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Juncker on the high EU seas

Barbara Wesel
September 13, 2017

It was an optimistic speech. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker sees tailwinds for Europe and has proposed far-reaching reforms. A number of these, says Barbara Wesel, are doomed to fail.

Jean-Claude Juncker
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J.-F. Badias

Jean-Claude Juncker drew his speech's rhetorical inspiration from seafarer's language: Europe, once again, has wind in its sails; it should weigh anchor and set sail toward a shared future. That was his appeal. And since the European Commission president likes to wear his heart on his sleeve, he also referred to his years of experience – some of it painful – as a trained European. He called for unity and for more EU integration.

A single-speed Europe?

But that does not fit the two-speed idea of Europe that Paris and Berlin are planning. More than anyone, French President Emmanuel Macron wants to transform the eurozone into the core of a more closely integrated group of member states.

Read more: Alfred Grosser: France, Germany have similar problems

It is the old idea of a European avant-garde. In contrast, the EU Commission president wants all EU members to be included in the eurozone, even those that are struggling economically. They will simply have to be helped along.

Barbara Wesel
DW's Barbara WeselImage: Georg Matthes

A good example of the fatal consequences of forcing a weaker country into the tight corset of European economic discipline is Greece. Thus, Juncker's plan in this regard will likely sink like a rock. In this case it would seem that a well-intentioned idea is quite the opposite of a good one.

The concept of a single-speed Europe as the founding fathers envisioned it has proven impractical. It has ultimately led to too much institutional standstill due to the ever expanding number of member states – that ship set sail in the opposite direction long ago.

Olive branch for Eastern Europe

On the other hand, Jean-Claude Juncker elegantly navigated his way around the EU's current crisis with the Visegrad countries. He invited eastern European countries to join the Schengen zone and to embrace the euro, but he avoided chiding Poland and Hungary for their disrespect for the rule of law.

That may have been politically smart but it was simply delaying a conflict that the European Commission and EU member states will have to fight out with the mutineers. That bitter fight does not fit the positive image that Juncker sought to paint of Europe's future. But the fight will have to be fought and cannot simply be swept under the rug. It also has a lot of destructive potential.

Read more: Slovakia eyes kingpin Visegrad role amid EU tensions

Clear stance toward Turkey

By renouncing EU membership for Turkey, Juncker was voicing the opinion held by most Europeans. And he didn't mince words on the subject. He called for the release of imprisoned journalists and an end to shameless insults directed at European governments.

At the same time, Juncker refused to give Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the opportunity to blame Europe for breaking off accession talks. He clearly reiterated that Europeans were still extending a hand to Turkey's democrats.

He also said that accession negotiations will remain right where they are - on ice.There was no mention of the end of negotiations being called for in German election campaigns. The majority of EU member states support this diplomatic course despite the fact that Turkey's violations of the rule of law are seen as utterly incompatible with European values.

Setting sail together

It was a speech that pleased many, and that is exactly what it was intended to do. It contained offers in all directions; investor protection vis-a-vis China for French President Macron, praise for Italy's support in the refugee crisis, aid for Africa and a number of measures designed to strengthen Europe internally. Among those measures was a sort of European FBI as well as a consolidation of presidential posts within Europe.

A number of Juncker's proposed measures will likely fall flat in light of EU member state resistance. Nevertheless, the basic idea is a good one. Brexit has forced Europe closer together and has increased appreciation for the value of the EU. The Union should use its solid economic situation and its freedom to act to push through necessary reforms. Because every sailor knows – a good wind is always followed by a lull.