A(nother) Colbertian in Brussels
By Alberto Mingardi
Jean-Claude Juncker has been elected President of the European Commission with 422 out of 729 votes in the European Parliament (he needed 376). Juncker was one of the “Spitzenkandidaten” for the European elections, namely the one chosen by the Popular Party, a cartel of Christian Democratic parties.
Some notable intellectuals, including Jurgen Habermas, considered these elections to have marked “the birth of democratic politics in the EU”, because Europeans could associate the party they were voting for, with a candidate to the presidency of the Commission.
This is only partly true, as Euroskeptic parties typically had no candidate for the post (neither Marine Le Pen nor Nigel Farage nor Beppe Grillo dreamt to place one of their people at the top of the EU). Also, European elections were by and large national elections: Italians discussed Italian issues, the French discussed French issues, and so on and so forth. The birth of democratic politics in the European Union is, at best, wishful thinking. But as politics is about symbols, those who favor a more integrated EU didn’t want to waste even the smallest chance to strengthen its legitimacy.
It is a bit ironic: never have the European people favored so strongly Euroskeptic parties, and yet the fiction of the “leading candidate” for each party will be used to tell Europeans that they have voted, we don’t know how deliberately, for their common leader.
That this was a fiction is confirmed by the fact that it was by no means automatic for Mr Juncker to get at the top of the Commission. He needed to be backed by member states and then his fellow MEPs.
David Cameron, for one, vehemently opposed him, as Mr Juncker almost perfectly resembles the caricature of a Brussls bureaucrat so dear to British tabloids. European leaders thought about a compromise on another time, but as Mrs Merkel backed Juncker he eventually won the backing of 26 out of 28 leaders of the EU (the naysayers were the UK and Hungary). The other 27 new members of the Commission – one from each country – will be appointed in the next few months.
I recommend you read Mr Juncker’s speech in the EU Parliament in its entirety. It is one of the most uninspiring political speeches ever.
It is a cocktail of great promises and cheap rhetoric. Whenever he gets to the nuts and bolts of policy details, he promises more interventions, more picking winners, more spending (though he was considered a proponent of “austerity”, whatever THAT means). As many self-styled “practical man”, Mr Juncker is perhaps more Colbertian than he himself realizes.
Mr Juncker understands that “it is mainly companies that create jobs, not governments or EU institutions”, but then he talks about big investments in infrastructure (“broadband and energy networks as well as transport infrastructure in industrial centres; education, research and innovation; and renewable energy and energy efficiency”). He wants to achieve “a connected digital single market” (what does that mean?) and ensure that Europe becomes “the world’s number one in renewable energy”. Yet he wants “to bring industry’s weight in the EU’s GDP back to 20% by 2020, from less than 16% today”, surely because we need to keep Europe “global leadership in strategic sectors” by, well, stimulating investment.
Good that Mr Juncker promises to defend “free movement of workers” but then he explains that “in our Union, the same work at the same place should be remunerated in the same manner”. Which means: workers should be able to move, but not to compete one with the other.
In one of the few clear and easily understandable passages of his speech, Mr Juncker promised that Brussels will have a tougher hand on GM-food producers:
I also intend to review the legislation applicable to the authorisation of Genetically Modified Organisms. To me, it is simply not right that under the current rules, the Commission is legally forced to authorise new organisms for import and processing even though a clear majority of Member States is against. The Commission should be in a position to give the majority view of democratically elected governments at least the same weight as scientific advice, notably when it comes to the safety of the food we eat and the environment in which we live.
My favorite sentence from Juncker’s speech is the following one: “I want a European Union that is bigger and more ambitious on big things, and smaller and more modest on small things”. It doesn’t mean much, but it sounds nice, doesn’t it?