Juncker has switched debate from EU’s failures to its future
J EAN-CLAUDE Juncker has been cast as the bogeyman of Brexit, and he managed to set the teeth of political leaders from Helsinki to Dublin on edge this week with a controversial State of the Union speech to the European Parliament.
But he has also managed to dominate headlines from the Black Sea coast to Co Donegal’s Bloody Foreland.
Today’s interview with the Irish Independent, which took place as reaction to the speech was rolling in from all corners of the continent, provides the first insight into Mr Juncker’s thinking in setting out a vision he always knew would raise hackles in many quarters.
In Ireland, as ever, it was a push for common tax rules that set alarm bells ringing. Brussels’s long-standing drive for tax harmonisation is seen as detrimental to Irish interests – in particular as the preferred launch-pad for US multinationals into the wider EU.
But a veteran political leader like Mr Juncker knows that. He knows full well that there’s no chance any government here will bow to the idea of letting tax policy be set by a majority of EU members.
After the gung-ho rhetoric on Wednesday, his subtler language on the tax issue in an exclusive interview with this newspaper today bears that out.
Even if tax wasn’t such a critical issue for Ireland, every shift from unanimity at European Council level towards qualified majority voting on major issues risks making us as peripheral politically as we are geographically. Remember, this is a Union that will soon have twice as many member states on shores of the Baltic as it does on the Atlantic.
Mr Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg, is a wily political operator.
Before his new-found commitment to corporate tax reform, his home country, on his watch, was a welcoming haven for big corporations wanting small corporate tax bills. He knows the vulnerabilities of small countries in a big union, but he is also a committed Europhile at the helm of a deeply troubled union.
The eurozone – of which Mr Juncker was an architect – only just scrapped through the financial crisis.
Brussels failed to hold on to the Brits last year, can’t get to grips with the Mediterranean migrant crisis, and is presiding over a rumbling populist insurgency that has barely been contained in France and the Netherlands and may already have been lost outright in Poland and Hungary.
Faced with such deep existential threats, his speech should be seen less as a set of implementable policy proposals than a pitch to seize the narrative back for Brussels.
The speech barely mentioned Brexit – the biggest setback for the EU since 1956 – he instead seized on Europe’s belated return to economic growth and then took the fight to the Union’s challengers by doubling down on the drive for integration on everything from cyber crime to the amount of fish in a fish-finger, and of course corporation tax. U nlike in his Strasbourg speech, it is clear from Mr Juncker’s behindthe-scenes comments to this newspaper that Brexit’s impact on Ireland is a source of unique concern. Significantly, the usually outspoken Luxembourger shifts to uncharacteristically
cautious language to even discuss the Border and the potential impact on the peace process.
Since 2008, the European debate has focused on the Union’s failings and shortcomings. Bar where it was part of the emergency response to the crisis, around banking and finance, integration has largely been parked. Mr Juncker wants it un-parked. In his State of the Union speech, the Commission president articulated his vision of how the EU might move closer – common currency, common defence, common border controls and common taxes.
It is a one-size-fits-all federalism that would be a potential disaster for Ireland – but it’s a position that he’s prepared to articulate and stand over. He knows he won’t win on every front, he may not even win on any, but he has managed in little more than a week to shift the debate from Europe’s failures and how to manage them to Europe’s future and how to achieve it.