Delors’ golden era of European integration needed to be made up, and the strains becoming apparent in the eurozone needed to be shored up.

Mr Juncker’s top priority must be to beef-up its authority while also winning back the popular support that has been lost to austerity policies

How very different is the Europe of today! Instead of an incoming EU commission that needed simply to repair the shortcomings of its two predecessors, now Jean-Claude Juncker and his fellow commissioners must grapple with very different and wholly daunting challenges. Europe’s shrinkage in economic as well as global terms is now a major factor, and the commission has lost power as well as popularity.

The EU’s future is going to depend on the commission as the engine of integration to restore both even if Brussels is widely seen as power-hungry and meddlesome, Mr Juncker’s top priority must be to beef-up its authority while also winning back the popular support that has been lost to austerity policies.

And here’s where I’ll presume to advise a political leader who for almost 20 years was the dominant figure in Luxembourg’s government as prime minister and finance minister, and who has been one of the architects of EU policymaking. My advice to Jean-Claude Juncker is to act now, not later; to strike while the iron is hot and show Europe’s national governments and their voters that the commission is going to exercise its powers to the full, whether they like it or not.

Juncker has yet to demonstrate convincingly, though, that he’ll be an agent of radical change

Barroso failed to do this. During his first five years as president he seemed intent on advancing the EU’s policies by consensus, and also on securing from member governments a second term in office. Once freed of that constraint it was hoped he would start to name and shame backsliding member states whose domestic politics eclipsed Europe’s wider needs. But no, he continued to preside over an EU executive that in many fields has quietly become a mere secretariat.

Juncker was widely derided as a non-reformer when the insistence of the main parties in the European Parliament imposed him as the new commission president. He confounded many of his critics with the way he chose portfolios for the new team of commissioners and then structured their responsibilities. He has yet to demonstrate convincingly, though, that he’ll be an agent of radical change. And who can seriously doubt that’s what Europe needs to escape the doldrums?

If Juncker is to show EU governments that his commission has teeth and won’t hesitate to bite, then he must do so before this year is out. Later will be too late.

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