Why Juncker does not matter

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It now seems certain that the European Council will elect Jean-Claude Juncker as the next President of the Commission. British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has sought to block Juncker’s election on grounds that he is a Federalist, will be defeated. British newspapers will no doubt talk about Cameron’s humiliation. However, they are missing the point. The real issue is the complete irrelevance of Juncker’s election. The President of the Commission is a role whose influence and importance steadily declines. Euro analysts should have detected this from the increasing irrelevance of Juncker’s predecessor Barroso, who, despite his frequent and often ill-thought through pronouncements, has had little role to play in any of the crises besetting the European Union in recent years.

To understand why, you need to understand that the European Union has already, and irrevocably, fragmented. The European Union of the Lisbon Treaty, for whom the position of President of the Commission was designed, does not exist. European union in effect consists of three different unions. The Eurozone, consisting of 18 members, has continued to deepen its integration. As it looks for long-term solutions to the Euro crisis, as opposed to the sleight of hand of Mario Draghi, it will need to take this integration even further with economic and ultimately some form of political union. To the north west of the Eurozone lie the Scandinavian sceptics: Britain Sweden and Denmark, who are not members of the euro zone and extremely unlikely ever to join. There are in fact two more de facto members of this group in Norway and Iceland, who have not even joined the EU. To the east are the central European members who have been very much left to their fate. Of these, only Poland and the remaining Baltic republics are likely to join the Eurozone. The others will remain poor and economically unstable, forming a buffer against the ambitions of Putin’s Russia.

A major consequence of this fragmentation, and the focus above all else on saving the Euro, has been to render both the European Commission and the European Parliament largely irrelevant. The key institution in the Eurozone, and by extension the EU itself, has become the European Central Bank, and the most powerful figure its President Mario Draghi. He is widely credited with resolving the sovereign debt issues of Italy and Spain, and saving the Euro, through his announcement of Outward Monetary Transactions in 2012. As sluggish growth and high unemployment continues throughout much of the EU, he is being drawn into ever more innovative monetary policy, while showing no reticence in giving government instructions on their fiscal policy. In reality, economic policy within the in the Eurozone is effectively already decided in Frankfurt, in the sense that no Eurozone government could radically change its policies away from the recipe laid down by Draghi. Given the implied democratic deficit within the Eurozone, some analysts are already calling for it to have its own parliament and commission.

Instead of agonising about the election of a would be Federalist to an irrelevant position, and indeed about referenda on the future of Britain in the EU, Cameron would do better to reflect on the realities, and opportunities, of the three speed Europe. Other European leaders would do better to reflect on the multiple failings of the European Union in dealing with a post-Western world. With the US increasingly disengaging from its hegemonic role, Europe needs to stand up to the plate in defence and promotion of Western values and interests. As shown by the crisis in the Ukraine, it is manifestly unable to do so. How to remedy the this, and how to allow European countries to punch somewhere closer to their weight, would be a more worthwhile topic of conversation for the Council meeting.