Alphen, Netherlands. 17 September. The other day I was talking to a senior German politician and I was struck by the commonality of vision between us over the future of the EU. Importantly my colleague said that whatever the hairy-kneed lunatic Celtic fringe to the north of England vote for tomorrow – bigness or complete non-EU littleness – the relationship between Britain and Germany remains vital if a competitive, open-for-business Europe is to be built established on real economics and real growth.
Implicit in Jean-Claude Juncker’s new European Commission is perhaps a pragmatic recognition that for the EU to survive its people must prosper and for its people to prosper Europe must be globally competitive. For that reason the Juncker Commission headlines jobs, growth and investment, a digital single market and, here’s the cruncher, a deeper and fairer economic and monetary union.
Do not get me wrong. I have not withdrawn my citizen’s principled objection to Jean-Claude Juncker. His appointment as European Commission President was illegitimate and reflected German domestic politics and a grubby stitch-up/coup contre des etats between leaders in the European Parliament that had been planned well-before the May elections. Indeed, the whole process was elite cronyism that made a mockery of those sad pre-election TV and radio advertisements inviting ‘we’ the citizenry to have our ‘say’ on the EU’s future. It would have been at least more honest for said advertisements to have said “have your say peasant, whinge if you like, but we the elite will completely ignore you”.
Still, implicit in the composition of the new Commission is the suggestion at least that Juncker is sensitive to his own illegitimacy and cognisant of the need for change even if also implicit in the headlines is the mother and father of all political and cultural battles between liberals and statists, intergovernmentalists and federalists. The first signs are vaguely encouraging. Whereas the Barroso Commission was obsessed with regulation for regulation-sake and how to impose ever greater amounts of centralising, growth-killing lollops of Brusselsness on the rest of us the Juncker Commission has a pragmatic balance about it.
The Commission certainly does not lack for experience or people who have fought, won and lost national elections. Team Juncker comprises five former prime ministers, four deputy prime ministers, nineteen former ministers and Lord Hill. The British appointee re-confirms that now long-established British tradition of complaining about the illegitimacy of the European Commission whilst at the same time proposing a Brit no-one outside of a small London clique has ever actually heard of.
The rest of the Commission is the usual carve up. Whilst Commissioners are meant to remove their national shoes as they enter New Berlaymont they of course do not. Of the important portfolios the Italians got foreign affairs and security policy, the French got economic and financial affairs and the Germans got digital economy and society.
Team Juncker will also have seven vice-presidents (how many do you need M. Juncker?). The Commission goes to great lengths to tell me that 3 of the 7 or 42% will be women. Indeed, the Commission goes to even greater PC lengths to point out that nine of the twenty-eight Commissioners will be women (whoopee!). As someone who really could not give a toss whether an appointee is male or female my only demand is that the appointed women are good and judged on the basis of their professionalism not gender. Too often in this absurdly politically-correct age one sees women appointed simply because they are women. Not only does that diminish women and champion mediocrity it is a form of discrimination which is increasingly alienating the rest of us who are not part of the grey, male and stale political Establishment.
Juncker has shown genuine magnanimity towards David Cameron and the Brits. Having completely outflanked David Cameron (which is not exactly a shortlist these days) by appointing Hill as Commissioner for Dodgy Money, sorry Financial Services, a key British interest, Juncker is demonstrating a willingness to understand London’s concerns. Moreover, Juncker is also signalling he understands that once the Eurozone, Scottish and Ukrainian crises are over the next big crisis waiting in the wings for the EU (after the coming Italian financial crisis) is the British/English crisis.
The key appointment is somewhat grey (sorry Frans), clearly male, and very much part of the political Establishment, erstwhile Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans. He will act in effect as Juncker’s Number Two on those days when Jean-Claude is a “little under the weather”. He will also have the critical responsibility for reforming the European institutions and the only good joke one ever finds in Brussels – subsidiarity.
Timmermans will be critical in ensuring the non-Eurozone member-states are not marginalised to the point of exclusion as and when the Eurozone core moves to deepen political and fiscal integration. If the Eurozone does not further integrate and undergo deep structural reforms then it will either break up or bankrupt the few northern European taxpayers (me) that are at present simply bankrolling a crisis trapped in a no man’s land of irresolution…and then break up. No pressure then.
Perhaps Juncker’s biggest challenges will be to curb his own federalising instincts and the Euro-fanatics who work for him whose life-work is to kill the member-states and replace them with a country called “Europe”.
Of course, all of this makes the real question; how does Europe prepare together for a twenty-first century world of which it is part but over which it has little control? Implicit in that challenge is the biggest question of all which of course Juncker will be keen to dodge for now; a Europe of nation-states or a European state.
Juncker has made a good start but the key question remains; will he pursue a liberal or a statist agenda. If he follows the latter Europe is indeed doomed and it will simply be a matter of time before the EU fails.