Political armament on planet Juncker

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 12 March 2015

It was an unfortunate coincidence that earlier this week two interviews were published almost at the same time that demonstrated the schism between European wishful thinking and Europe’s not-so-wishful reality.

Speaking to German conservative broadsheet Welt am Sonntag, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called for a common European army. Though such an army would not be established in order to use it straight away (the EU considers itself a peace project after all), Juncker said this new army would nevertheless demonstrate that Europe was serious in its defence of “European values”.

How serious some Europeans are in their defence of these values became clear in a second interview. Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos told Italy’s centre-left paper La Repubblica how he would respond if the EU continued its austerity policies on Greece: “If Europe leaves us in crisis, we will flood it with migrants, and it will be even worse for Berlin if in that wave of millions of economic migrants there will be some jihadists of the Islamic State too.”

Kammenos was referring to the EU’s Schengen agreement, which removed borders between many European countries. Once migrants are in possession of travel documents in one Schengen country, they are free to move around much of Europe.

As head of the populist Independent Greeks party, Kammenos is a well-known nationalist firebrand who loves nothing more than a good provocation. But even by his standards, the threat of sending terrorists to other European capitals was outrageous.

Meanwhile, Kammenos’ cabinet colleague Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek Finance Minister, continued to annoy his European counterparts with half-baked proposals to keep Greece financially afloat; the European Central Bank under its Italian President Mario Draghi has started its quantitative easing program; Germany’s top central banker Jens Weidmann once again publicly scolded the ECB’s crisis policies, and, as if to add insult to injury, he did so just outside the eurozone, in Zurich.

In other words, it was a perfectly normal week of chaos for Europe.

What is remarkable, nevertheless, was the fact that at least Juncker’s idea of a European army was still taken seriously. If you had thought that Europe was so busy with itself, its economic troubles and its monetary crisis that it was no longer able to dream the impossible, you were wrong. Even Angela Merkel, the German chancellor and not one of Juncker’s closest friends, supported the idea. She could do so safe in the knowledge that it will never come to its realisation (which makes supporting it good politics in Germany).

It is bizarre. The European Union is in the middle of the greatest crisis of its history. It cannot even find a satisfactory response to the economic troubles in one of its smallest member states, Greece. It is united only in its helpless diplomacy against an ever more aggressive Russia. And it is a far cry from finding answers to any of its long-term challenges, whether they be energy security, population ageing or dealing with the realities of its fragmented, multi-ethnic, multicultural and pluri-religious societies.

And yet Europe’s political leadership pretends not only to be in control but to be able to take the European project forward. Juncker, for example, did not only just call for a common European defence policy, which is totally illusory in itself (and superfluous since there is NATO). In the same interview, he also called for a common European fiscal policy under a European finance minister. This would allow the EU to administer joint stimulus programs for the whole continent; Juncker is fantasising.

What Juncker has in mind is the dream (some would say: the nightmare) of a total centralisation of power in Brussels. An EU with its own army, with its own tax raising powers, its own finance minister and full control over the European provinces formerly known as nations — it would be a superstate. It would rather resemble the Roman Empire than anything else Europe has seen since its collapse.

But maybe that is what Juncker has in mind: to become Europe’s new quasi-Emperor?

When he took office at the end of last year, Juncker vowed that his Commission would be “more political” than any of his predecessors. What he meant by that was that he did not regard himself as a mere appointee of European governments but as someone who could claim democratic legitimacy through the fact that his nomination followed European elections in which he presented himself as a ‘leading candidate’.

Once in office, Juncker quickly had to see that his position is rather powerless. In the negotiations with the Greek government, it is Europe’s finance ministers who are calling the shots. In dealing with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande are taking the lead. And when it comes to administering emergency funds to the Greek banking system, the ECB makes its own decisions without even consulting the EU Commission.

Juncker may wish to be Europe’s president, but he is a largely powerless figure presiding over a hypertrophic bureaucracy in Brussels. His most recent remarks show how much this must aggrieve him.

On planet Juncker, the EU would be a harmonious, peaceful and perfectly planned utopia — led by none other than Jean-Claude Juncker himself, the great world leader from Luxembourg. In the sad reality of 2015, the EU is a dystopia characterised by political stalemates, financial instability and unresolved security threats.

The EU in 2015 is a place that looks and feels more like Kammenos than Juncker.

Europe’s financial, fiscal and monetary crisis is bad enough as it is. The disjuncture between this sad reality and the unbroken ambitiousness of its leaders only makes it worse.

It is hard to find answers to Europe’s real problems while you are dreaming yourself to a different planet. Juncker and the whole rest of the EU’s political leadership seriously need a reality check before they continue to fantasise over their next grand projects.

In the meantime, perhaps they could just show us what they can achieve by solving the Greek problem.

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