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What Would Juncker Do?

Weekly analysis and untold stories

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What Would Juncker Do?

Jean-Claude Juncker, in evening robe and slippers, a glass of cognac balanced on the arm of the sofa, dispatches a wry smile as he watches European governments writhe over the possibility of ski resort closures over the winter months.

One can only imagine the absurdity by which the former Commission President would receive the news that Germany and Austria have this week been at loggerheads over potential closures to European winter holiday retreats. While the former demands a temporary cessation of services, the latter would prefer a gradual reopening during the ski season – a golden egg as it is for Austria’s tourist sector.   

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

The rather trivial issue of Europe’s ski resorts aside, there have been many other pressing issues at the top of the EU agenda this week, amid the ‘crisis narrative’ currently dominating the European zeitgeist.

Of these, we not only have the fragmentation of coronavirus restrictions in the run-up to Christmas, but also the ever-nearing climax to the Brexit chronicles, as well as Poland and Hungary’s downright stubbornness in refusing to approve the EU’s long-term budget and recovery fund.

The last issue, in particular, is an area in which old Jean-Claude’s influence is dearly missed.

On Thursday, Hungary’s Prime Minister Orbán and his Polish counterpart Morawiecki signed a letter in Budapest reaffirming their opposition to current conditions outlined in the EU’s multi-annual financial framework and the recovery fund.

The idea of any form of a rule of law conditionality in the agreement, as it currently stands, is anathema to both governments, who have each come under heavy criticism in the past for alleged violations in this area.

The opposition from Warsaw and Budapest has lingered as a foreboding shadow over ongoing institutional negotiations on the budget ever since the rather odd theatre of a European Council summit in July, when EU leaders had unanimously backed a new budget.

What we saw after the July agreement was a veritable wrangling to control the narrative of the debate: Both Morawiecki and Orbán, in an extravagant display of braggadocio, had declared that the agreement sufficiently allowed them to evade any rule of law conditionality tied to the dispensation of funds.

This ran counter to what both Council President Charles Michel and the Commission’s von der Leyen had to say, who both highlighted a ‘general regime of conditionality’ attached to the agreement.

The July accord had Brussels commentators and journalists confounded in an ambiguous haze that has only served to return to the fore, following demands from the European Parliament that any such rule of law conditionality should be made less ambiguous.    

In this context, deep and bitter wounds have opened up in relations between EU leaders. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte even posed a suggestion to the Netherlands Parliament that a certain ‘nuclear option’ could be considered, which would involve divorcing the funds completely from Polish or Hungarian hands.

Juncker’s much medicative method of soft diplomacy and comradely appeasement would be of useful employment in this context. No-one has ever managed to politically disarm Orbán the way Juncker was able to – and all he ever needed to do was deliver Europe’s very own ‘dictator’ with a hearty slap on the back and a clubbable wink.

It would be remiss to say that Juncker’s charm offensive would definitively have had a tangible policy impact, but it may have gone some way in at least appeasing the ever-embittering virulence currently tainting the narrative in current negotiations.

Such acrimony reached its apogee recently when Orbán claimed the EU had been adorning a Soviet-like guise in its ongoing budget stance, an assertion that leader of the Liberal Renew outfit in the European Parliament, Dacian Cioloș, took umbrage with, calling it a ‘ridiculous’ thing to say.

And this week, Juncker came out of hibernation, for however brief a moment, to pass judgement on Orbán’s recent castigation of the EU.

“Some people think that the European Union is like another Soviet Union that is taking over the commandership of Europe, but the contrary is exactly the case,” Juncker said in an interview with Luxembourg broadcaster RTL, adding that there was a ‘general feeling’ on the continent that no-one wants Europe to return to her various disaster periods in modern history.

On the subject of the current ‘disaster’ phrase the continent is being subject to, Juncker delivered an unorthodox response. When pressed on the condemnation that has been levelled at the EU for not having adopted a harmonious enough approach to tackling the coronavirus crisis, Juncker was in agreement with the EU’s critics.

“I think that those who are criticizing this are right, because, at the very beginning of the crisis back in March, the European Union and the European Commission were not active enough in fiercely fighting the consequences of the coronavirus crisis,” Juncker said.

And while von der Leyen appears to be charting some sort of a momentous European renaissance that may come forth out of the ashes of the coronavirus – facilitated by an as yet unratifiable recovery fund which will, in turn, lead to some sort of a European strategic autonomy on the world stage – Juncker is treading much more of a grounded line with regards to the bloc’s future ambitions.

“We still think that we are the masters of the world. We are not and when someone from Europe tried to become the master of the world it was a total disaster and a total failure,” Juncker said this week.

“The European continent, from a demographic point of view, is fairly weak. At the beginning of the 20th century, 25% of the world population was European…By the end of the century there will be four Europeans for every 100 inhabitants of the world.”

“We have to cooperate in the best way possible. We are too small.”

It has been just over a year since the von der Leyen Commission was approved by the European Parliament. In the space of only twelve months, the EU had been completely overwhelmed by an unpreceded public health crisis leading to a catastrophic economic downturn, in need of a desperate fiscal stimulus.

The political forces at play that have so far stifled the ability of the EU to react in a timely manner are a sad indictment of European solidarity. Juncker is right when he says that the bloc needs to cooperate with the rest of the world, but perhaps the EU would do better first by cooperating with all of its own members.

On Friday afternoon, EU ambassadors convened to discuss the Poland and Hungary quandary. At least in their opposition to what Orbán and Morawiecki had proposed in terms of scraping the rule of law conditionality, the EU25 was in unison.

In this climate, rather than the prevailing European tragedy that it currently coursing all over the bloc, Juncker would help to inject a sense of nonchalance in response to the tantrums emanating from Budapest and Warsaw. In so doing he would dissolve the rancor with, dare I say it, an appropriate helping of comedy. God knows we could all do with a laugh.  

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.