September 17, 2015
On September 9th 2015 the President of the Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, addressed for the first time the European Parliament in his State of the Union. The message is one of consensus and unity and for trying to reach joint European solutions for the big problems of our time. But the focus should also be on involving national parliaments and citizens more closely in the major European issues and choices.
By Aalt Willem Heringa
This year’s State of the Union was entitled: Time for Honesty, Unity and Solidarity. And the key concepts were: more Europe in the Union, and more Union in Europe. These concepts were illustrated by dealing with the refugee crisis, Greece/the Eurozone and the European economy, the plans of the Commission for an investment fund of 315 billion euro’s, the five presidents report, the negotiations with the United Kingdom, security at the Eastern borders, and climate change.
The message in the address was one of consensus and unity, and for trying to reach joint European solutions for the big problems of our time. Juncker opposed the erection of barriers and borders and again pleaded for support of the Commission plans to jointly bear the burden of hosting refugees. Parallel to the State of the Union (which was the fifth in history after four by Barrosso in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013) the Commission sent its work programme for 2016 to the European Council, Council and European Parliament.
Appealing in the State of the Union was that Juncker discussed the major issues, what the EU must stand for and must try to achieve, and not the nitty gritty details, but the broader perspectives. He called the Commission a political Commission, and indeed ‘a very political Commission’. I am not sure about that ‘very’, but yes this Commission is definitely political. Let alone for the political mandate by the European Parliament, which played an un-mistakenly large role in the appointment of Juncker and the composition of the Commission and its political programme. A question often raised in that respect is, whether this more political role of the Commission does not impact upon the balance of powers with the other political institutions such as the European Council, Council and European Parliament. But no matter what, Juncker has the tone also in light of the duty of the Commission: to defend and enhance the interests of the European Union and its member-states. In the eyes of many EU citizens the Commission is/was a technocratic institution which speaks in EU jargon, such as ‘community method’, ‘Europe 2020’ and ‘smart regulation’. Juncker speaks in political choices with referring to grand solutions and directions of solutions. That approach makes it visible to see what the grand choices and possibilities are with respect to the influx of refugees, the economy or the environment. His choice is for more joint efforts and unity, because solo actions simply do not work and might even be counter-productive. I do share this analysis. What I do miss however, and that applies also to the five presidents report, is how to achieve that unity; how to ensure that 28 national governments do want to keep on working in the common interests. And how the EU citizens may be taken along and involved in these joint policies, as well as the national parliaments. The issues of legitimacy and accountability seem to be overwhelmed and too much ignored in practice. Also in the 2015 State of the Union, Juncker refers to it but only briefly.
Indeed we may wish for more Europe and more Union, but that would mean also more citizens’ involvement, participation and legitimacy. In that respect it would certainly help to conduct the discussion as Juncker has tabled it in his State of the Union. But that is by far not enough. With so many members of the Commission (28) it ought to be possible to establish more and more frequent and better links and contacts with the national parliaments and to engage in a more visible and transparent communication and political dialogues, and tom involve national parliaments and their citizens more closely in the major issues and choices.
This blog originally appeared in: Maastricht Law News & Views. See here.
Aalt Willem Heringa is professor of (comparative) constitutional law at Maastricht University and director of the Maastricht Montesquieu Institute.