One would think Sweden’s general election on Sunday, which once more saw big gains for a populist movement demanding a referendum on EU membership, would make Brussels stop and think about their visions of a federal Europe. Instead, the last few days have once again shown that a period of reflection is not on the agenda.
It all started with Guy Verhofstadt, perhaps the most outspoken and prominent supporter of an “ever closer union” – and the European Parliament’s negotiator for Brexit. He quite diplomatically proclaimed in an interview with a French newspaper that the UK’s decision to leave the European Union had saved the EU. “Fortunately, we have Brexit. It illustrates the populist wave, but it has also provoked a resurrection of attachment to the EU,” he said.
Jean-Claude Juncker’s annual State of the European Union speech on Wednesday took up the same theme. While the President of the European Commission struck a more conciliatory tone on Brexit, he nonetheless made clear that more EU integration is the only way forward, and that there is no way looking back.
Juncker started with the usual story that the EU is the guarantor of peace on the continent. Indeed, he started all the way back in the year 1914 to prove his point. “I speak of these times not because I believe we are on the brink of another catastrophe. We should be thankful we live on a peaceful continent, made possible by the European Union.” That will certainly come as news to the citizens of Bosnia or, indeed, Ukraine.
The conclusion of Juncker’s dodgy history lesson was simple: “Let us show the European Union a bit more respect.”
Another curious feature of the speech was that everything that has gone wrong with the European project on Juncker’s watch is someone else’s fault, while he is personally responsible for all the supposed policy wins.
The “Juncker Fund,” which was his idea, is the reason why “investment is back” in Europe (not true). Greece is supposedly back on its feet (which is not the case) and it’s because of Juncker: “I have always fought for Greece. Of this I am proud.” The trade agreement with the US, which President Trump and him put together in June, is also a roaring success (again, it is not): “In Washington, I spoke in Europe’s name.”
The President also had a few new ideas: from a digital tax so that “big tech” pays its fair share (which it is already doing), and various plastic bans. Looking back on his years at the Commission, he would have loved to see more integration on many things, from “a deeper Economic and Monetary Union” to a “Banking Union.” But sadly, others had apparently prevented the Commission from going through with its plans:
“I cannot accept that the blame for every failure – and there have been a few – is laid solely at the Commission’s door,” Juncker declared. At this point, Politico noted that Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of Foreign Affairs, looked “slightly stunned that she was being made to sit through this.”
It wasn’t all bad. Juncker once again reiterated that the border and coast guard would get 10,000 more border guards to protect Europes borders and prevent people from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. He made clear that Europe has to take some of its defence into its own hands, though he characteristically overstated Brussels’ role. Best of all, he devoted an entire section of his speech to Africa, and made the argument for replacing aid with trade through “a continent-to-continent free trade agreement”.
Other than that, his proposals amounted to yet more integration. On foreign policy and taxes, unanimity in the Council should not be required anymore. The next long-term budget, which will go from 2021 to 2027, has to be passed before next year’s elections before new voices come in that could disrupt the process.
The extreme divide between eastern and western Europe was mentioned a few times. But Juncker’s interpretation of this is that those frustrated by Brussels should simply get their act together. This was still better than what Verhofstadt said in response to Juncker’s response: for him, the divide isn’t even all that tragic. Just think of the Berlin Wall or the World Wars (this again) as proof that we are doing just fine.
The refusal of the likes of Juncker and Verhofstadt to acknowledge in any way that a vast majority of Europeans do not agree with them is perhaps the most astounding aspect of the EU’s theatre. At last year’s State of the European Union speech they proclaimed “populism” and “nationalism” dead. Finally, the EU was back on track and with Macron on board, the dream of a united Europe had finally come.
It was a strange enough claim last year, given that Britain had recently decided to leave the project. But in the last 12 months, things have only gotten much worse for the federalists: Italy has seen two “populist” governments win their elections, in Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) is polling second place at this point, and in Austria two centre-right parties sceptical of an “ever closer union” built a coalition government late last year.
Viktor Orbán was able to improve his dominance in Hungary early this year, and in Poland, there are few signs of the Law and Justice Party losing its grip. It’s not just so-called populists – old-school liberals around the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte have also decided to fight together against more integration on economic matters. And due to her domestic travails, even Angela Merkel’s enthusiasm has cooled somewhat. Brexit is set to happen in early 2019. And then there are the Swedes.
For Juncker, however, none of this has anything to do with him. It is all because of the evils of nationalism, of backward-thinking ideologies. It doesn’t even matter if this is true or not. What matters is that so many people disagree with him. What matters is that federalists are trying to force their agenda through despite much criticism from everyone else. What matters is that the EU could fail because of that – it certainly led to one of its most important members to leave.
Yet Juncker made great play of the permanence of the project: “Parliaments and Commissions come and go, Europe is here to stay,” he proclaimed.
It is true: Jean-Claude Juncker came in 2014 but will go in 2019. Europe is here to stay. But he is also right that “for Europe to become what it must, there are several lessons to be learnt.” Brussels needs to learn some lessons, or it could be the architect of its own destruction – and with it everything the EU has created over the years.