Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Juncker Programme

Yesterday the European Parliament elected the EPP Spitzenkandidat to the office of Commission President, putting the seal on the shift in power between the European Council and the Parliament. In his speech before his election, Juncker set out his political guidelines for the next Commission. Titled A New Start for Europe: My Agenda for Jobs, Growth, Fairness and Democratic Change (PDF), it's a pitch for the support of his social democrat allies while sending some signals to the right on subsidiarity and "welfare tourism". The coalition pact worked - not that it was ever in any doubt - delivering 422 votes where 376 would do, giving Juncker a majority of 46.

Juncker's "New Start" gives us a new political benchmark for judging the Commission - having set the goals such as coming up with a Jobs, Growth and Investment Package within the first 3 months of his Commission, the Commission President can now be judged by his own platform. This should breathe new life into the Commission, which under Barroso has largely been reactive to the ideas of the European Council. It also makes Parliament's scrutiny of the Commission more meaningful since the political programme is based on Juncker's majority - parliamentary attacks on legislation and the Commission itself for not delivering will be a lot more meaningful where the Commission isn't simply acting as the middle man for the European Council.

So what's in this New Start?

On the economy, Juncker has stressed the need to cut debt and to stick to the Stability Pact, while looking for more investment from the European Investment Bank. It remains to be seen how much the "Jobs, Growth and Investment Package" can actually deliver, but the PES should be happy that Juncker will continue backing for the Youth Guarantee, a big campaign for them over the last 2 years. Juncker has also pledged action on the digital single market within 6 months of his mandate: on data protection negotiations, reforming telecom rules and copyright rules and simplifying the rules for online consumers. Copyright is a particularly contentious issue after SOPA in the US and ACTA in the EU, so this could be an area to watch in the future.

On industrial policy, Juncker's headline goal is for industry to make up 20% of the European economy by 2020 (up from under 16%), though there is little here by way of concrete proposals yet, and it sounds like the measures envisaged are very indirect. Juncker has put forward the idea of a Capital Markets Union to complement the Banking Union and help cut the costs for raising money on the capital markets for SMEs. When it comes to the Eurozone and future "bail-outs", it's out with the trioka and in with "social impact assessments" to complement the "fiscal sustainability assessment" - a big issue for the PES.

The trade pact with the US was a big issue in the debates, and Juncker is still a big backer of it, though he has spoken about protecting European standards. Potentially the biggest change here could be the increasing parliamentary involvement in trade negotiations if Juncker lives up to his promise of more transparency on the negotiations.

On home affairs, there will be a Commissioner for Fundamental Rights, and Juncker is calling for a Directive to combat Discrimination. There will also be a Commissioner for Migration. The "Blue Card" legislation on immigration into Europe will be reviewed, and the new Commission will look into the support the European Asylum Support Office can offer Member States and third countries. Finally Juncker showed strong support for increasing the budget of the border agency FRONTEX. Perhaps linked to concerns over migration, Juncker has said that there won't be further enlargement of the Union for another 5 years - though it's unlikely that there would be much chance of a candidate country joining in the next 5 years in any case.

Politically the rhetoric has shifted leftwards, but I think the programme is still fairly centre-right. Gone are the earlier musings on a band of European minimum wages, though Juncker supports each Member States having a minimum wage, and it is hard to see how the talk on investment will really be translated into tangible action (there is a history of European politicians pinning their hopes on the European Investment Bank to fund their plans in the absence of a sizable EU budget). And while the debt-cutting targets or mechanisms may be softened or bought under more democratic control, the rules will remain in place.

Much of the programme is still a wish-list and we still have to wait to see what the Commission actually proposes (remember, the Parliament still has to grill and vote in the next Commission over the coming months before they can get down to work), but it represents a big departure from the old State of the European Union speeches that Barroso gave. Barroso's speeches where a fairly reliable guide to the legislative proposals the Commission would make, but where usually originally a Council idea or only put forward where the Commission felt that the Council would find a proposal acceptable. This programme, and probably future Juncker speeches, will probably be more significant for not merely being a list of legislation, but part of a political programme: some legislation won't make it, but it's also an opportunity to shape the EU agenda.

This is not to say that the programme, along with yesterday's speech, is earth-shattering or even if it's the right list of policies, but the political Commission is back. And that's a good thing.

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